We’re 42 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.
Our No. 10 team: Florida
The Gators’ best-case scenario: Feleipe Franks takes another large step toward superstardom. The 6-6, 240-pound quarterback hasn’t shied away from the expectations that come with being the face of the program, going as far to say at Monday’s SEC media days that he wanted to be the fourth statue on Gale Lemerand Dr. near The Swamp in Gainesville, joining Heisman Trophy winners Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow. Franks threw 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season after throwing nine touchdowns and eight picks as a freshman. Of note, Franks was interception-free in his last five games.
And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? Franks becomes a sitting duck behind an offensive line that lost four starters. Stone Forsythe, Jean Delance and Richard Gouraige are names that have to step up in place of veterans Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson and early draft entry Jawaan Taylor. They combined for 141 career starts.
Florida didn’t crack our preseason poll last year.
Inside the Gators
Coach: Dan Mullen (2nd year, 10-3; 79-47 overall, 10 years at Mississippi State and Florida)
2018: 10-3, 5-3 in the SEC (beat Michigan in the Peach Bowl). As it turns out, Michigan is ranked 11th in our preseason poll, right behind the Gators.
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense
Shoes to fill: LB Vosean Joseph (led team in tackles); DL Jachai Polite (11 sacks)
Spring cleaning: Nine players have entered the transfer portal and two blue-chip recruits — linebacker Diwun Black and offensive lineman Deyavie Hammond — never even made it to campus because they didn’t qualify academically. The Gators are hovering somewhere around 75 active players. … Line coach Sal Sunseri bolted for Alabama and cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren was hired at Georgia.
PASSING: Feleipe Franks (led team), 188-322-2,457 yards, 24 TDs, 6 INTs
RUSHING: Lamical Perine (1st), 134-826-7; Dameon Pierce (3rd), 69-424-2; QB Feleipe Franks (4th), 110-350-7
RECEIVING: Van Jefferson (1st) 35-503-6; Josh Hammond (2nd), 28-369-4; Trevon Grimes (3rd), 26-364-2
TACKLES: David Reese II (2nd), 77
SACKS: DL Jabari Zuniga (2nd), 6.5
INTERCEPTIONS: DB CJ Henderson (T-2nd), 2; DB Donovan Stiner (T-2nd), 2; DB Brad Stewart Jr. (T-2nd), 2
Returning All-SEC (1)
Defense: DB CJ Henderson (2nd team)
Back in chomp mode: Mullen, then at Mississippi State, was being strongly considered for the Tennessee job after Butch Jones was fired near the end of the 2017 regular season. But Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin — Mullen’s former boss at Mississippi State — instead lured him to Gainesville. Mullen arrived with a promise to bring the program back to special places; he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator on powerhouse Florida teams from 2005-08 that won a pair of national championships. The 10-3 season (a six-win improvement from 2017) and a blowout of Michigan in the Peach Bowl has Florida back in the SEC mix.
Had to keep him: Mullen gave defensive coordinator Todd Grantham a $300,000 raise to keep him in Gainesville a while longer. Grantham has drawn the interest of several NFL teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals. With seven starters returning, Grantham’s players spoke of his famously aggressive play-calling to reach another level this fall. “Definitely aggressive,” defensive end Jabari Zuniga said at SEC media days. “(Grantham) emphasizes pressure on the quarterback. Y’all are going to see, there were a lot of play calls that coach Grantham didn’t call that he’s going to call this year.”
Needing a WR to emerge: In a program that has thrilled its fan base with stud wide receivers, the Gators are looking for a top receiver threat to show himself. Van Jefferson came on in the second half of last season, coinciding with Franks’ improvement. But there weren’t as many chunk plays; only two of the team’s 486 receptions went for more than 50 yards. Look for 6-5, 210-pound former Ohio State player Trevon Grimes to get more deep looks on the outside.
2018 national stat rankings
Scoring: 22nd (35.0 ppg)
Total offense: 42nd (426.7 ypg)
Passing: 82nd (213.5 ypg)
Rushing: 27th (213.2 ypg)
Red zone offense: 67th
Time of possession: 65th (29:56)
Scoring defense: 20th (20.0 ppg)
Total defense: 28th (343.3 ypg)
Pass defense: 13th (180.8 ypg)
Rush defense: 65th (162.5 ypg)
Red zone defense: 115th
Turnover margin: 7th
|DATE||OPPONENT||LAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)|
|Aug. 24||Miami (Orlando)|
|Sept. 14||at Kentucky*||L, 27-16|
|Sept. 21||Tennessee*||W, 47-21|
|Oct. 12||at LSU*||W, 27-19|
|Oct. 19||at South Carolina*||W, 35-31|
|Nov. 2||Georgia*||L, 36-17|
|Nov. 9||Vanderbilt*||W, 37-27|
|Nov. 16||at Missouri*||L, 38-17|
|Nov. 30||Florida State||W, 41-14|
|* SEC game|
The key game? Aug. 24, Miami. Sure, the Gators play in the most physical conference in college football, but the season opener against the Hurricanes will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The last 5 years
|2014||7-5 / 4-4||— / —||Birmingham Bowl, W|
|2015||10-4 / 7-1||— / 25th||Citrus Bowl, L|
|2016||9-4 / 6-2||25th / 14th||Outback Bowl, W|
|2017||4-7 / 3-5||17th / —||No bowl|
|2018||10-3 / 5-3||— / 7th||Peach Bowl, W|
|Total||40-23 / 25-15||4 bowl games (3-1)|
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 10: Florida
Our Top 25, by conferences
Big Ten — No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska
Pac-12 — No. 13 Washington, No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford
SEC — No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn
AAC — No. 16 Central Florida
Big 12 — No. 17 Iowa State
Independents — No. 18 Army
ACC — No. 23 Syracuse
Coming tomorrow: Our No. 9 team
Want a hint?
This school finished in the top 10 for the first time in a long time — since the 2009 season.