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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 11 Florida adjusting after exodus of talent to NFL

In one of the most memorable plays of last year's college football season, Florida defensive back Marco Wilson, right, throws the shoe of LSU tight end Kole Taylor. It resulted in a personal foul penalty. The Gators lost at home, 37-34.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 11 Florida

Talk about your makeovers. The Gators will go through a transformation of sorts with a reshaped offense and a drastically improved defense after losing a cavalcade of offensive stars to the NFL. On the surface, Florida should not be a contender for the SEC championship, what with the fewest returning starters of any team in the league and the loss of Heisman-caliber quarterback Kyle Trask and first-round tight end Kyle Pitts. But Dan Mullen has proven he’s one of the best top dozen coaches in the game and will put a consistent product on the field despite a fairly daunting schedule behind a more run-friendly offense. Florida started out 8-1 last season before falling to LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Florida was No. 7 in our preseason poll last year. The Gators finished seventh in the final CFP rankings, 12 in the AP poll and 13th in the coaches'.

About the Gators

2020: 8-4, 8-2 in the SEC — they won the East Division, then fell to Alabama 52-46 in the conference title game. They also lost to Oklahoma 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl, their third straight loss to end the season.

Coach: Dan Mullen, 98-54 in 12 years at Mississippi State and Florida, and 29-8 in three seasons with the Gators.

Returning starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)

Shoes to fill: Eight Gators were drafted, tied for fifth-most. Trask (Buccaneers, 2nd round) passed for 4,283 yards and 43 touchdowns last year and Pitts was the fourth overall pick (Falcons). Also taken were WR Kadarius Toney (Giants, 1st), CB Marco Wilson (Cardinals, 4th), K Evan McPhearson (Bengals, 5th), S Shawn Davis (Colts, 5th), DT Tedarrell Slaton (Packers, 5th) and OT Stone Forsythe (Seahawks, 7th). OC Brian Johnson left for the Philadelphia Eagles, where he'll mentor Jalen Hurts.

Florida wide receiver Jacob Copeland figures to become the Gators' top receiving threat this season with the departure of former Florida stars Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts, both of whom were drafted in the first round.

Catching up

The Gators were no slouches in the transfer portal, adding five Power Five transfers, including Mississippi State K Jace Christmann, Auburn DT Daquan Newkirk, Penn State DT Antonio Shelton and Clemson RB Demarkcus Bowman, a former five-star prospect. All should make an immediate impact. Shelton had 3.5 sacks for the Nittany Lions and Newkirk played in 30 career games at Auburn, with 10 starts. ... There were lots of changes to the coaching staff. The new co-OCs will be Billy Gonzales (passing game) and Jon Hevesy (running game), but Mullen will call the plays. Garrick McGee, a former head coach at UAB, moves from analyst to safeties coach, and Jules Montinar was hired from South Florida. Montinar, 36, was the Bulls' cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator. He spent time at Texas State under Everett Withers and did two years as a GA at Alabama under NIck Saban, where he said his "proudest moment was I never got chewed out." ... Florida launched its "Gators Made" program to help athletes increase their marketability with the advent of name, image and likeness laws that allow them to profit off their brand. ... Florida has a home-and-home series scheduled with Notre Dame as far out as 2031 and 2032 and also with Texas for 2030 and 2031.

Returning leaders

Passing: Emory Jones 18-32-221, 2/1 (2nd on team), Anthony Richardson 1-2-27, 1/1 (3rd)

Rushing: Dameon Pierce 106-503-4 (led team), Malik Davis 66-310 (2nd), QB Emory Jones 32-217-2 (3rd)

Receiving: Jacob Copeland 23-435-3 (4th), RB Malik Davis 31-377 (5th)

Tackles: LB Ventrell Miller 88 (led team)

Sacks: DL Zachary Carter 5 (led team), OLB Brenton Cox Jr. 4 (T-2nd), OLB Khris Bogle 4 (T-2nd), LB Ventrell Miller 3.5 (4th)

Interceptions: CB Kaiir Elam 2 (T-1st)

Returning all-conference

Defense: DB Kaiir Elam (1st team)

Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam intercepts a pass intended for Vanderbilt's Chris Pierce Jr. during their game last season at Vanderbilt Stadium. Elam, who was a Thorpe Award semifinalist as a freshman, is the only returning Florida player who earned all-conference honors last year.

FYI

How the pandemic impacted Florida: The Gators had an SEC-only, 10-game schedule but sat through a three-week break because of a widespread outbreak on the team with 19 positive tests after they had traveled to Texas A&M. The LSU game was postponed from October to December. Attendance at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where 90,000 fans typically make the Swamp a nightmare for opponents, was reduced to close to 20% with about 17,000 allowed in. Even Mullen tested positive for COVID-19. The football weight room was reassembled at the indoor practice facility so players could work in open-air space. 

QB Who: With Trask gone, the Gators will be much more run-oriented this fall with dual-threat quarterbacks Emory Jones and redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson in place to prevent a lot of dropoff. Florida also has true freshman Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna, whose dad Jon played in the NFL. In addition, Mullen has a commitment from Nick Evers out of Flower Mound, who finished third at the Elite 11.

Elam’s Elite: If there’s one true star on the team, it’s cornerback Kaiir Elam. The 6-2, 195-pound sophomore is a rising sensation who was a Jim Thorpe semifinalist and first-team All-SEC pick who had two interceptions and 11 pass breakups. Otherwise, the Gators secondary needs some work with the loss of three starters.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Florida ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Gators ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 13th (2019 — 28th, +15 spots)

Scoring defense: 74th (7th, -67)

Total offense: 9th (45th, +36)

Total defense: 83rd (9th, -74)

Passing: 1st (16th, +15)

Pass defense: 100th (32nd, -68)

Rushing: 96th (107th, +11)

Rush defense: 71st (8th, -63)

Sacks: 23rd (4th, -19)

Interceptions: 35th (9th, -26)

Red zone offense: 18th  (59th, +41)

Red zone defense: 68th (3rd, -65)

Turnover margin: 81st (33rd, -48)

Time of possession: 55th (60th, +5)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida

Coming tomorrow

Our top 10 starts with our No. 10 team. Want a hint?

This basketball school is coached by a future Hall of Famer who's in his second stint as football coach there.