August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
No. 17 FLORIDA
2016 record: 9-4
Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Nov. 25 vs. Florida State
Biggest conference game: Oct. 28 vs. Georgia
Key returning player: WR Antonio Callaway
Key departed player: LB Jarrad Davis
Three things to know about Florida
• Florida has nine returning starters on offense if you count quarterback Luke Del Rio, who missed the spring because of a shoulder injury. We’re not counting Del Rio because we’re guessing that graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire will win the quarterback job for the Gators. And if Zaire isn’t the quarterback, it’ll be redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who spent the 2016 season watching Del Rio and Austin Appleby play quarterback for the Gators.
In an ideal world for both Zaire and the Gators, the former Notre Dame transfer provides an immediate upgrade at the quarterback position and recaptures the magic he showed in the 2015 Music City Bowl for the Fighting Irish. That gives Franks another year of seasoning and he takes over as the starter in 2018 and beyond.
But no matter if Franks or Zaire wins the quarterback job, the offense should be better in 2017 than it was the past two years. The team’s top three rushers return in Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson and so do the six leading receivers including Antonio Callaway, a dynamic threat at returner or wide receiver.
There are plenty of weapons for the Gator quarterback to work with. But perhaps most importantly, the offensive line is getting better and it has depth. It wasn’t too long ago where Florida was unable to scrimmage because of a lack of linemen. Now the Gators return three of five starters and coach Jim McElwain said he was “excited” about the unit.
“I’ve seen a sense of understanding through competition, you know, that no spot is safe, which then helps breed excellence in performance, especially as you’re going through practice,” McElwain said on Aug. 2.
• Florida lost a lot of defensive talent to the NFL. Linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone are off to the NFL and so is safety Marcus Maye. They were the Nos. 2-4 leading tacklers a year ago. And corners Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor are also in the pros too. They had a combined seven interceptions.
Safety Marcell Harris was the team’s leading tackler a year ago and was counted on to be the defensive leader … until he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in July.
Without Harris, Florida now has to replace three starters in the defensive backfield. And middle linebacker David Reese is now the unit’s most productive returning player. He had 49 tackles a year ago.
But the good news is there’s a lot of talent ready to step up. Defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Antonneous Clayton are former five-star recruits. Cornerback Chauncey Gardner was a four-star prospect in 2016. The defense may not be as dominating as it’s been, but it should be plenty good enough for the Gators to go after a third-straight SEC East title.
Jefferson may also be used as a hybrid defensive lineman at multiple positions.
“I think one of the things you’re going to see is different packages based on the type of offense we’re going to see,” McElwain said. “For example, being able to play Cece outside and then maybe some of the spread stuff or third down stuff he can actually move in and do some things, as well.”
• We were torn trying to figure out what Florida’s biggest non-conference game of 2017 is. Thanks to the Gators’ rivalry with Florida State, Florida has a non-conference schedule that includes two top-15 opponents. And the season is bookended with those games too.
Florida opens the season in Texas with a game vs. Michigan on Sept. 2. And the Florida State game comes on Nov. 25 after the Gators have completed their SEC schedule. We chose Florida State because the Seminoles may be looking at that game as a necessary win to make the College Football Playoff.
The Gators’ schedule in the SEC East lines up really favorably thanks to the move of last year’s LSU game to Louisiana. Florida’s SEC home games come vs. Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU and Texas A&M with a neutral site game vs. Georgia. Thanks to the Michigan game and that rescheduled game with the Tigers, Florida has just three true road games and the toughest is probably a Nov. 11 trip to South Carolina.
For more Florida news, visit InsideTheGators.com.
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