It is his first go-round. Everyone at Florida knows that about new coach Jim McElwain.
He is just getting started in repairing the damage, and his quarterback is new, and there are’t enough playmakers, and the offensive line is thin. Everyone at Florida knows all about that, too. The schedule is fierce and the expectations are low.
But for the University of the Florida, where the expectations are always high, the question never changes:
Can the Gators at least finish in the top 25?
They are not expected to, by the way. Analysts have measured the Gators, and they see them as a lower-bowl afterthought, a team that will probably finish above .500, but not by a lot.
Still, it is possible. If you look at last season’s AP top 25, seven teams got in with four losses. One of them had five. So can Florida manage that?
Well, the Gators will play six teams that are in the preseason Top 25, and one other opponent (South Carolina) that received more points in the poll than they did. That means Florida will have to win a couple of games, maybe three, when it isn’t expected to win.
The Gators are probably going to beat New Mexico State and East Carolina to open the season. It will probably get past Kentucky. But then come five games in a row where the Gators are likely to be underdogs. Florida should beat Vandy and Florida Atlantic. But that’s not a lot of sure wins, is it?
Which of its big games can it win? A glance ahead.
Sept. 26: Tennessee (25). There is a feel-good vibe about Tennessee. But are the Vols to be feared? The Gators ought to be 3-0 coming in, and the game is in Gainesville. If the new quarterback – Will Grier or Treon Harris – is ready, an early season upset is possible. Chances of an upset: Pretty good.
Oct. 3: Ole Miss (15). Again, it’s in Gainesville, so the Gators have a shot. One of the strengths of the Rebels are their wide receivers, which will test the talented secondary of the Gators. Ole Miss isn’t the pushover it once was, but the Gators have a shot with Vernon Hargreaves and company. Chance of an upset: Decent.
Oct. 10: At Missouri (23). The Gators have saved disappointing games in each of the last two seasons against the Tigers. But Missouri isn’t far and away better than the Gators. It’s a game where the playmakers may have to perform for Florida to win. Chance of an upset: Good.
Oct. 17: At LSU (13). Tiger Stadium is one of the hardest places in the country to play. Coach Les Miles has kept that up. But LSU is coming off a disappointing season, and no one is sure about the quarterback or the pass rush. The 13th-ranked Tigers have talent, however. Florida would have to play well to win this one. Chance of an upset: Longshot.
Oct. 24: Georgia (9) in Jacksonville. It seems like the Bulldogs are often the favorite for the SEC East title, but along the line, Georgia seems to stub its toe. This time, Georgia has the talented Nick Chubb returning at running back, so the first order of business for Florida is to put the game in the hands of the Georgia quarterbacks. Chances of an upset: Longshot.
Nov. 14: At South Carolina (unranked). The Gamecocks slipped to 7-6 last year after winning 33 games the previous three seasons. Like his alma mater Florida, Steve Spurrier is outside looking in when it comes to the Top 25. He’s always been hard for the Gators to beat, even in the good years, but if Florida is going to be markedly better than people think, this is one the Gators need to win. Chance of an upet: Pretty good.
Nov. 27. FSU (8). The Seminoles are the highest-ranked team the Gators will face, but there are some who consider them to be over-ranked, especially if running back Dalvin Cook does not return from his suspension. In the past few seasons, the state’s momentum has gone the way of FSU. If things are going to change for Florida, the Gators would like for it to be here.