A month from today (Friday), we head to Hoover, Ala., for SEC Media Days, so it’s already time to start gearing up for football season.
I’m sure that in Hoover the media will be predicting Tennessee to win the Eastern Division, and the vote for the Vols likely will be a landslide.
Tennessee certainly looks like the best team in the division on paper, but games aren’t won on paper. Florida and Georgia also are good enough to win the division in what should be a tight race this fall.
Here are my five reasons why the Gators have a chance to win the East:
1. Quarterback play — There’s no doubt that it is going to be much better and much more efficient than the second half of last season, when the Gators basically could not do the things they wanted to do because of limitations at the position. The Gators don’t need a star at quarterback to be effective in Jim McElwain’s offense. They just need someone who is functional and knows where to go with the football. Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby (and true freshman Kyle Trask) showed they are capable of doing that in the spring. The downfield passing game should come to life his season.
2. Downhill running game — The Gators have three tailbacks — Mark Thompson, Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett — who all fit the McElwain tailback mold. That means they are big, fast, physical runners who also have the ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. These three should end up sharing carries all season, and their production will keep the pressure off Del Rio (or whoever is the starting quarterback).
3. The line of scrimmage — Florida should have a potentially dominant defensive front and an offensive line that will be a little sturdier and a lot more experienced than last season. Getting Martez Ivey back on the offensive line is huge. Thanks to what should be an elite defensive front, the Gators actually could be stronger on defense than last season. And that defense will keep the Gators in every game.
4. Special teams — Yes, you read that right. The Gators had an excellent punter (Johnny Townsend) and an excellent punt return game (Antonio Callaway) last season, but those positives were almost forgotten because of the abysmal performance at place-kicker. The Gators had problems making extra points, much less field goals. It was a huge and impactful negative. Well, that problem appears to have been solved with the addition of Eddy Pineiro. If his performance in the spring game is an indication of things to come, the Gators actually might win some games with special teams this season.
5. Coaching — Winning 10 games last season, especially with the situation at quarterback the second half, was a remarkable achievement and a testament to McElwain and his staff’s ability to get more out of less — a trait of all good coaches. McElwain will have a chance to run his offense this season, and that should make a big difference. It will be interesting to see what this team looks like in Year Two now that this coaching staff has better talent to work with in some key positions.
So, there you have, five reasons why Florida will be a serious contender in the East. Tennessee likely will be everyone’s pick this summer, but I won’t be shocked if it’s Florida that’s heading to Atlanta in December.