Florida kicks off the 2021 season at home with an in-state game against FAU. Slick Willie Taggart brings the Owls to Gainesville coming off of a decent 2020 and still trying to repair his tarnished reputation after failing miserably at F$U.
This will be the debut of Emory Jones as the Gator QB, and expectations are high for the 4th year junior. He now has 4 years in Dan Mullen’s system, and should not have any real restrictions as to the playbook. Of course, it’s completely different when you are the man and not coming off the bench. I expect some early nerves and perhaps some inaccurate passes until he settles in. Florida has struggled the past 2 seasons running the ball with any consistency, and has to do better this year. Jones’ running ability will help, and this version of the Gator offense will resemble more of what we saw from Mississippi St. when Mullen was the head coach there. Expect Anthony Richardson to get a decent number of snaps, even early in the game. Mullen likes his backup to get meaningful snaps to gain experience and also be better prepared if the need arises to take over. AR-15 is a tremendous physical specimen and could develop into a dynamic playmaker over time.
Florida has plenty of skill-position talent to help Jones. There are a lot of quality RBs to share the load, and I expect a committee approach to how the carries are distributed until a few guys edge ahead. Seniors Damien Pierce and Malik Davis likely get the early work along with Nay’Quan Wright, but Gator fans will be looking for either of the 5* transfers, Demarkus Bowman (Clemson) or Lorenzo Lingard (Miami), to provide some excitement and big-play capability. Jacob Copeland is now the leader of the WR corps, and is expected to have a big season. There is plenty of receiving talent, but a lot of it is inexperienced. Justin Shorter is probably the next option, and provides great size and a big target, especially in the red zone. Xavier Henderson is similar but has a little more deep speed, Trent Wittemore returns from injury and is a reliable possession target. Hopefully, the Gators can get a comfortable lead in the 2nd half so younger receivers like Ja’Quavion Fraziars, Ja’Markis Weston, and Marcus Burke can get some valuable reps. Jones loses the best security blanket in college football with Kyle Pitts leaving for the NFL. Kemore Gamble is a more traditional TE while Keon Zipperer is more of an H-back. Both will be called on to run block more, but have proven to be solid red zone targets. Freshman Nick Elksnis has been a revelation in fall practice, and could be the successor to Pitts eventually given his athleticism.
The Gator defense will face Taggart’s Lethal Stupidity, er, Simplicity attack, led by Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry at QB. Perry was terrible at scUM, and is trying to resurrect his career. His physical attributes aren’t in doubt, as he is a good runner and has a strong arm. However, he never showed the ability to read defenses, and was a turnover machine. FAU has recently been primarily a passing team, but we’ll see how well that plays against a Gator defense with so much to prove after a horrific 2020.
Florida picked up 3 key transfers at DT with Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell from Auburn and Antonio Valentino from Penn St. They, along with Gervon Dexter and Lamar Goods, should provide a solid rotation and improve the run defense. The DEs and Buck positions have lots of talent and playmaking ability. Zack Carter returns as the senior leader, Brenton Cox is coming back from offseason foot surgery and is a pass rush specialist, Kris Bogle and Jeremiah Moon provide speed off the edge, and Princely Umanmielen is a young player with potential. Hopefully this group shows right away that they can control the LOS and keep the LB corps clean. Ventrell Miller is the LB leader and very good against the run. LBs Mohamoud Diabate, Amari Burney, Ty’Ron Hopper, and Derel Wingo have a lot to prove after a terrible 2020 – especially in pass coverage.
The secondary is led by all-SEC candidate Kaiir Elam at CB and Trey Dean at safety. However, after these two, there is precious little experience and proven talent. Tre’Vez Johnso gets first shot at the STAR position. Avery Helm steps in for injured Jaydon Hill at CB opposite Elam. True freshman and 5* recruit Jason Marshall will play a lot at CB. Transfers Elijah Blades from Texas A&M and Jadarrius Perkins from Missouri will see a lot of snaps at both CB and STAR to provide depth. After Dean, Donovan McMillon, Rashad Torrence, and Mordecai McDaniel all struggled last season, and have to show significant improvement, or the back end will get abused again in 2021. Plenty of athletic talent in the secondary, but so much is left to prove, and there is not much quality depth.
I expect FAU to be fired up at the start, and to throw everything they have at the Gators to try and pull off a huge upset. I don’t expect that to happen, as the Owls have lost most of the players that led them to 2 consecutive good seasons, including a few guys that were drafted into the League. This game likely stays close for the first 20 minutes or so, but then the Gators should pull away to a comfortable win with their large advantage in talent and depth. The defense has much to prove, along with much-maligned DC Todd Grantham, who unfathomably still has a job in Gainesville. His schemes have to be improved, and play calls must get in much faster than last season.
It will be interesting to see how full the Swamp is with no attendance restrictions, while Covid-19 variants continue to cause record hospitalizations in the always-progressive South. Despite that, I expect a good crowd that will provide much of the missing juice for the players compared to the 2020 season. This should be a good opening test for Florida to work out some kinks, shake off some rust, and start ramping up for the SEC season to come. As always, the mantra for the first 2 weeks is NO INJURIES. The Gators come in having already lost 2 players in the secondary, and can’t afford any key losses.
Prediction: Florida 34 FAU 13