With camps opening this month and the start of the 2019 college football season just a few short weeks away, it’s time to take a trip around the Sunshine State and look the status of the major programs in the state.
FLORIDA GATORS (10-3 in 2018)
Over the last three decades, it seems like Florida, Florida State and Miami continue to alternate every couple of years as the state’s best program.
And although some of us to the South would hope that Miami is climbing back to top dog status, the fact remains the Gators are the best college team in the state and will most like maintain that status this season.
The key to Florida’s success will be how well they replace a depleted offensive line that lost four starters and a combined 141 career starts. If Head Coach Dan Mullen can find the answer up front, the Gators should be able to score and score often.
Quarterback Felipe Franks came into his own last year, tossing 24 touchdowns and just six picks last year; while the Gators are stacked at both wide receiver and running back. Lamical Perrine (826 rushing yards as a backup in 2018) is a threat both running and catching the ball and has scored 17 touchdowns in the last two seasons; while Trevon Grimes (6-5, 210-lbs.) will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defensive backs.
By the end of last season, coordinator Todd Gratham’s defense was attacking opposing offenses from all angles – recording 10 sacks, 5 turnovers and holding opponents to just 7 of 30 on third down attempts in the last three games of the season. Grantham returns seven starters and several key reserves, including two of the best corners in the nation (CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson).
Add punter Tommy Townsend (45.4 yards per punt) and Evan McPherson (17-19 on field goals) and the Gators are more than solid in all three phases of the game.
PREDICTION 12-1 (7-1 SEC EAST)
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
(5-7 in 2018)
The nation’s longest bowl streak ended last year, when the Seminoles failed to qualify for the post-season for the first time in 37 years.
A lot of blame (both just and unjust) was placed on new Seminoles head coach Willie Taggert. The unjust part came from the fact that former Head Coach Jimbo Fisher did not leave the program in good shape. Taggert detractors do not want to own the fact that Fisher was 5-6 in his last season (only a bought makeup game and a bowl win under interim coach Odell Haggins saved that season) and left the team with some serious character and morale issues.
Still, FSU did look lost and confused under Taggert on several occasions.
Add a shaky offensive line and the end result was a seven loss season. Look for the Seminoles to rebound in 2019.
If the offensive line can at least be average, the Seminoles do have a lot of firepower on offense, led by running back Cam Akers and wide receivers Tomorrion Terry, R.J. Mathews and Keith Garvin. The Seminoles should be much improved on defense under new coordinator Harlon Bennett.
With seven starters back, including NG Marvin Wilson and defensive backs Lavonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels, the Seminoles do have some talent on that side of the ball.
Look for former Gateway standout redshirt freshman Dennis Briggs Jr. (DE) and freshman OLB Jaleel McRae to have possible breakout seasons. The Noles will be better this season but not ready to regain elite status.
PREDICTION 9-4 (5-3 ACC ATLANTIC)
UCF KNIGHTS (12-1 in 2018)
Without question the Knights remain the “yeah, but” team of college football. After 2017’s historic 13-0 season, a victory over Auburn and the claim of a national championship that raised the hackles of Power 5 Snobs everywhere, the Knights followed it with another perfect regular season, but lost quarterback phenom Mackenzie Milton in the last regular season game and lost to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl with backup quarterback Darriel Mack behind center.
Which brings us to the “yeah, but” question. Record wise, the Knights 25 wins over the last two seasons rank near the top of NCAA Division 1 team, but naysayers continue to point at the Knights’ strength of schedule and conference as “proof” the record is deceiving. So the question remains, how good are the Knights, who play in the non-Power 5 American Conference? Based on the number of NFL pros the program continues to put out, I’d say are pretty darn good.
The 2019 season will be a challenge for the Knights, however. Both Milton and Mack (broken ankle pre-season) will mean the Knights will most likely rely on Notre Dame transfer Brandon Whimbush to lead the offense. Whimbush was 13-3 as a starter at Notre Dame, so a drop-off in quarterback play may not be noticeable.
The offensive line returns in tact and the Knights are loaded at both running back and wide receiver.
The biggest question will be on the defensive line, where three of the four starters graduated.
Still the Knights are solid at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. The Knights will play two Power 5 teams out of conference (at Pitt and Stanford) and conference opponents Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati should all be improved. Still, UCF could find itself in the nation’s top 20 for a third consecutive year.
PREDICTION 11-2 (7-1 AMERICAN EAST)
MIAMI HURRICANES (8-4 in 2018)
For each of the past couple of seasons, Miami has jumped out to impressive starts – only to see the Hurricanes falter in the second half.
The team hopes that changes in 2019 under new Head Coach Manny Diaz. The main issue for the Hurricanes has been a quarterback where they got inconsistent play from Malik Rosier and true freshman N’Kosi Perry last season and it’s also a position that Miami has had disappointing play for the better half of a decade.
The task of turning around the Miami fortunes will fall on former Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, who became the Hurricanes offensive coordinator this year. Enos will choose a starter from Perry, freshman Jarren Williams and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell (So.).
One thing is certain, if whoever wins the job is even average, the Canes could be in for a big season as running backs Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas are the real deals, and the Canes have never lacked speed and athleticism at wide receiver.
Defensively, Miami led the nation in havoc rate (combined tackles for loss, interceptions, pass defenses and forced fumbles divided by total number of plays) last season and should be equally impressive this season.
Linebackers Michael Pickney and Shaquille Quarterman are among the nation’s best at that position.
PREDICTION 10-3 (6-2 ACC COASTAL)
SOUTH FLORIDA (7-6 in 2018)
After going 10-2 in his first season in 2017, Charlie Strong saw his Bulls rip off seven straight wins to open the 2018 season, only to watch his team disintegrate with six straight losses to finish the year – including an embarrassing 18 point loss at home to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Another .500 season or below might put Strong on the hot seat. Still, the Bulls have talent, and Strong brought in former Florida legend Kerwin Bell as offensive coordinator to hopefully bolster the offense.
Senior quarterback Blake Barnett (2700 passing yards, 11 TDs) is experienced and the Bulls have two outstanding running backs in Jordon Cronkrite and Johnny Ford. While the offense should be productive, the defense is much bigger question. In Strong’s second season, the defense took a major step backward – ranking 104th in total defense. It was almost 450 yards a game and was torched for 30 or more points eight times last season.
The return of Nico Sawtelle at linebacker (missed last 7 games of 2018 with injury) should help, but the Bulls must improve defensively or will be doomed to mediocrity in 2019.
PREDICTION 7-5 (5-3 AMERICAN EAST)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (5-7 in 2018)
A lack of stability at quarterback, a third defensive coordinator in three years and a tough non-conference slate that includes Ohio State and UCF will make sledding tough for the Owls in 2019.
PREDICTION 6-6 (4-4 C-USA EAST)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (9-4 in 2018)
Behind quarterback James Morgan and a host of playmakers, FIU should be explosive again on offense.
At defensive back, the Panthers feature one of the best non-Power 5 groups in the country and Head Coach Butch Davis is 8-2 at FIU in one-possession games.
A repeat of last year’s success is not only possible, but highly probable.
PREDICTION 9-4 (6-2 C-USA EAST)
(Predicted records include bowl game projections)