There is nothing quite like football hysteria in a college town … in February.
We’re not talking about the Super Bowl or those wonderful 94-degree opening days or big-game Saturdays that damage your voice boxes.
College football in a place like Gainesville is a year-round sport, as we all know. It’s talked about on radio, in bars (or so I’ve heard), in break rooms and on golf courses.
The fever pitch never really dies. It just gets quieter. And then something happens and it rises to another level even though it is still seven months until the Gators play a real game, as real as a game against Eastern Washington can be.
The noise in the system is palpable as we head for mini-Signing Day and then spring practice and the spring game and SEC Media Days and then we finally see what the hoopla is all about.
(You would think Gator Nation would be jaded by the expectations for the current basketball team, but I digress).
This is the year, Florida faithful are screaming from the chat rooms and message boards and on AM, FM and DirectTV. And maybe it is.
There seems to be almost a playoffs-or-bust attitude and it extends throughout the program. The fans feel it, the players feel it and the coaches feel it.
Why should Florida, which is going to get its share of summer loving like we haven’t seen around here since Tim Tebow announced he would return for his senior year, make it to the College Football Playoffs for the first time ever?
Here are five reasons (and five why the Gators might not):
1. The schedule.
One reason there is a “this is the year” crowd is because they have looked at the 2021 schedule and know they get Alabama that season along with a road game at LSU.
This year’s schedule looks incredibly manageable with three softies in the non-conference plus an FSU team in transition, only three true road SEC games, LSU at home and Ole Miss the rotating West team.
Certainly, Ole Miss could be a pesky gnat for a lot of teams this season with coach Lane Kiffin, but you’d rather go to Oxford than see Nick Saban on the other sideline.
2. The roster.
Florida lost a lot of talent to the NFL, but only took one hit as far a junior leaving early. As a result, the Gators have some experienced and motivated seniors at the top of the roster.
There is no doubt Dan Mullen has done a great job of filling in what was a depleted number. Just look at the offensive line where John Hevesy will have enough bodies to fill three units.
The roster was a problem last year when the Gators were in the mid-60s with available scholarship players for the FSU game. That problem has been solved.
3. The Georgia thing.
The Bulldogs own the SEC East right now no matter how many Florida fans want to point to the closeness of last year’s game and the closing of the gap in recruiting.
But with Georgia being ranked No. 1 in recruiting this season, I’m not sure that the recruiting gap has been closed significantly.
The Bulldogs took some serious personnel losses, especially quarterback Jake Fromm, and the East will likely come down to that one big game in Jacksonville. In a series that has been littered with winning streaks (eight of four or more by both teams), it’s important to note this:
Over the last 12 seasons, each team has run off three in a row twice. Georgia has won the last three. Is it Florida’s time? Well, that’s where Gator fans are oozing optimism.
4. Kyle Trask.
One would have to think he’ll be even better with 10 starts under his belt. Trask may be the preseason All-SEC quarterback and has the temperament to handle the spotlight.
He’ll be missing some of the weapons that made him effective, but there’s no shortage of talent at wide receiver and certainly tight end.
Things could change and often they do after National Signing Day, but right now Florida has the same staff again for next season and that means the players have a comfort level with those coaches and vice versa.
Now, for the downer. The five reasons it may not work out for the Gators:
1. The schedule.
Yes, it’s manageable, but that could come back and bite UF. If it comes down to quality wins and there are a bunch of 11-1 teams for the last couple of spots, strength of schedule may be a problem.
Florida fans actually want FSU to be better for that reason. They want LSU to remain powerful in the SEC and to win all of its non-conference games.
The schedule may not make a difference, but it’s possible.
2. New roles.
Guys like Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland, Khris Bogle and Kaiir Elam and Dameon Pierce, they are all going to be asked to step up their games and be the guys.
Not everybody is ready when the director yells “action.”
Another issue is that Florida is going to have depth, but it will be young depth. High school stars have to buy in to playing special teams.
3. Georgia is still Georgia.
The reports of Georgia’s demise are grossly exaggerated. The Bulldogs will still probably be the pick at SEC Media Days because of the players they added in the transfer portal (most notably quarterback Jamie Newman) and the second top-ranked recruiting class in three years.
You saw in their bowl game with 10 guys either injured or leaving early that Georgia was able to handle a good Baylor team because there was still plenty of talent available.
Don’t think for a second Georgia isn’t going to be good.
4. The running game.
As much fun as it was to watch the pass-crazy Gators last season, they are not making it to the playoffs if the running game doesn’t get better.
Hevesy has numbers and is confident the line will be much improved. It had better be.
Florida was 74th in yards per carry and 107th in rushing yards per game in 2019. The Gators have to have much better balance if they are going to get over the hump.
Four starters are back on the line, but two of them are true sophomores and another starter could end up being a true freshman. There is a lot of work to do.
5. The quarterback controversy.
OK, there really isn’t one, but there has been enough noise from people who think Emory Jones should be starting to address it.
We can expect to see more of Jones this year. I don’t think there is any question about that. How that meshes together may be the key to the entire season.
Will it be Chris Leak-Tebow? That’s the hope. But a quarterback’s rhythm within a game is a tricky thing.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.