I love the smell of Gator football Saturdays in the morning. The season is so close, I can taste it. Feel it. Smell it. And it smells like….victory. But how many victories? Well, no matter how many deep sniffs I take of the approaching season, I just can’t place the aroma that distinctively. There are just too many unknowns with not only the Gators but with the rest of the teams on the Florida schedule. I cannot in fact recall any season in the modern age of Gator football (est. 1990) in which there was so little to go by as far as how to project the top teams in the league. Or either division, for that matter. Before I can make any projections for the conference and most importantly how the Gators will fare, I have to see the product on the field in Gainesville, Athens, Columbia, Tuscaloosa, College Station, Baton Rouge and on the loveliest plain. For starters. However, I will do this pre-analysis and make my best effort to formulate a very early, very open-ended projection of how the Gator season will go. After the first three Florida games are in the books, I will do a much more informed, much more definitive predictive analysis of what we can expect to see out of Florida in all phases of the game and where the Gators are headed this season. I will break this into three segments. This edition will focus on the teams on the first half of Florida’s schedule, their strengths and weaknesses and overall outlook. In Part Two, I will do the same for the opponents in the second half of the season. Then in Part Three, I will take a bird’s eye view of the Gator outlook and give you a season pre-prediction, if you will, as far as wins, losses and post-season potential. So let’s follow the schedule game-by-game and discuss what the rest of the conference is gearing up for in the 2014 season. Idaho Vandals & Eastern Michigan Eagles (both home) August 30 & September 6 Begging the Vandals’ and the Eagles’ forgiveness, but there is no reason to evaluate these two opponents. They were a combined 3 up and 21 down last season with tons of blowout losses to the dregs of college football, and with wins coming only against Western Michigan, Temple and Howard. That’s Moe Howard. The Gators are going to name the score in both games and the only intrigue will be what score they are capable of naming. That will be the big attraction of the early season: what is the offense going to be and is our defense going to be very good, great or elite. These games will only give us a fuzzy idea but it will be enough to judge some very important indicators such as fluid execution of the offense (procedure and delay penalties will be very conspicuous by their absence or presence) and progress of the newer ministers of defense. These things will be touched on in the final segment; for now all we need to know is that Florida could not have asked for two more perfect teams to start with in a season where they so desperately need to ramp up a new offensive scheme with so many players who have to shake off rust after having missed most or all of last season with injuries. Kentucky Wildcats (home) September 13 Here is gift number three to start the season. Kentucky has fielded some formidable teams over the last 28 years since the Wildcats’ last win over Florida, but this is not one of them. Head coach Mark Stoops is trying to build a defense and it will not be ready for prime time this year. They only lose three starters on that side of the ball and that is really not a good thing because they will not start to improve in this league until Stoops has been able to string a few strong recruiting classes together and coach them up. And that may never happen, quite frankly. At the end of the day, what really needs to be said about a team that was 2-10 and winless in the SEC last year and is a traditional doormat? Specifically, it is not three years removed from a national title with the architect of that title returning to coach the team, as was the case with Auburn. Kentucky will be another name-the-score Gator punching bag warm up for the true opening of the season: the Alabama game. Alabama Crimson Tide (Tuscaloosa) September 20 The season begins here. Despite the strength of the schedule – toughest in the SEC, and thus the de facto most difficult slate in the nation – it at least has an advantageous progression. Florida desperately needed the three game practice cushion to start the season before taking on a serious SEC team. And it doesn’t get any more serious than Bama. The only unfortunate element of the opportunity to ramp up the offense and defense is that of all the years since Alabama returned to elite status, this would have been the perfect year to catch them in the first or second game. That’s because they have some distinct soft spots on offense and defense that could be exposed by this year’s Gator squad…at least the end-of-year Gator squad; not sure about the Week 1 Gator squad (or the Week 4 Gators, for that matter). For starters of course the Tide is loaded. It always is. There is talent everywhere, and the staff are great developers of talent – among the best in the country at coaching them up in their system. Running back is loaded as usual with TJ Yeldon again assuming the mantle of carrying the Bama offense. The wide receiver positions are strong, especially Amari Cooper, as they return three talented guys with starting experience. The question is whether the quarterback can feed them. Heir apparent QB Jacob Coker did not win the job and in fact has often looked horrendous in fall camp, and the projected backup Blake Sims has never looked good. The offense looked very bad in spring under Sims’s direction and Coker was to be the salvation of the passing game and a balanced offense. But with a couple of days remaining before their opener, Saban has no idea who will start and he plans to play both of them equally as far into the season as he needs to for one of them to distinguish himself in the role. While the default response is of course that Alabama has never needed more than game management form their signal callers to win championships, this year may be a little different. Their offensive line had some struggles last year, and this year they break in two new starters plus a new tight end. Most importantly, the ever-critical left tackle spot will be manned by a freshman, Cameron Robinson. You do not want a sketchy quarterback tandem to have their blind side protected by a freshman. No more than you want a freshman left tackle to have two different guys with two different sets of tendencies in the pocket behind him while he is trying to steer rushers away from a quarterback he can’t see. Not against SEC defenses. And perhaps the biggest obstacle the offense has to overcome this year: new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. They must replace two of their three defensive linemen, although new starting end A’Shawn Robinson led the team in sacks as a backup freshman last year, so they should pull the standard Bama reload there. However, their new starting defensive end Jarran Reed – a former Gator signee – is indefinitely suspended and is probably one incident away from dismissal. Should Robinson suffer a sophomore slump and Reed not be reinstated, the line may find it a tall task to look to the linebackers for help, as Bama must replace three of four starters there. It does not get a lot more promising behind them, as they may have three new starters in the defensive backfield. However, they all have experience, have been in the program at least three years and some do have starting experience. The defense will be very good, but seven new starters could mean they will be vulnerable to UF’s new spread attack – a scheme that has been able to put up a lot of yards and points from SEC teams playing Bama the last two years – and Florida’s new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will surely save a number of special wrinkles in their playbook for this game. Finally, with so many new starters on defense and a new and potentially ineffective quarterback behind a rebuilt line, the Tide will no doubt need to win some close games in 2014. Their ability to do so could be impacted by the fact that they have to break in a new punter and a new place kicker. New freshman kicker Adam Griffith had a bad spring in terms of accuracy. This is a foreboding sign for a squad that lost a couple of games over the last two years because of bad placekicking. Of course, this analysis reads like a funeral program, when in fact Alabama will be competing for the SEC and national titles this year regardless of how these potential pitfalls play out. The question is whether there will ever be a real dip for Bama under Nick Saban, like the ’97-’99 UF/Spurrier dip. That drop from the top of the conference did not accompany bad talent. It was merely bad luck and circumstances catching up with a program that had been on top for a long time. The 1997 team was very good but one of the very rare squads not to win a title under Spurrier, solely because it had an unfortunate set of mistakes off and on the field by a young quarterback who was rushed into service a year or two early because of an unfortunate debilitating illness that impacted the projected starter. Florida was I believe the most talented team in the country the following year in 1998, but the age old home cooking of referees, some bad luck and a couple bizarre plays combined to deny them road wins over the two teams that eventually played for the national title. They managed an East title in 1999, but were denied an SEC title by a single muffed punt, which sent a surging Alabama to the SEC title game (where they beat Florida) instead of a Mississippi State team that was falling apart at the end of the year. So no matter how talented Bama is this year, the fact remains that cyclical dips in success will happen, regardless. Luck and circumstances catch up with everyone. Even Saban and Alabama. We will know a lot more about this game in a couple of weeks, and also whether the Tide’s two-game losing streak that denied them any titles last year is part of a brief dip, or if it was just a one year anomaly. Tennessee Volunteers (Knoxville) October 4 For all the moral victories and confidence deeply instilled across the SEC media and Vol Nation, Tennessee remains a mess. Maybe not as a program – after all it is in much better shape than two years ago – but as a threat on the field. Any opportunity for advancement went out the window with its nine starting linemen. UT lost its entire starting offensive and defensive lines from last year – the only team in FBS to do that in 2014 – and must replace a full 60% of their starting team from last season which proved to be only a mild lean in the direction of the program recovery everyone seems convinced they are in. To take another step up, they will need a miracle from both lines and they will need to win some close games. That prospect is further dampened by having to replace their kicker. On the plus side, they have good linebackers and they have some good skill players on offense. But you need to have a lot better than just good ones to compete in the SEC, especially behind five new starters on the offensive line and backing up four new starters on the D-line. Butch Jones is a major upgrade over Derek Dooley, who was always a colossal culture and style clash with the Tennessee program and especially the fan base. However, he is farther away from rebuilding this program than the media will admit, and it remains to be seen how much patience the Vol fans and boosters will have while they reminisce over the bygone Fulmer glory days and watch as their biggest rivals in the SEC continue to chase and win the national title every year while they watch from their living rooms. The most glaring problem here is that they lack team speed on defense. They absolutely must upgrade to SEC speed if they ever want to compete for titles again. They probably have the third-toughest conference schedule in the SEC, playing Alabama and the fast-rising Ole Miss squad. They can’t help the slate with which the league office saddles them, but what bozo in the Tennessee athletics department thought it was a good idea to take this floundering program on the road to play Oklahoma in the third game of the year? This of course has been a familiar refrain of stupidity with the Vols, who just last year flew out to the Pacific Ocean to get drowned by powerhouse Oregon to the tune of 59-14. Florida should have at least two years before they have to worry about a challenge from the Vols. Louisiana State University Tigers (home) October 11 While they will again be one of the most athletic and talented squads in the country, the Tigers – as Robert De Niro would say – are dealing with some tings. Some tings. Some tings. Six early NFL defections will put undue pressure across the board on players who should not be at top-tier SEC starting level yet as a group. This has been the case at LSU for awhile and they handle it very well…but they still only have one SEC title and no national titles since 2007. So the line between doing very well and winning championships is ever so fine in the SEC. Les Miles breaks in a new starting running back – a true freshman – both wide receivers and new quarterback. The Bengals lose both defensive tackles, so middle ‘backer DJ Welter will need to stand out in his senior year. On the plus side, they have tons of athletic talent and a strong offensive line, with four returning starters and returning tight end. They return their excellent defensive ends and 75% of their secondary, and will still have their excellent linebacker play right out of the gate because two of their three starters return and have a great backup in the middle in Kendell Beckwith. So an athletic defense as always in Baton Rouge, and they remain very well coached by John Chavis. On offense, Leonard Fournette will be the most anticipated true freshman running back at LSU since Kevin Faulk in 1995. Miles has a history of winning titles with ineffective quarterbacks, which will come in handy this year because like Bama, LSU has no idea who their starting quarterback is going to be for the season, and like Saban, Miles plans to play two of them until one stands out. Anthony Jennings is very mobile, which could give him the edge by giving his new receivers time to get open and time for him to find them, however I would not be surprised to see the quarterback rotation continue throughout the year, as has happened under Les Miles almost as often as it does under Steve Spurrier. Although LSU’s offense does not pivot on good or bad quarterback play except in rare cases (#2011 BCS title game), this year may be a little different in that their season was carried to a large extent last year by their ability to convert third downs on critical drives: they led the FBS in third down conversion percentage. It will be a tall order to repeat that efficiency without a very capable signal caller. Fournette and great defense can take them a long way, but being one-dimensional on offense with sketchy decision making from the QB is a bad recipe for converting third downs consistently. LSU will have to win with defense and team football, as the offense will probably struggle. Well that’s it for the first half of the Gators’ 2014 regular season opponents. In the next segment I will carve into the second half of the teams that will try to ruin Florida’s return to football elite. Or at least for this year, return to respectability.