Despite the tough schedule, 2024 is a prove-it year for Billy Napier

The win total expectations for Florida aren’t high right now.

Earlier this offseason, the win total lines at various betting houses coalesced around the 5.5 mark. Essentially, you’re betting whether the Gators go to a bowl or not. If yes, take the over. If no, take the under.

It’s later in the offseason now, and you can actually find several places offering an over/under of 4.5 wins. Now, the odds aren’t equal on both sides. At FanDuel, for instance, the over is at -150 while the under is at +122 at time of writing. Translated into English: you have to bet $150 to win $100 on the over, while you win $122 for a $100 bet on the under. But still, the Gators could hit one of these overs and still not make the postseason.

Please note that I don’t gamble and don’t encourage anyone else to either. However, people’s livelihoods are on the line with these figures, and we don’t have a broad selection of preseason publication prognostications yet. If you want to take the temperature on expectations for a given team right now in May, this is about the best way we have to go about it.

UF has a famously difficult schedule this season. Only two opponents look like fairly certain wins to me: FCS Samford and Mississippi State. The latter squad of Bulldogs are rebuilding after a couple years of chaos in the program, but even then the Gators have often struggled with road games in the state of Mississippi. UCF is next in line, but they’re not pushovers with Gus Malzahn now going into his fourth season there. Plus they now have transfer QB KJ Jefferson, who led a bad Arkansas team to a win in the Swamp last year.

There are ways that the vaunted slate could turn out to be less bad than it seems. Miami has a better roster but also a head coach famous for questionable game day decisions. Texas A&M is another team, like MSU, breaking in a new head coach and staff. Kentucky may have cohesion issues between Mark Stoops nearly taking the A&M job last winter and the team having a different OC than the prior season for the fourth straight year. LSU didn’t do much to upgrade its awful defense in the portal, and FSU lost a ton to the draft. All of these issues could lighten the load, or none of them might. We’ll have to see.

Whatever combination of those factors (and possibly others) end up mitigating the gauntlet, there’s no way around the fact that the Gators will need to beat some pretty good teams to get past the threshold of marginal bowl eligibility. And here’s the thing about that:

That’s the way it should be.

If you want to run the Florida football program, if you want to play in the SEC, if you want to be somewhere with the resources to win a national title: it’s supposed to be hard. The 2006 Gators had the hardest schedule in the country. They went 13-1 and lifted the trophy anyway. Beating good teams is in the job description.

UF has churned through coaches this century, but it finally ran into one with Dan Mullen who oversaw a talent decline across the entire roster. Ron Zook famously stocked the cupboards for Urban Meyer. Will Muschamp was clueless about most offensive recruiting but built a heck of a defense. Jim McElwain’s classes didn’t have elite rankings but had an unusually high number of 3-stars who turned into good college players and draft picks. Mullen was the opposite of Mac, with decently high class rankings that turned out to be mirages.

That said, the Mullen recruits are largely gone by now. It’s the free transfer and NIL era, so what counts as a slow but successful rebuild still runs at a faster pace today than in the past.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Billy Napier has overhauled the roster into something that, on paper, should be capable of beating good teams:

  • QB: Graham Mertz is in his sixth year with a million starts under his belt and a promising 2023 he could build on. DJ Lagway will get some packages to show off his potentially generational talent.
  • RB: Headlined by future pro Montrell Johnson, the room is quality dudes all the way down.
  • WR: Tre Wilson was a freshman All-American last year, and Elijhah Badger and Chimere Dike were No. 1 receivers for other P5 programs. There is a solid second tier too with Kahleil Jackson, Marcus Burke, Aiden Mizell, and maybe Andy Jean if he can get healthy.
  • TE: Arlis Boardingham was also a freshman All-American last year, Napier is effusive in his praise of Hayden Hansen, and Keon Zipperer is back for his 12th season of college. If this position isn’t better, it’s all on the new staff.
  • OL: The projected starting five of Barber, Harris, Slaughter, George, and Crenshaw-Dixon consists of guys entering their fourth, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth years of college, respectively. There’s a lot of experience here. Even Harris, with just one year played in college, appeared in every game and started once last year.
  • DL/Edge: It’s the deepest the unit has been in years. Losing Princely Umanmielen hurt, but don’t underrate the importance of getting Justus Boone back.
  • LB: Between Shemar James, Grayson Howard, Myles Graham, and Aaron Chiles, this is the most raw talent the inside linebacker spot has had since Muschamp recruits were getting all the snaps. It’s still more potential than proven results, but the ingredients are likely to prove to be as good as they’ve been in a decade.
  • DB: Jason Marshall is back, Devin Moore is finally 100% healthy, and a lot of young guys got a lot of snaps last year. Napier also hit the portal hard here to bolster the unit with experience, and there’s a new former 5-star cornerback in the mix. There is no excuse for underwhelming play.

Barring some kind of 2013-like injury plague, that’s not a lineup that is hopeless in contests against top 15 teams. No, it’s not going to make a dark horse run at a title of some sort, but this is not a crew that should cause you to throw your hands up in despair at the thought of facing an eventual 10-2 opponent. It’s a roster that should be fully capable of knocking off a playoff hopeful if the preparation and game day execution are where they should be.

I can’t give you a firm number of wins that Napier needs to keep his job into 2025. As always, how the team actually performs is more important than the counts of wins and losses. If they lose a one-score game to an eventual top ten team because of a bad call, that’s a lot different than getting their doors blown off by a mid-tier opponent.

That said, it’s hard to see Napier returning in ’25 if he can’t at least match the two wins over teams ranked in the final poll that he managed in 2022 (Utah, South Carolina). That was one more than he had in 2023 (Tennessee), if you’re counting along at home. Getting the number of wins necessary to return, whatever it ends up being, has to include at least a couple of wins over ranked teams unless the schedule really falls apart more than anyone is projecting now.

The rebuild isn’t completely over, as UF does want to get back to having a true championship-level roster. It’s far enough along, though, that Florida can’t merely be on the receiving end of a tough schedule yet again. It needs to be a reason why other teams don’t get as many wins as they want, as Napier really has upgraded the talent in most places compared to what he inherited.

It’s not a playoff-or-bust year, but it is still a prove-it season for Napier. It’s been three years. The roster is nearly all his players. He fired and replaced a couple initial assistants who didn’t work out, hired the architect of his preferred defensive scheme, and affirmatively chose to retain the rest of the staff.

It’s not asking too much to request that Napier collect some good wins this fall. It’s merely asking the same thing of him as what’s been asked of all post-Spurrier Florida head coaches: load up on good players and then deploy them to win games. Napier has done good work on the former, but it takes both halves to justify someone holding down the office.

Napier seems to be on the same page here. He’s made made comments throughout this calendar year and into his spring booster club tour about finally having everything in place and feeling good about the team on and off the field. He even dropped a Year Zero remark regarding 2022 at his Jacksonville stop, referring to the concept that a new coach could take over a program in such bad shape that it takes an entire year just to reach a normal starting point.

When even the head coach agrees that this is the year to start seeing better results, it’s time to start seeing better results.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2