When Phil Steele’s annual college football preview comes out, college football fans all across the country stop what they’re doing and read it.
Who is Phil Steele and why does he captivate people with what he writes?
Phil Steele is a sportswriter, analyst and one of the best prognosticators in the world. Steele’s annual college football preview has proven to be the most accurate among its’ fellow prognosticators since he began publishing it in 1995.
Remember back to before the 2012 season. The national media and people across the country expected Florida to putter through the season on their way to seven or eight wins. Well, not Steele. He correctly predicted that the Gators would finish the regular season 11-1.
So what did Mr. Steele have to say about the Gators in this year’s edition of his college football preview? Was he as nice to the Gators this time around? Let’s take a look.
We start with his All-American team where three Gators made the cut. Kyle Christy was named to the first-team All-American squad as a punter, while Dominique Easley came in as the third-team defensive tackle and Loucheiz Purifoy was the fourth-team cornerback.
Starting with Christy, this honor is very much deserved. What I am about to say may sound crazy to some people but it couldn’t be truer. The Florida Gators don’t go 11-2 last season without the season that Christy had. They just don’t. Christy’s 45.8 yard-per-punt average was the fifth best in the entire country and his kicks allowed the Gators to flip bad field position and also pin opponents down in negative field position.
I think the placement of Dominique Easley is fair. In front of him are Louis Nix (Notre Dame) and Timmy Jernigan (Florida State). Those are two great players and both have a lot of hype coming into the season. I think Easley will have as good a season if not a better season than both of those players and could earn first-team All-American honors this season.
It’s curious to me that Purifoy is on the fourth team at cornerback. Personally, I believe that Marcus Roberson is the best cover cornerback on the roster but Purifoy gets a lot of national hype for the big plays he made last season. Don’t get me wrong, Purifoy is a talented player and I think he is going to have a great season but (spoiler alert) Purifoy was on Steele’s fourth-team All-SEC team at cornerback, so I find it puzzling that he is the fourth best cornerback in the league and still the fourth best in the country.
Moving into Phil Steele’s All-SEC teams. Like his All-American roster, Steele goes with four teams for his All-conference teams as well. 12 Gators made the various teams with just four of those coming on offense.
Starting with offense, Jon Harrison was the highest rated player, coming in as the third-team center. Harrison has earned this distinction and is poised to have his best season yet for the Gators.
Jeff Driskel, Loucheiz Purifoy (WR) and Jon Halapio made the fourth team.
This is high praise for Driskel. The three ahead of him (Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron) are all unquestionably ahead of Driskel at this point. However, Steele rated Driskel higher than Tyler Russel (Miss. St.), Bo Wallace (Miss), Connor Shaw (USC), Zach Mettenberger (LSU) and James Franklin (Mizzou). Personally, I think Driskel is as good if not better than all of those quarterbacks, with the exception of Wallace. Wallace is a much better pure passer at this point. Regardless, this is an important season for Driskel and Florida needs him to play at this level if they want to compete for an SEC Championship.
Finding Purifoy here is puzzling. He played sparingly on offense last season before spending half of spring practice on offense. We don’t know, nor does the coaching staff know, how much Purifoy is going to play on offense this season, so I feel like putting him here is a little premature.
This is right about where Halapio should be ranked. If he stays healthy, Halapio will outperform this ranking by season end. He’s a seasoned veteran and along with Harrison and Max Garcia should give the Gators a very formidable interior offensive line.
Despite losing seven players from the second-best defense in the conference a year ago, Florida had six defensive players find their way to an All-SEC team. Dominique Easley led the way with his first-team selection. This is where I would list Easley.
Ronald Powell came in on the second-team defensive line. This shows you how deep Steele goes into his analysis. Powell, who missed all of last season after two ACL surgeries, was having a great spring before the injury. If Powell can return to the form he was in at the end of the 2011-12 season and into the 2012 spring, he will more than earn this spot.
Marcus Roberson also earned second-team honors at cornerback. The two players ahead of him (Andre Hal and Deion Belue) are two of the best players in the conference. Roberson is the Gators’ best cover corner. He has added some weight in the offseason and if he can become a more physical player and a more willing tackler, he could end up as a first-team All-SEC type of player.
Antonio Morrison is the next player on the list, coming in as a third-team linebacker. Morrison showed a lot of promise last year and looked good at his new middle linebacker position in the spring. He appears ready to take over for Jon Bostic without any drop-off in production.
Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins come in on the fourth team at cornerback and safety respectively. How Purifoy is behind Roberson on the All-SEC list and fourth in the conference but still a fourth-team All-American is puzzling but you could also make the case that Purifoy should be rated higher than fourth-team in the SEC. I would have had Purifoy rated above Damian Swann (UGA), Jalen Mills (LSU) and EJ Gaines (Mizzou) to put him on the second team with Roberson.
Another indication of how deep Steele’s research goes, Jaylen Watkins makes the fourth-team as a safety. Watkins spent most of the spring at cornerback but Will Muschamp said he would move to the spring in the fall. Playing time at safety is still up in the air but Watkins certainly has the talent and potential to live up to this billing.
The last two All-SEC distinctions come on special teams, with both Kyle Christy and Andre Debose making the cut at punter and kick returner. We’ll skip over Christy as we already covered him being named an All-American.
Despite only playing in nine games last season, Debose is still one of the most prolific kick returners in Florida and SEC history. His four kick-return touchdowns are a Florida record and anytime Debose has the ball in his hands he’s liable to take it to the house.
Florida came in at No. 18 in Steele’s top-40 teams. LSU came in one spot ahead of the Gators at 17 while teams like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M also finished ahead of the Gators.
While Steele’s projections have proven to be very accurate in the past, I think the Gators will finish better than third in the East.
But hey, that’s why you play the games. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Florida is ranked to finish dead last in the SEC in the preseason. If the Gators go out and take care of business every Saturday this fall, they’ll end up right where they want to be; playing football in the Georgia Dome on Saturday, December 7.