With the season beginning on Thursday, it’s time to pick the schedule game-by-game. I’ll keep it simple or go into detail as each game requires.
At Utah: Win
The Utes are always a tough and fundamentally sound team. They very nearly won in the Swamp last season and were the better team for the year on the whole. It took some heroics from the current Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback to pull it off.
So why do I have the Gators winning? A key element to Utah’s near-win last year was QB Cam Rising’s mobility. Both he and TE Brant Kuithe, who tore an ACL mid-season in 2022, were responsible for gashing the defense on many occasions. I don’t think Rising will be able to move around much if he plays at all. He tore an ACL in the Rose Bowl, and the recovery timeline is tight for him. Kuithe probably won’t be 100% either despite a two-month head start.
Between Rising being pocket-bound — or a completely green third stringer going, as the second team QB got hurt in preseason camp — and Utah starting a true freshman left tackle, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase Austin Armstrong’s reinvigorated defense and Pricely Umanmielen’s offseason transformation.
Utah may be tough and sound, but, for a change, Florida should be too. Give me not just the cover in Salt Lake but the outright win.
UF gets a great chance to consolidate its Week 1 performance with a tune up instead of a letdown game against Kentucky like last year.
I don’t count the Gators out of this one at all, especially with it being at home. If Florida is 2-0, I expect a prime Swamp atmosphere for a prime time kick.
I am leery of the Tennessee pass attack against UF’s suspect safety unit, though, even as I’m not aboard the Joe Milton train as some folks seem to be. I think if he was going to be an all-world QB, it would’ve happened before his sixth year of college. He might get a few over on the Gator safeties from experience alone, but he also has to consistently hit a moving target with accuracy. It’s harder than it sounds, no matter how strong a dude’s arm is.
Regardless, I expect a close L here. A win would absolutely not shock me, though.
One last chance for a tune up before an all-P5 gauntlet the rest of the way.
At Kentucky: Win
This could just be me growing up on UF always beating the Wildcats every year, but I do think UF should beat Kentucky just about every year. I can quote chapter and verse about how good Mark Stoops has been there, but also he’s never really hit the quality level the Gators should be at when things are right. Maybe once, but only once.
The Wildcats do have a good quarterback and a better OC this year, but their offensive line has gotten worse each year since former position coach John Schlarman’s untimely passing from cancer in 2020. Even if they stabilize or improve a little from last year, the level of play will still not be great.
Billy Napier plays a style of offense that won’t allow UF to run away and hide in a road tilt like this, but UF’s advantage on the lines should help the team escape with the W.
The team learned the hard way that Vandy won’t be a pushover under Clark Lea, at least until the wheels eventually fall off as they do for any Commodore coach who stays around longer than three years. There’s a gravity to that job that’s unavoidable.
There shouldn’t be any sleepwalking in the Jefferson Pilot window on a cold Nashville day like last year. Not a blowout, most likely, but it should be a win.
At South Carolina: Win
I’m sorry, but I don’t see it with the Gamecocks. Sure, late in the year they took advantage of Tennessee’s defense no-showing and then beat Clemson with only one scoring drive longer than 54 yards, but they only kept their bowl close because Notre Dame threw two pick sixes.
The team downgraded at OC from an already sketchy place and lost a lot of important pass targets to graduation and the portal. They might win this one because Shane Beamer emphasizes special teams and Napier doesn’t really appear to. However, while it won’t be a whipping like last year, I think Florida takes the game.
There’s an old saying that first you lose big, then lose close, then win close, then win big. I just want to see progress towards the “lose close” step. Georgia is so far ahead that it’s going to take years to catch up.
This is another opponent I’m just not believing in. They lost both coordinators and downgraded in both spots. Well, maybe. Dan Enos might be a better OC than Kendal Briles, but he runs a more complicated passing attack that doesn’t have near as many easy reads. Just about any offense has fewer easy reads than the Briles one, but Enos is pretty pro-style for what counts as pro-style these days.
I have never thought KJ Jefferson was a top-tier QB who could carry a team to real heights by himself. I certainly don’t think he will this year with the coordinator change. His super power has been a low INT rate, but that’s a hallmark of the Briles offense. See also Hendon Hooker throwing very few picks at Tennessee the past two years; Josh Heupel runs basically that scheme too.
I just don’t think the Razorbacks will be that good. At home, UF should take it.
at LSU: Loss
Between a few goodies from Ed Orgeron who didn’t transfer and Brian Kelly being less deliberate in his portal evaluations than Napier, the Tigers have rebuilt much faster. Kelly’s a very good coach, and with this one on the road, I don’t see UF winning. Competing, sure, but not winning.
At Missouri: Win
Missouri is not going to be good, necessarily, but it won’t be bad either. This is a carbon copy of the Vandy loss situation last year, a November game at a place where it gets cold. Given how summer went, this could be a year without a winter, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Georgia-Tennessee will get the CBS spot and Kentucky-South Carolina will probably get the prime time ESPN treatment, meaning there’s a chance this will be a noon Eastern ESPN kick. Which translates to 11 am local time, which is when UF got the Vandy game last year.
This might be the biggest culture check in Napier’s second year. A week after a likely loss to LSU, a week before the in-state rivalry game, on the road, probably in the cold, can they show up and win? I will bet on Napier the culture builder, but man, I don’t feel great about it.
I don’t buy FSU as a real Playoff contender. Jordan Travis is a wily college QB who I don’t think has a real NFL future. With 15% more discipline on defense, last year’s Gator team takes home the win in Doak.
Like the Tennessee game, I think the opponent has a bit too much juice for Florida to win. This is a peak year for FSU, whereas the Gators are still on their way up. But also like the UT game, I would not be shocked at a win.
Final Record: 8-4
In the preseason, Florida has been ranked in some places as having the hardest schedule in the country. Not one of the hardest, but the actual hardest.
It very well could be, but I don’t think it’ll play out as difficult as some are making it out to be. Utah won’t have Rising and Kuithe at full strength if they have them at all. Milton, Jefferson, and Travis won’t be as good as some are making them out to be. A few different teams have downgraded at coordinator spots.
All bets are off if Graham Mertz tears an ACL early, or if the offensive line has an injury plague, or any of the top safeties go down. But potential maladies aside, I see seven or eight wins on the slate. Maybe more if the ball bounces their way in some of the games where they’re behind the opponent but not by a mile.
The culture overhaul is real, and the team will have more consistent fight in it every week. Keep your perspective, and reload the recruiting rankings from time to time as needed, and this could be a pretty fun season as the Gators outperform their modest preseason expectations.