Jim McElwain’s second season at Florida can’t possibly have as many twists as his first.
The Gators dealt with a costly suspension, celebrated a surprising division championship and then endured a dreadful final three games in 2015. For players and coaches, it was staggering, exhilarating and ultimately humbling.
The journey also may provide some valuable lessons as Florida heads into Year 2 of McElwain’s tenure.
“This team has to understand that what they did a year ago was kind of discover, kind of discovered a little bit maybe what was possible,” McElwain said. “And yet (we) learned some lessons along the way about understanding, never being satisfied. And hopefully even all the older players understand that they never made it. In other words, you can’t go into coast (mode).”
Instead, the Gators hope to learn how to finish.
After unexpectedly clinching the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division last November, Florida lost its final three games. McElwain’s team was exposed and overmatched against rival Florida State, against Alabama in the league title game and against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The Gators managed two offensive touchdowns in those losses and were outscored 97-24.
Quarterback play was among the main issues, with Treon Harris having more turnovers than touchdowns in those games and getting sacked 13 times. Harris started the final eight games after Will Grier was suspended for one year for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Harris and Grier have since transferred, leaving Florida with a college journeyman, a graduate transfer and two freshmen at quarterback.
Luke Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, has been named the starter despite throwing 18 somewhat meaningful passes at Alabama (2013), Oregon State (2014) and Florida (2015). He beat out former Purdue starter Austin Appleby, Feleipe Franks and fellow freshman Kyle Trask for the job under center, and McElwain expects the offense to be “dramatically better” this fall.
The Gators ranked 100th in the nation in scoring and 112th in yards last season.
“Our quarterback room, their grasping of the things we are trying to accomplish and their knowledge will allow us to do maybe some different things that maybe we didn’t do a year ago,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said.
Here are some other things to know about Florida heading into the season:
Florida’s defense was among the best in the SEC last season, and the Gators expect the same this year despite having to replace six starters. Jalen Tabor appears to be the program’s next star cornerback while linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive linemen CeCe Jefferson and Caleb Brantley also could make big leaps.
The Gators essentially play five games — at Tennessee, against LSU, against Georgia, at Arkansas and at Florida State — that will determine their season.
With one of the weakest non-conference schedules in recent history — Florida hosts UMass, North Texas and Presbyterian, teams that combined for six wins in 2015 — the Gators should be a lock to win nine games. And since Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina have new coaches, they also should be in the hunt in the SEC East.