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2022 Tennessee opponent preview: Florida Gators

NCAA Football: Florida at South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The weird rollercoaster ride that was the Dan Mullen era came to a close in the winter months in Gainesville. The Florida Gators fired Mullen after another downturn of a season that saw his program finish with a 5-6 mark. By the end of the year, it was clear that Mullen had lost control of his program, and Scott Stricklin stepped in to make the change.

Billy Napier was his pick to be the next man in charge, finally leaving Louisiana for a big time job. Napier’s name has been red hot for several years in the south, and he was extremely selective with his next move. His patience paid off — but now he is tasked with figuring out a way to catch up to Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs.

Napier worked under both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban before taking on the Louisiana job. The former Furman quarterback lost just five games in his final three seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns, winning two conference titles and three bowl games in that span.

He’s now looking to rebuild Florida after a messy couple of seasons under Mullen.

His job won’t be easy early on, either. Florida is set to host Pac-12 power Utah to start the season, and then they’ll get Kentucky — also in The Swamp. USF should be a bit of a breather before Napier faces his first road test in the SEC against Tennessee.

Looking at the 2022 Florida Gators

Head Coach: Billy Napier

Key Losses: QB Emory Jones, WR Jacob Copeland, RB Dameon Pierce

Key Additions: RB Montrell Johnson, WR Ricky Pearsall, S Kamari Wilson, LB Shemar James, OL O’Cyrus Torrence


SP+: 23

The first and probably most certain thing about this team comes at the quarterback position, where it has officially become the Anthony Richardson show. We saw electric spurts from him last year splitting time with Emory Jones, but now the job is all his. There’s certainly some projecting going on with Richardson, but there’s a reason he’s so far up on Heisman and Mock Draft lists already. He’s oozing with athletic ability, and it will be up to Napier and his staff to develop him as a passer. Just a redshirt sophomore, Florida needs Richardson to stay healthy and take a step forward as a pure passer to compete in the East.

Napier will also need some impact players to emerge at receiver after Jacob Copeland’s exit. Justin Shorter is the surest bet, coming off of a 500+ yard season. Marcus Burke, JaQuavion Fraziars, Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson will all be in the rotation, along with Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall.

Replacing running back Dameon Pierce shouldn’t be much of an issue. Florida will lean heavily on Nay’Quan Wright and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson. Lorenzo Lingard, a former five-star recruit, should also be in this mix.

Up front, Florida returns three starters while adding All-Sun Belt selection O’Cyrus Torrence from Louisiana. The Gators have some serious beef up front, and Napier is hoping he can establish a ground game early on in his run-heavy approach.

Defensively, Napier brings Sean Spencer and Patrick Toney with him from Louisiana to be co-defensive coordinators. The Todd Grantham days are over in Gainesville, something that Florida fans are understandably thrilled about.

The new-look defense is filled with veterans, led by Brenton Cox Jr. at the jack linebacker position. He put up 8.5 sacks last season and will be gunning for double digits this fall. Defensive tackle Gervon Dexter and defensive end Princely Umanmielen are two more potential impact players up front.

Seniors Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney will lead the linebacking core, while senior and fifth-year starter Trey Dean continues to man his safety position. Another safety, Rashad Torrence, is a junior with some big-hit ability. Top 50 overall prospect Kamari Wilson will also look to make some noise somewhere in the secondary.

Cornerback appears to be a bit of a potential trouble spot for the Gators in year one. They’ll need Jason Marshall Jr. to take a couple of steps forward, and Florida also hopes to find some competitive depth in the form of Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber.

Florida isn’t ready to make a run at Georgia in the East. Heck, few teams in the country would be. The question for Napier is this — where does Florida immediately rank in the division? Kentucky continues to be rock solid and this Tennessee team is poised to take another step forward with Hendon Hooker returning. Can Florida challenge for that No. 2 spot? They certainly can if Richardson lives up to the hype.

Florida-Kentucky-Tennessee are likely your No. 2 through No. 4 teams in the East. Those early season games for Florida against the Wildcats and Volunteers will more than likely tell the story for the Gators.