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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Tennessee at Florida

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2020 Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Florida Gators

Are the Gators are primed for a big year in 2020?

The Gators come to Neyland in 2020.
| Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just a quick note: We are aware that this isn’t the first game on the schedule. For now, we are going to do game previews of SEC games in case the conference decides to move to a conference-only schedule. We will post the out-of-conference previews if the SEC or NCAA guarantees a 12-game schedule.


Whether they’re the fourth opponent of the 2020 season or the first, you better believe the Vols will be ready for the Florida Gators when they come to Neyland Stadium.

The Vols have lost three in a row after finally breaking Florida’s 11-game win streak in 2016, but that doesn’t mean anything when the game kicks off.

So how did Florida fare in the offseason and what’s their outlook for 2020? Let’s dive in to the first edition of our 2020 opponent preview series.

2019 in review

Final Record: 11-2 (6-2), 2nd SEC
Final National Ranking: 6th

The Gators had a good year under Dan Mullen. He was able to work his magic with quarterback Kyle Trask and the defense played like a top-25 unit throughout the year.

Trask and the passing game were certainly the strength of the offense. Trask threw for the second-most yards and third-most touchdowns in the conference and was considered a top-15 passer in the country. Florida was third in the SEC when it came to throwing the ball, but were 107th in total rushing yards and 74th in yards per carry. Running the ball just wasn’t a big part of the game plan — the Gators were 117th in rushing attempts in 2019.

It makes sense because Mullen has always been quarterback-first and his offenses are usually pass-heavy. The offensive line was an experienced group (minus redshirt freshman Richard Gouraige), but gave up the sixth-most sacks in the SEC.

The offense tied Auburn for the third-most points per game (33.2) in the SEC and threw the NCAA’s sixth-most touchdowns in the red zone. Overall, it was a solid unit.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida
Kyle Trask proved to be a pleasant surprise for the Gators in 2019.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The defense was very good, too. It allowed the ninth-fewest yards in the country and 4.9 yards per play, which was good for 21st in the country. David Reese II led the way with 92 total tackles while Jonathan Greenard had a team-high 10 sacks. Donovan Stiner finished the year with four interceptions.

The run defense was the strength of the team, but the pass defense wasn’t too far behind. Regardless, the Gators’ run defense allowed the eighth-fewest yards in the country (102.8), 12th-fewest yards per carry (3.19), and tied for allowing the fifth-fewest touchdowns on the ground (9). The Gators’ pass defense finished 32nd in the country in passing yards allowed and tied for the 10th-fewest passing touchdowns allowed.

Things got even worse for opposing offenses when they got into the red zone. The Gators held opponents to the third-lowest scoring rate in the red zone in the country and allowed just 14 total touchdowns from inside the 20.

Evan McPherson had another solid season kicking field goals, hitting 17 of 19 attempts for the second straight year.

Who left and who’s new?

Offense

Trask is back as the starting quarterback, but there are a lot of new pieces around him. Running back Lamical Perine and receivers Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland are all gone. There is plenty of talent to step up and take their place, but as we all know, nothing is guaranteed until the game is played.

Trevon Grimes is considered as the go-to guy while freshmen Xzavier Henderson and Jaquavion Fraziars are two four-star receivers that will be looked to in hopes of replacing the others. There’s also Jacob Copeland, whom Vols fans are very familiar with. He came on really strong toward the end of 2019 and will likely be a big contributor this year.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida
Will Jacob Copeland become a factor for Florida?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t be surprised if Dameon Pierce is the lead guy in the backfield, especially if the Vols play the Gators in the opening game. Pierce is one of the strongest backs in the SEC and uses every bit of that strength to his advantage. The only hiccup is that Mullen often uses two running backs, so the Gators may be looking for a complement to Pierce. If that’s the case, then there are bodies, but Malik Davis has the best case to become the 1b to Pierce’s 1a.

The Gators are set at tight end. Kyle Pitts is one of the best tight ends in the country and his backup Keon Zipperer, is a quality player, too. They have a good mix of blocking and pass-catching after those two. Losing Pitts would be huge, but the Gators would have enough left over to still be effective.

Four of the five starters on the offensive line are back. The only one to leave is center Nick Cunningham, but redshirt senior Brett Heggie has experience playing center and is expected to take over there. Despite the familiarity, the Gators may be making a few changes up front. Grad transfer Stewart Reese is expected to make some noise in camp and so are Richard Gouraige and Ethan White. The Gators also added two four-star tackles to the roster in order to help them find the best starting five.

Defense

The defense lost a lot of star power, just like the offense. This is a very young unit that may take a step back in 2020, but still has plenty of potential to be disruptive.

Gone are Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, two major contributors in the pass rush department. Jeremiah Moon was playing well before he suffered a season-ending injury in 2019 and Zachary Carter looks legit, so that should help offset the loss, but there are still plenty of questions pertaining to the Gators’ pass rush.

Brenton Cox is going to be a major factor, but don’t count out Mohamoud Diabate and Khris Bogle. Both of those guys showed plenty of flashes in 2019 and are in line for more playing time this year. But if they don’t pan out as expected, then it would set the pass rush back quite a bit.

Reese II’s departure leaves a big hole in the middle of the second level, but James Houston IV should be up to the job. He record 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a backup in 2019, but still has work to do in pass protection. Regardless, he should be a solid replacement option.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Florida
Mohamoud Diabate has a very promising future.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ventrell Miller —who had 55 tackles last year— is still around to go along with other guys like Diabate, Amari Burney, and David Reese (yes, there’s another one). When you throw four-star freshman Derek Wingo in the mix, it’s clear that the Gators have some good pieces that make up the linebacker corps.

The secondary returns a lot of experience from 2019, even without C.J. Henderson. A usually-solid unit should be that of itself again, especially since Marco Wilson is returning for another year. Kaiir Elam was one of the unit’s best players last year and should only improve this year. Florida killed it on the recruiting trail, too, adding players like Jahari Rogers and Ethan Pouncey to the mix.

The safety room looks good with Shawn Davis at one starting spot, but the other spot is up for grabs. Stiner led the team in interceptions, but had an up-and-down season, while Brad Stewart Jr. didn’t really live up to expectations. Freshman Mordecai McDaniel is likely the favorite for the other spot.

Breakout players for 2020

BUCK Brenton Cox: Yea, I get it. It’s hard to put a five-star player as a breakout guy, but I think the shoe fits, here.

Cox had to sit out all of 2019 because his transfer waiver was never approved. That likely has pushed him to the back of most people’s minds that don’t follow the team closely.

The Gators will be looking for someone to take Greenard’s production and Cox should be that guy. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name called often on Saturdays.

OL Ethan White: He showed a ton of promise last year and he is one of the most athletic linemen on the team. Florida is looking for a shot of energy on the offensive line and there’s a good chance White provides that shot in 2020.

LB James Houston IV: He’s ready to go after playing behind Reese. Expect Houston to be the typical thumper in the middle of the defense that Florida has had for so long.

Final Outlook

If you’re a Gators fan, you should be excited for 2020.

Yes, the team lost a lot of production, but the cupboard is far from bare thanks to smart/effective recruiting and good coaching. Florida did a very good job of replacing what it lost.

This team likely goes as far as Trask takes it. You usually don’t want your team’s future tied to a single player, but that is the case for the Gators. Those involved with the team shouldn’t panic, though. If Trask were to regress or get hurt, the Gators have a very capable backup in Emory Jones. He’s regarded by many as the future, anyway.

You’re likely looking at one of the top offenses in the country if the offensive line can take the next step and if the running game can become more consistent. The defense will be young and hungry, which should provide the Gators with some fun moments on that side of the ball.

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