A Schedule That Favors a Florida Title Run

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr

Florida’s 12-game football schedule that included three paycheck opponents and Florida State on Thanksgiving weekend has been replaced by 10 Southeastern Conference games starting with the season opener at Ole Miss on September 26. Prior to the schedule reset the Gators were one of the favorites to play for the Southeastern Conference championship in Atlanta. Now that there is a new, leaner conference-only schedule, nothing has really changed.

You had, I mean, 10 really good football teams on the schedule last year,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said at his post-practice press conference back on Monday. “We have 10 really good teams on the schedule this year.”

In other words, things have changed yet nothing has changed.

Prior to the reset caused by the covid-19 virus, the Gators had home games with South Carolina, LSU, Missouri and Kentucky on the schedule along with road trips to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Tennessee along with the annual grudge match with Georgia in Jacksonville. The order in which those games will be played has been shuffled and a road trip to Texas A&M and a home game with Arkansas have been added. Figure you swap FSU for the Aggies and Arkansas has to be better than Eastern Washington, South Alabama and New Mexico State, the three teams that will have to figure out how to survive without their will take a whomping for a million-dollar paycheck games.

It is a tough schedule for sure, but not significantly worse than the one it replaced. The only real differences are the absence of a buffer game prior to LSU and playing Kentucky and Tennessee back-to-back at the end of the schedule instead of in September.

The Gators play the Aggies in College Station on October 10, the week before they host LSU in The Swamp. Texas A&M is certainly a tougher matchup than South Carolina, which originally would have preceded the LSU encounter, but the Aggies will be facing the Gators the week after they road trip to Alabama. LSU plays Missouri at home the week before traveling to Gainesville and even though Mizzou probably won’t be very good, it’s a tougher matchup than the originally scheduled D1AA Nicholls. And, lest we forget, the last time LSU ventured into The Swamp – 2018 – the then-5th-ranked Tigers lost to Mullen and the Gators, 27-19.

Ideally, it would be great for the Gators to get an easier game prior to facing LSU, but given the Aggies’ circumstances and playing LSU at home this might be quite favorable to UF.

Originally, the Gators would have played Kentucky in Gainesville on September 12 and Tennessee in Knoxville on September 26. With the reset, the Gators face Kentucky in Gainesville November 28 and go to Knoxville December 5. The rescheduling doesn’t hurt the Gators at all largely due to the weeks leading up to those season-ending games. Kentucky has to play Alabama on the road the weekend before the Gators so that could result in a bunch of battered and bruised Wildcats. Tennessee’s tuneup for the Gators is Vanderbilt on the road November 21, but in the two weeks prior the Vols will have played the Aggies and then road tripped to Auburn. Again, the way the schedule works is favorable to Florida.

The Georgia game was moved from October 31 to November 7, but it is still in Jacksonville and both still have an open date the week before. Prior to the open date, the Gators will play host to Missouri, which will probably will still be shell-shocked from its three-game gauntlet (Alabama, at Tennessee, at LSU) to open its season. Prior to the open date, Georgia will have played back-to-back road games with Alabama and Kentucky.

The Gators face three opponents ranked in the preseason Coaches poll top 25 -- #4 Georgia, #5 LSU and #13 Texas A&M. Georgia also faces three preseason top 25 teams -- #3 Alabama, #8 Florida and #11 Auburn – but while the Gators get back-to-back games with ranked opponents (Aggies on October 10; LSU on October 17), this is less challenging than the 5-game gauntlet Georgia faces starting with a week two encounter with Auburn. While the back end of Georgia’s schedule has four straight softies, games two through six might represent the toughest stretch of any SEC contender. Georgia might find it difficult to arrive in Jacksonville with fewer than two losses.

If the Gators can beat the Aggies and LSU on consecutive weekends, they should be primed and ready to end Georgia’s three-game win streak in Jacksonville. The road to supremacy in the SEC East goes through Jacksonville and if the Gators emerge with a win they will be favored to go 4-0 down the rest of the way.

Of course, no matter who is on the schedule or when the games are played, it will still come down to on-the-field performance and staying healthy. While Mullen and every other coach in the SEC lost the spring and those 15 developmental practices, the Gators kept their coaching staff intact and won’t have to install a brand new system. Defensively, the Gators are loaded and poised to make that leap from the very good of 2019 to elite in 2020.

The defense will have to replace edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, who will both be playing for pay this fall, as well as middle linebacker David Reese, who graduated after accumulating 322 career tackles. There are great expectations for Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr. (6-4, 247, RSO) to pick up the pass rushing slack, and for Mohamoud Diabate (6-2, 220, SO) to step in for Reese. Mullen says Cox “could go anywhere” which means he could play defensive end, out in space or move inside at linebacker. Mullen described Diabate as “the guy we’re moving around to different spots on the field to try to create mismatches against the offense.”

Although there may be concerns about replacing the leadership provided by Greenard and Reese, Mullen sees Jeremiah Moon (6-6, 240 RSR), Ventrell Miller (6-0, 225, RJR) and Marco Wilson (6-0, 190, RJR) picking up the slack.

Offensively, Florida’s success will depend on the continuing improvement of quarterback Kyle Trask, the SEC’s leading returning passer, and an offensive line bolstered by the 34 career starts added by Mississippi State grad transfer Stewart Reese.

Most of the preseason magazines project Trask as the All-SEC quarterback after a season in which he threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns after answering the 911 call in the fourth quarter of the Kentucky game when Feleipe Franks went down with a season-ending dislocation of his ankle. This year, Trask will have more of the offense on his shoulders and that will lead to more flexibility with the play calling.

There's a confidence that comes with, 'I've been out there, I've led the team in big game situations, I've led the team to big victories and played in all of these different arenas so far,'” Mullen said Thursday. “So I think when you look at Kyle that way, I think that breeds a lot of confidence in him being not just a leader on the field, but you also add his confidence and comfort within our offense, in our scheme and what we're doing. I think it allows you to spend a lot more time being a great leader and being vocal, holding other guys to certain standards and raising the play of the guys around you, which is what you want to do as a quarterback."

A year ago the Gators had one of the least experienced offensive lines in the SEC and in all of college football with only one returning starter in center Nick Buchanan. This year the Gators return four starters plus Reese, who knows the offense since he started one year for John Hevesy at MSU back in 2017. Reese adds versatility to the unit since he can play both guard slots and right tackle, where he started the last two seasons. Brett Heggie (6-4, 330, RSR), last year’s starter at left guard, is the presumptive starting center to take over for the graduated Buchanan. He will be likely flanked by Reese (6-5, 340, GR) on the left and Evan White (6-5, 360, SO) on the right. Last year’s starters at the tackles – Stone Forsythe (6-7, 329, RSR) and Jean Delance (6-4, 314, RSR) – return but Richard Gouraige (6-4, 305, RSO) might supplant Delance on the right side. Delance could also play left guard with Reese staying outside.

“Obviously you know they were a really young group last year experience-wise,” Mullen said Thursday. “There’s a lot more veterans and a lot more experience in that group and I think that you see that in the confidence in what they do on a daily basis, their communication how they work together, that experience. I see a lot more confidence now. What that leads to and we got to play against other people we’re going to see but I think they’re doing a pretty good job right now.”

Pre-pandemic Florida was thought to be so much of a serious contender to win the SEC East and possibly the SEC Championship Game that most of the preseason magazines penciled in the Gators as favorites to make it to Atlanta. Even with the schedule changes that should still be the case. If anything the schedule favors Florida over Georgia. Georgia may have a lot of experienced players, but the Gators not only match Georgia’s experience but have a returning starter at QB running the same system he’s been in for three years.

This is a schedule and roster conducive to a championship run. Now it’s just a matter of on-the-field execution and staying injury and virus free.

FLORIDA 2020 SCHEDULE

September 26: at Ole Miss

October 3: South Carolina

October 10: at Texas A&M October 17: LSU October 24: Missouri October 31: OPEN November 7: Georgia (Jacksonville) November 14: Arkansas

November 21: at Vanderbilt November 28: Kentucky December 5: at Tennessee

Here is a look at the schedules of the other 13 SEC teams.

ALABAMA: Bama’s pre-pandemic schedule already had the Aggies, Georgia and Auburn at home so nothing really changed. Adding Missouri (season opener) and Kentucky as road games didn’t exactly power up Bama’s strength of schedule. Only two of the roadies – Tennessee on October 24 and Kentucky on November 21 – have the potential to be trap games. The Crimson Tide gets Tennessee the week after Georgia and Kentucky is sandwiched between LSU and Auburn. At worst, this should be a 9-1 season.

ARKANSAS: For new coach Sam Pittman, the season begins with Georgia and ends with Alabama. Both games are at home, but home or on the road, Arkansas would still get clobbered. Sandwiched between those expected blowout losses are roadies with Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida and homers with Tennessee and LSU. The only winnable game on the schedule seems to be a road trip to Mizzou.

AUBURN: Getting Georgia in week two was an unplanned for blessing for Gus Malzahn The Poodles have a new coordinator (Todd Monken) who didn’t have a spring to install his offense and now he’s got two transfer quarterbacks that will have to deal with a Kevin Steele defense. LSU is midseason (October 31) and at home. The stretch run could be problematic – Tennessee, (at) Alabama and Texas A&M – but two homers out of that bunch tilt favorably to Auburn. It’s a tough schedule but the way it’s set up could lend itself to a championship run for the Tigers.

GEORGIA: The opener with Arkansas should be a blowout, but then comes a 5-game gauntlet that will determine if Georgia is a contender or pretender. It starts with Auburn in week two followed by Tennessee and then the roadie that everyone has had circled on their calendars to Tuscaloosa. How did the brainiacs in charge of scheduling NOT make that the feature game on CBS opening weekend? Auburn week two? Book that as the CBS 3:30 game that might determine the direction both teams will travel. Following the Bama encounter comes a roadie to Kentucky and the Gators in Jacksonville. If Georgia is somehow unbeaten through those first six, you can all but pencil in an unbeaten regular season because the last four are (at) Missouri, Mississippi State, (at) South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

KENTUCKY: Kentucky was thought to be a darkhorse contender for the SEC East title pre-pandemic. After the new schedule, the Wildcats will be fortunate to go 5-5 or 6-4. In addition to (at) Tennessee, Georgia and (at) Florida from the East, the Wildcats picked up an opening weekend road trip to Auburn and they have to play Alabama on the road the weekend before they travel to Gainesville.

LSU: The Tigers only have to play four ranked teams – (at) Florida, (at) Auburn, Alabama and (at) Texas A&M. The rest of the schedule is a dream for a team that lost a bazillion guys to the NFL and has had two or three opt out already. When the schedule was reset, LSU’s two new SEC East opponents were (at) Vanderbilt and Missouri. Win those four against ranked teams and LSU can pencil in a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Mike Leach knew what he was getting into when he bolted Wazzoo for the SEC West so a difficult schedule is no big surprise even with a reset that sends him to Baton Rouge for a season opener with LSU. He’s got to go to Alabama on October 31. The schedule reset added a roadie to Georgia on November 21. The key to a 5-5 or better season will be the difficulty teams have prepping for the Air Raid in a single week. It’s almost a given that even good defenses are going to give up 500 yards. Can the Bulldogs hold opponents to fewer than 500? That’s a question that will have to be answered.

MISSOURI: Someone please send Eli Drinkwitz a copy of Kris Kristofferson’s 1970s hit “Why Me, Lord.” The first three games for the new Mizzou HBC are Alabama, (at) Tennessee and (at) LSU. A winnable homer with Vandy is like a lifeline to offer a glimmer of hope that a winless season can be avoided. The next three are (at) Florida, Kentucky and Georgia. Although the season ends with three games that on paper look winnable if stars and planets align – (at) South Carolina, Arkansas and (at) Mississippi State – by the time Mizzou gets to that point, the Tigers might be as beaten up as any team in the conference. Drinkwitz might win SEC Coach of the Year if he can figure a way to squeeze three wins out of this schedule.

OLE MISS: The schedule opens with the Gators in Oxford followed by a roadie to Kentucky and then big bad Bama in Oxford. Will Lane Kiffin find a way to get under Nick Saban’s skin and make this competitive? The last three games might make break even impossible – (at) Texas A&M, Mississippi State (the Egg Bowl) and (at) LSU. An 0-3 start and an 0-3 finish are entirely possible.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Will Muschamp had to love the way the schedule set up before the reset with four winnable games before the road trip to Florida. Post reset? Lots of speed bumps that could derail a break even season. With the reset the Gamecocks have to play Tennessee and (at) Florida in the first two, then following the obligatory win over Vandy, it’s Auburn, (at) LSU and Texas A&M. Georgia comes to Willie B Stadium Thanksgiving weekend with Kentucky in the finale. It’s going to be very tough to squeeze four wins out of this one.

TENNESSEE: Circle October 10 on the Vols’ schedule. If they can score an upset on the road at Georgia, they have a chance to put a great season together. If the Poodles boat race them, then it’s likely a disaster because Kentucky and Alabama are the next two. Three of the last four are quite losable – Texas A&M, (at) Auburn and following an easy one at Vandy, Florida. The Vols might have been beaten into submission even before the Gators show up on December 5.

TEXAS A&M: Weeks two and three will go a long way toward determining if year three of the Jimbo Fisher Era is going to be special. The Aggies face Bama on the road October 3 and return home the next week to face the Gators. Lose those two and they can forget championship aspirations. The last four will also be a challenge – (at) Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU and (at) Auburn. A 7-3 record might be a serious accomplishment.

VANDERBILT: Five Vanderbilt players including two starting offensive linemen and last year’s leading tackler have opted out. You have to wonder if somehow these five saw the 10-game schedule the SEC handed out to the Commodores. The first two weeks – (at) Texas A&M and LSU in Nashville – are bad enough, but the final three are Florida and Tennessee at home then Georgia on the road. The Commodores also go on the road back-to-back to face Mississippi State and Kentucky. There is a blowtorch aimed directly at Derek Mason’s tush.

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