No one expects Florida to run the table this year, especially not when it leaves Gainesville. The Gators have five difficult conference games this year that won’t be played in The Swamp, facing off against Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina.
Here’s how they rank in difficulty:
5. Kentucky (September 19): Putting this game last doesn’t mean it’s a guaranteed win for Florida. The Gators stretched their streak to 28 straight wins over Kentucky last season. This isn’t a lock for Florida, but it does match up about as well as the Gators could hope this season. Kentucky wants to air it out with quarterback Patrick Towles, and the Gators have a secondary that is one of the deepest in the league.
The Wildcats also lost pass rushers Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, both who could have been nightmares for a thin, young Florida offensive line, but junior defensive end Jason Hatcher will be a problem for the Gators. Mark Stoops continues to better the roster in Lexington, and this game could turn into a test for Florida during the third game of the season.
4. South Carolina (November 14): This game is usually in the top three during odd years for Florida, but the Gamecocks aren’t as talented as they have been in recent years. They’ll have an unproven quarterback under center, likely Connor Mitch, who served as the backup last year and threw just six passes. There isn’t a running back that will scare opposing defenses like Mike Davis or Marcus Lattimore, but Pharoh Cooper is a difference maker at receiver.
The Gamecocks were torched on defense last year and Steve Spurrier hired old friend Jon Hoke as the new defensive coordinator. South Carolina recorded just 14 sacks last the season and had a porous secondary. It would be hard for the defense to be worse, but there’s also a question of how much better it can realistically get. Williams Brice Stadium is always a loud environment and that’s especially the case when Florida comes to town.
3. Missouri (October 10): Florida makes its second trip to Columbia since the Tigers joined the SEC. It’s hard to know what Missouri will look like on any Saturday because it usually depends on up-and-down quarterback Maty Mauk. When Mauk is on, the Tigers can beat anyone. When he’s not, they still find ways to win games, but it’s not as easy. Running back Russell Hansbrough’s return will help take some of the heat of Mauk.
Missouri will have to replace star defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, both who created plenty of havoc for the Gators in Gainesville last season. Gary Pinkel’s team still brings back plenty of talent on defense, but this unit might not reach the pass rush numbers last year’s group produced.
2. LSU (October 17): The story of the Tigers in 2015 is going to be familiar to others. If LSU finds a quarterback, it will be one of the best teams in the country. Whether it’s Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings, the Tigers have skill players around them to ease the load. Sophomore running back Leonard Fournette will be a Heisman Trophy candidate and receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre can be two elite playmakers if someone can get them the ball.
On defense, the Tigers have a loaded secondary with safeties Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills while Tre’Davious White serves as a shutdown cornerback. Inexperience on the defensive line in 2015 has turned into a deep group this year, especially at defensive tackle. Playing in Baton Rouge is always a test for the Gators, who have only won one of their last five games at LSU, and this year will be no different.
1. Georgia (October 31): The Bulldogs will be led by running back Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,547 yards as a true freshman despite serving as Todd Gurley’s backup for almost half the season. Georgia has to find a quarterback between Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta, and returning receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie will ease the load on the eventual starter. Bringing back four starters on the offensive line should also help.
The Bulldogs saw a big boost when pass rushers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins decided return for their fourth year. The defensive line lost some important pieces, but senior Josh Dawson will be counted on to improve. Georgia also returns most important pieces from last year’s secondary.