Ranking the Gators’ home games

The Florida home schedule has many intriguing games this year with two rivalries.

All eyes will be on Florida’s rivalry games with Florida State and Tennessee, but the home schedule is much deeper than just those two. Ole Miss will be highly ranked this season, and East Carolina provides an uncharacteristic challenge for the Gators in the first two weeks of the year. Vanderbilt should be improved defensively while non-conference games against Florida Atlantic and New Mexico State should give the Gators comfortable wins.

Here’s how the Florida home games rank by difficulty:

7. New Mexico State (September 5): The Aggies ran an up-tempo offense last year, but offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon is now gone. They will have a quarterback battle after last year’s starter, Tyler Rogers, threw 23 interceptions last season.

The Aggies return 10 starters on a defensive unit that should improve this year, but whether or not that will be good news is up in the air. New Mexico State was last in the country in rush defense, allowing 309.9 yards per game. It won’t be a great test for a young Florida offensive line, but it will be a chance to get the running game going before the schedule gets tougher.

6. Florida Atlantic (November 21): The Owls bring back four offensive linemen in 2015 to go along with quarterback Jaquez Johnson, who was 21st in the country last season for quarterbacks with 46.6 rushing yards per game. The top receiver from last year graduated, leaving a hole in the passing game.

While only 23 sacks last season, the pass rush has to improve for Florida Atlantic to have a good year. That’s good news for an inexperienced, thin Florida offensive line. The Owls struggled against the run in 2014 and lost their starting middle linebacker, which could create problems in that area again. D’Joun Smith is a talented cornerback that could cause issues for the opponent’s best receiver.

5. Vanderbilt (November 7): There weren’t many bright spots for the Commodores on offense last year, and it’s hard to imagine that changing in one season. The lone point of optimism came with Gainesville native and freshman running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for 907 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the season. With questions at quarterback again for Vanderbilt, the bulk of the offense will likely run through him again in what will be a homecoming on November 7.

It would make sense for the defense to improve during the second year under head coach Derek Mason, the former defensive coordinator at Stanford. Nine of the 11 starters from last year’s team return to the defense.

4. East Carolina (September 12): Quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy both played the final games of their college career in a Birmingham Bowl loss to Florida, and the Pirates have to start over on offense without two of the best players in school history. Kurt Benkert served as the backup quarterback last year, but with a new offensive coordinator following Lincoln Riley’s departure to Oklahoma, we’ll see how much familiarity with last year’s team means.

The Pirates weren’t strong on defense in last year’s Birmingham Bowl against Florida, and they lost six starters from that group. East Carolina will be a bigger name in the first two weeks than the Gators usually face at the beginning of the year, but it should also provide a chance for Florida to move the ball against a defense that shouldn’t be dominant.

3. Tennessee (September 26): The Volunteers have been the hot team this offseason that’s gaining steam. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has a lot to do with that. His breakout late in the season sparked Tennessee. The Volunteers have plenty of talent at receiver with Pig Howard, Josh Malone, Marquez North and Von Pearson. Add in Jalen Hurd heading into his sophomore year, and Tennessee is set for a big year on offense.

The headliner on defense is Derek Barnett, who could be the best overall player on the team following a strong freshman campaign. Linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Curt Maggitt are important parts of the defense while Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph lead an improved secondary. The Volunteers haven’t beaten the Gators since 2004, but this could be the year that the rivalry turns.

2. Ole Miss (October 3): Hugh Freeze’s team will come to The Swamp with one of the most feared receivers in the country. Laquon Treadwell broke his leg last year but is expected to be fine for the fall. The Rebels have to find a quarterback, but his job will be made easier by trusted playmakers like tight end Evan Enram and a star left tackle in Laremy Tunsil.

The defense is led by defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, another highly-touted prospect for the 2016 NFL Draft. Safety Tony Conner is an important part of the secondary while teaming up with Mike Hilton for one of the best safety combinations in the SEC. The Rebels are set for another strong year and will set up a difficult back-to-back weeks with Tennesse and Ole Miss.

1. Florida State (November 28): The Seminoles lost a lot from last year’s team, but this will still be a tough one for Florida. I went back and forth between this one and Ole Miss for the top spot, but the Seminoles’ young players should be much improved late in the year, giving them a slight edge as Florida’s hardest home opponents. The questions begin at quarterback where there’s a battle to replace Jameis Winston, but Dalvin Cook should lead the team in rushing. The Seminoles also have talented young receivers in Travis Rudolph and Jesus Wilson.

On defense, Jalen Ramsey will cure a lot of potential issues in the secondary with his versatility and All-American talent. The Seminoles are thin at linebacker and will lean heavily on Terrance Smith and Matthew Thomas while waiting to see how much they can get from Reggie Northrup, who tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl. The defensive line will have to replace Mario Edwards, Jr. and Eddie Goldman, leaning on some experienced players at defensive tackle. The Seminoles will trust Chris Casher and Demarcus Walker to get after the quarterback.

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