It's not easy following an innovator like Steve Spurrier. Spurrier has pretty much dominated the SEC for the last decade. He won the SEC East seven of the last ten years and even won a national title. Florida has been one of the premiere programs in the nation after decades of mediocrity. I know they won a few games before Steve got there, but his success in unparalleled in the modern era of Florida pigskin.
Zook will look to piece back together a pretty good group of returnees. Despite the exodus of talent that departed within days of Spurrier's resignation, Zook held on to the crown jewel in Rex Grossman. Grossman, who should have won the Heisman last season, returns for a third season. Rex will not have the hassle of former Gatorade player of the year, Brock Berlin, breathing down his neck. When you couple the transfer of Berlin with the loss of the manipulative rusings of Spurrier, Grossman should be much happier. He will be the straw that stirs the drink. If Grossman is not at the top of his game, it could be a long year for 1st year man Zook.
The second and third teamers return pretty much in tact in the receiving corps. Taylor Jacobs, who has the ability to stretch defenses with ease, should be the target of choice. Carlos Perez played well in spot duty a year ago and will need to be more involved this year. O.J. Small has raised a few eyebrows since all his mentors left town. Small is the stereotypical Gator wide out. Even though the starters are gone from a year ago, there is still some top shelf talent available.
The strongest player on the squad is Earnest Graham. Tackling Graham is like trying to tackle a bowling ball. He has a low center of gravity and he generally does the hitting. He will have to improve on his production from a year ago, but Zook will try to control the clock a little more than his predecessor did. The drop off in experience is huge after Graham. Ran Carthon appears second on the depth chart and will see action, but the tandem the Gators usually challenge with has lost some of its pop.
The offensive line has some huge issues. The good news is that Shannon Snell and Max Starks return as RG and RT. That's where the good news ends. The rest of the depth chart is comprised of underclassman with little or no playing time. This group must come together quickly because Florida plays two top ten teams within the first four weeks of the season.
The defense, which was much improved a year ago, got a boost by the addition of guru John "JT" Thompson. Thompson, who defected from Arkansas, is one of the most feared coordinators in the country. It's only a matter of time before he is a head coach somewhere, but until then he's still the SEC's problem.
Arkansas had a resurgence on defense under Thompson. He took a bunch of junkyard dogs that hadn't played well as a group and made them a very formidable squad very quickly. It's downright scary when you consider the possibilities Thompson has with the pipeline of talent that the Gators always seem to have.
The D-line returns some talent and has two-deep experience. Tron Lafavor returns for his final campaign and should set the tone from his DT spot. If he can get some push with NT Ian Scott, then the defense could be as good as a year ago. Bobby McCray should have a strong season at end.
Mike Nattiel headlines a talented group of linebackers. Nattiel is a vicious tackler who always seems to have a nose for the ball. The knock on Mike has been his ability to get sucked in sometimes. He never takes a play off, but he often gets distracted by battles with his man rather than locating the ball. Byron Hardmon should man the other side down and the middle is up for grabs between Matt Farrior and Reid Fleming.
The secondary will be strong despite the loss of Lito Sheppard. Robert Cromartie returns after being sidelined with a pectoral muscle tear a year ago. Cromartie may be a better coverman than Lito despite not having the flash or speed. Keiwan Ratliff played well when called upon and will hold down the other corner. Todd Johnson returns as the headhunter at free safety. Johnson always seems to be in the right position despite being a little slow of foot.
@ Ole Miss
@ Florida State
Florida has a brutal schedule. Their only home rival game is against the defending national champs, Miami. The UT match-up will be the Gators 1st trip to Knoxville since the infamous phantom TD catch by Jabbar Gaffney. The trip to Oxford will be much hyped as a All-SEC QB showdown, but Florida's defense and Ole Miss' lack of defense should propel the Gators on to a win. The home stretch with LSU, Auburn, and Georgia will determine the Gators bowl pairing. All three of those teams went to a bowl a year ago and all would love to catch the Gators on the chin. The Georgia game should make or break the Gator's SEC East title hunt. The fact that they play in Jacksonville is no consolation to the Gators. They will lose 3 if not all 4 rivalry games. This schedule is much too ambitious for a 1st year coach, but it could not be helped.
Look for the Gator fans to be out in force after the Gators open 2-2. Eight wins seem assured, but who will know how this team will react when faced with some adversity. The coaching staff is new and most of the players are taking on new roles. The Gator dynasty is over. It's just a matter of time before the recruits start getting the news. Florida will still be competitive, but the days of dominance are over. After Grossman leaves, we'll get a better picture of the future of Florida football. Eight wins would be a good season for most programs, but when you usually win 10 games and compete for the national championship year in and year out it seems like a major disappointment. It's all about perception I think.
The Gator fans know that Zook inherited a huge challenge. They know coaches like Spurrier only come around once. They know they've had a great 10-year run. They know they've become the hunted as opposed to the hunter. And if they forget any of this, I am sure their food friends in Knoxville will be happy to remind them!
Until next week,
I John 4:7-8
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is email@example.com.