The 2021 Florida Gators football season could not possibly have ended soon enough. Now that it’s officially, mercifully over, it’s time to look ahead to the 2022 Florida Gators!
For Florida, the schedule is a unique one. Reigning Pac-12 champ Utah comes to town to start the season- that’s a first on several different levels- and the Gators only leave the state once in the first two months of the season before playing on the road in three of their final four games of the year.
So, what’s going to happen?
Note that I’ll do another round of these predictions in the spring, and a final one in the summer- so obviously these are subject to change. But with that said, here are my way-too-early projections for the 2022 Florida Gators squad.
Game 1: Utah
This one could be bad. Very, very bad. Utah QB Cam Rising, leading receiver Brant Kuithe (actually a tight end), and leading rusher Tavion Thomas- each of which were 2021 All-Pac-12 selections- are all coming back. Utah’s defense will lose a few pieces, such as leading sack artist Mika Tafua, but there’s still enough talent returning from the 13th best defense in the nation to believe that a new-look Florida offense will have trouble. Anthony Richardson is always bound to make some plays, and maybe Florida’s defense will grow leaps and bounds by September, but at this way-too-early juncture, even in the Swamp, this feels like a loss. Projection: Utah 34, Florida 23 (Record: 0-1, 0-0 SEC)
Game 2: Kentucky
The Wildcats seem to have hit their peak under Mark Stoops, and yet he keeps coming back for more. Kentucky boasts the 26th ranked defense in the country (pending its bowl game) and though Jaquez Jones, DeAndre Square and Josh Paschal will be gone, pretty much every other piece of that defense will be back. Assuming leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and leading rusher Chris Rodriguez come back (they’re both juniors), QB Will Levis will again have plenty of playmakers to work with. Florida still should win because of Richardson’s playmaking ability, but this is a tossup. I’ll give the Gators this one due to their home field advantage, but it’s a prediction I make with about 55% confidence. Projection: Florida 31, Kentucky 28 (Record: 1-1, 1-0 SEC)
Game 3: South Florida
You know the schedule is weird when Florida’s first cupcake opponent comes in the third game of the year. Yes, USF played UCF tougher down the stretch than Florida did, but the Bulls realistically have no chance in this one. The talent gap is just so overwhelmingly tilted in Florida’s favor. USF went 2-10 and 1-7 in the AAC this year and promises to be only slightly better next year. Look for new faces to shine and youngsters to break out in the first feel-good win of the year. Projection: Florida 63, South Florida 10 (Record: 2-1, 1-0 SEC)
Game 4: at Tennessee
Don’t be fooled by the Vols’ 7-5 record this year, or their suspiciously weak statistics. Four of those losses came to teams that reached New Year’s Six Bowl games, and two of those came to teams in the College Football Playoff. And the other one came to Florida, who continued its quadrennial tradition of dominating Tennessee amidst losing seasons that eventually got its coach fired with a 38-14 smackdown of the Vols in Gainesville. It feels like Florida can only keep getting away with hammering superior Tennessee teams so many times, though. With QB Hendon Hooker and his top target Cedric Tillman both coming back against a Gator defense that’s going to still be in the construction phase, plus this game being played in front of what’s sure to be a sold-out crowd on Rocky Top, the Vols will win in a shootout- and will finally have new meme material to use in place of Jauan Jennings beating Teez Tabor. Projection: Tennessee 41, Florida 37 (Record: 2-2, 1-1 SEC)
Game 5: Eastern Washington
After what I’m projecting to be a rough loss on Rocky Top, the Gators will return home and unleash their frustrations. Eastern Washington is by no means a joke- they’re one of the better teams in the FCS- but Florida will be playing with steam coming out of its ears as Billy Napier lights into his team and challenges them to prove they belong after two tough September losses. Natural talent will take its toll, and the Gators get back into the win column with ease. Bonus projection: this is the game where I expect both Demarckus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard to really break out and finally give the Gators a taste of what they’ve been looking for. Projection: Florida 49, Eastern Washington 17 (Record: 3-2, 1-1 SEC)
Game 6: Missouri
Payback time against the Tigers. Connor Bazelak headed to the transfer portal means the job is Brady Cook’s, and he’ll face Florida to conclude a three-week gauntlet that begins with Auburn and Georgia. Yes, we all know that Mizzou beat Florida, but the balance of the Tigers’ 2021 season was awful: they barely hung on to beat arguably the worst Vanderbilt team of all time, they lost to Boston College, they got humiliated 62-24 by Tennessee, and to cap it all off, they lost to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl. There’s little to point to statistically that Mizzou did well this year, and though you have to assume they’ll at least be somewhat better in 2022 due to continuity, the Gators should be feeling themselves find their groove by this point. The force will be with the Gators in this one, who will blow Missouri out of the stadium in embarrassing fashion. Projection: Florida 55, Missouri 14 (Record: 4-2, 2-1 SEC)
Game 7: LSU
Payback time against the Tigers, part II. Like the previous set of Tigers, LSU will also have a new QB after Max Johnson heads to Texas A&M. The major difference, though, is that LSU is quantifiably more talented than Missouri- so much so that half their starting lineup against Florida in each of the last two seasons was filled with backups and they beat the Gators both times anyway. The team that Ed Orgeron left for Brian Kelly is undoubtedly littered with some of the best athletes in the country, but this is where Billy Napier will make the difference. His Gators will be not only motivated, but ready to play (two very different things). With the Swamp crowd roaring, Richardson and an ever-improving offensive line will lead Florida to the upset over an objectively better LSU team- and with Georgia still lurking and a trip to Atlanta still on the line, the Gators will somehow launch themselves into the back row of the College Football Playoff discussion despite two early losses. Projection: Florida 30, LSU 24 (Record: 5-2, 3-1 SEC)
Game 8: Georgia
The Bulldogs showed plenty of cracks on offense this season (most notably Stetson Bennett IV being glaringly average), and now their defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is off to Oregon. But Georgia will still be the dominant favorites in the SEC East thanks to an offensive line that seldom misses a beat and a defense that only Alabama can crack. If Florida was a year into the Billy Napier rebuild already, I’d feel a lot better about the Gators’ chances than I do in year one, with so much work still to do. Whether it’s JT Daniels or Bennett at the controls, the prognosis for this one remains pretty much the same. Richardson will give the Gators a puncher’s chance, and Florida’s defense will make some plays, but the Bulldogs will ride its offensive line to an eight minute drive in the fourth quarter that salts the game away and effectively ends Florida’s outside hopes of a CFP berth. Projection: Georgia 20, Florida 17 (Record: 5-3, 3-2 SEC)
Game 9: at Texas A&M
For all the grumblings about having to play Texas A&M on the road three times since 2012 when Georgia has never, and I repeat NEVER, been to College Station before, this is probably the most fortuitous situation Florida could face against them. Zach Calzada, the QB who engineered the Aggies’ upset over Alabama, has departed, and in comes Max Johnson. But all sorts of playmakers will have to be replaced, including tight end Jalen Wydermyer, leading rusher Isaiah Spiller, (likely) leading receiver Ainias Smith, almost the entire defensive front (including DeMarvin Leal and Tyree Johnson) and leading tackler Aaron Hansford. So this will be a rebuilding season, and even with the way the Aggies recruit, it’s hard to see them as a true CFP contender. Still: this is a road game against a team with loads of natural talent everywhere you look, and in year one of the Billy Napier rebuild, that’s advantage Aggies. Florida’s defense will play well, but a critical late blown assignment from the secondary- which I’ll also predict will be very rare in 2022- will prove costly in a gut-wrenching loss. Projection: Texas A&M 34, Florida 31 (Record: 5-4, 3-3 SEC)
Game 10: South Carolina
South Carolina is a weird team to try to evaluate. Do I base my analysis of them on the potential they showed during their victories over Florida and Auburn, or do I throw those games out as anomalies and point to the fact that the Gamecocks only scored more than 21 points against two of their eleven FBS opponents? For an idea of just how low their low points of 2021 were, the Gamecocks barely survived Vanderbilt, 21-20, got humiliated 30-0 by a down Clemson team and got wrecked 44-14 by a plainly average Texas A&M team. Shane Beamer did a remarkable job getting this team to bowl eligibility given the disaster Will Muschamp left him, but against a Florida team that’s going to be looking to salvage something from a season that looked so promising after its upset of LSU, his team is going to run into a buzz-saw. Florida rolls in its home finale as Richardson has a career day and the defense atones for the previous week’s letdown. Projection: Florida 38, South Carolina 20 (Record: 6-4, 4-3 SEC)
Game 11: at Vanderbilt
Nothing like the old-fashioned cupcake game the week before FSU, right? Vanderbilt actually did show some strides late in the season by playing South Carolina, Missouri, and Mississippi respectably close, and they may even pick off a more talented team next year. But there’s still no way to justify picking one of the five worst teams in the entire FBS (jostling with Colorado State, Massachusetts, South Florida and Duke for that distinction) to beat Florida. It probably won’t come in an all-time lopsided fashion given that Florida is going to be gearing up for a much more meaningful game the following week, but the Gators shouldn’t have any trouble putting this game away. Richardson’s day is done by halftime as Bowman and Lingard go hogwild for over 400 yards combined in a snoozer. Projection: Florida 41, Vanderbilt 7 (Record: 7-4, 5-3 SEC)
Game 12: at FSU
There’s no possible way that FSU will continue to be as laughably inept as they were in Mike Norvell’s first two seasons. It’s simply not reasonable to believe that. And yet: QB Jordan Travis is extremely limited as a passer, the Noles were atrocious on the offensive line for the fourth year in a row and the defense, save for a tremendous season by the now-departed Jermaine Johnson, was nowhere close to where this proud program expects it to be. It’s certainly admirable how the Seminoles stuck together and got to 5-7 after starting 0-4, but this program needs a massive amount of talent to be transplanted into their roster to be much better than they were in their 5-3 finish to the year in 2022. The Gators still won’t be anywhere close to where Billy Napier wants them to be, but the offensive line will have improved enough by this point to give Richardson time to pick up where he left off conquering the Seminoles’ defense, and FSU just won’t have an answer. Projection: Florida 31, FSU 17 (Record: 8-4, 5-3 SEC)
Bowl projection: Outback Bowl vs. Iowa
Overall outlook: Anything more than six wins has to be considered an improvement for Florida, but what I’m more looking at is how the team looks in all twelve games. I truly think the first month of the season will be ugly, but then the team will slowly start to improve as it gets more and more live game reps and slowly builds trust with Billy Napier & Co. Florida’s not going to be winning any titles of value in 2022, but what the season should do is serve as a bridge- or more accurately, an escalator- toward the level that Billy Napier wants to have this team playing at.