With the 2019 season behind us, it’s officially time to start talking about 2020 as “this year” as Florida football fans- and college football fans in general. I wait until late in the summer to unveil my in depth game previews in order to watch film on the teams and let the offseason play out a little bit, but here’s an initial, way too early prediction of how Florida’s 2020 season will go.
Game One: Eastern Washington
The Eagles were disappointing last year in the Big Sky, starting the year ranked No. 4 in the FCS before plummeting out of the rankings entirely. Now they lose several key players on both sides of the ball and have some rebuilding to do. Aaron Best is a promising young coach, and dual threat quarterback Eric Barriere could make some plays in the Swamp, but you can pretty much expect this game to play out the way Florida thought it would when they scheduled it. Prediction: Florida 59, Eastern Washington 14
Game Two: Kentucky
Two years ago, Kentucky snapped Florida’s 31 game winning streak in the series with a 27-16 win in the Swamp. Now they’ll return to the scene of the crime and try to do it again. Terry Wilson is expected to be back for the start of the 2020 season, but how effective he’ll be off his knee injury remains to be seen. A tremendous offensive line that returns four of five starters should provide Asim Rose plenty of room to run the ball, but there’s no replacing Lynn Bowden’s production at wide receiver. And though the Wildcats can be expected to have a good defense, they had no answer for Kyle Trask last year. The sum of all that? Expect another nail biter, but this time, the nod goes to Florida and the home team will win this game for the first time since 2016. Prediction: Florida 31, Kentucky 20
Game Three: South Alabama
The Jaguars are in bad shape, really bad shape, for this one. South Alabama’s 2-10 (1-7) record qualified for dead last in the Sun Belt last season, and eight of those losses were by double digits. They promise to be little better this year, which is exactly the kind of setup for payback that Dan Mullen is dreaming of after the Jaguars shocked his Mississippi State team back in 2016. If ever there was a game you could expect to see redshirt players participating in as one of their four allotted games, this is it. Prediction: Florida 55, South Alabama 12
Game Four: @ Tennessee
The cycle for Tennessee fans is becoming quite predictable: bags-over-their-heads despondence as the Vols struggle early in the year, late season hope derived from some November wins over their weakest opponents, and then an offseason of nonstop jabbering. This year, though, could be different. Or so their fans say. The Vols should be all right on offense, with Brian Maurer and Jarrett Guarantano set to battle for the QB job and Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan set to return. But the receiving corps will look completely different without Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. And their defense has its work cut out in terms of replacing star linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor. It probably won’t be the bloodbath we’ve seen the last two years, but Tennessee just doesn’t have the horsepower on either side of the ball to pull off an upset like this. Make it four in a row and fifteen of the last sixteen. Prediction: Florida 37, Tennessee 17
Game Five: South Carolina
It’s Ryan Hilinski’s team for good now with Jake Bentley off to Utah. But he needs more help than his teammates seem capable of delivering to pull off a win like this. A slew of playmakers on both sides of the ball are gone, including Rico Dowdle, Tavien Feaster, Bryan Edwards and Mon Denson on offense, as well as TJ Brunson and JT Ibe on defense. The Gamecocks’ secondary should be good again with Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn both back, but that could be the lone bright spot on a team with so many holes to fill elsewhere. With his job on the line, Will Muschamp is going to need another signature win like the one he got on the road against Georgia last year. He won’t get it here. Prediction: Florida 41, South Carolina 16
Game Six: Louisiana State
Here we go. This is one of four or five games in the SEC that will shape the College Football Playoff picture, and this year the game shifts east back to Gainesville. The Bayou Bengals aren’t going to simply go away just because Joe Burrow, a bunch of his playmakers and Joe Brady are, but the 2019 season seemed to be a perfect storm of success that cannot be replicated. Myles Brennan will make some plays to Ja’Marr Chase, and the Tigers’ defense will hold its own, but Kyle Trask and the Gators will get some payback with a thrilling comeback victory in the Swamp. Florida’s offensive line will have come together at this point, and Dameon Pierce plows into the end zone in the final minute to cap it off. Prediction: Florida 31, LSU 28
Game Seven: @ Mississippi
Flying high after its critical win over LSU, Florida will stumble upon a trap in the Magnolia State. No, there’s no reason that an Ole Miss team with a third of the talent that Florida has should beat the Gators, but it’s those games you don’t expect to lose that can sneak up on you. To Florida, the Mississippi schools have historically been low lying snakes that suddenly leap up and take a chomp out of the Gators, infect them with their venom, watch Florida play its worst game of the season and take advantage. Adding to that, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and new coach Lane Kiffin have personal vendettas against Florida, and the Rebels- who previously play Baylor, Alabama, LSU and Auburn- will be starved for a win to justify the hype of the Lane Train. They’ll get it in a stunning upset that sends Florida to its bye week with a lot of work to do. Prediction: Mississippi 24, Florida 17
Game Eight: vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, FL)
If ever there was a year for Dan Mullen and Florida to overtake Georgia in the SEC East, this is it. Jamie Newman replaces Jake Fromm at the quarterback position, but the Bulldogs have a plethora of playmakers elsewhere to replace on offense. There’s still talent on that side of the ball, because Kirby Smart recruits well enough for there to have to be, but other than George Pickens, Georgia’s entire offense is going to be an unknown. And they may struggle. The Bulldogs’ defense should be strong again, bolstered by the return of safety Richard LeCounte III, so you can expect another low scoring slugfest in Jacksonville where points come at a premium. But this time, an improved Florida offensive line will make the difference, as the Gators finally break Smart’s stranglehold on the rivalry with some late heroics. Kyle Trask tosses the game winner to Trevon Grimes in the waning seconds to book the Gators’ trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Prediction: Florida 20, Georgia 13
Game Nine: @ Vanderbilt
Since the bench clearing brawl in Nashville two years ago, Florida has outscored Vanderbilt 90-6. That could not epitomize the gap between the two programs more, and though Vandy should be a little better in 2020, don’t expect anything drastically different from what we saw over the last six-plus quarters in this series. Whether it’s Deuce Wallace, Mo Hasan, or somebody else taking the snaps for the Commodores, Florida’s got too much firepower for Vandy to hang around. Derek Mason may be coaching for his job, but the Gators will be smelling a College Football Playoff berth and won’t be deterred by the worst team in the SEC East. Prediction: Florida 45, Vanderbilt 17
Game Ten: Missouri
Eliah Drinkwitz may be one of the hottest young offensive minds in the coaching world, but he’s got his work cut out for him in CoMo. The Kelly Bryant experiment didn’t pan out quite like Mizzou fans had hoped, and now they won’t have future NFL tight end Albert Okwuegbunam as a security blanket. Getting Larry Rountree back for his senior season could help a little, and the defense should be a little bit better with a lot of key contributors returning, but by all accounts, Year One of the Drinkwitz Era is likely to be a rebuilding task. These teams take turns obliterating each other for eight quarters at a time, and that pattern will continue in 2020 as Florida replicates its 23-6 win a year ago with an even more lopsided beatdown of the Tigers in the Swamp. Prediction: Florida 31, Missouri 7
Game Eleven: New Mexico State
Rounding out one of the weakest pre-FSU non conference schedules in school history is New Mexico State, an FBS independent that may be even worse than South Alabama. Similarly, as lopsided as the Gators’ 61-13 drubbing of the Aggies was back in 2015, this one could get even bloodier. Expect to see a preview of 2021 with a lot of younger players logging major minutes in a game that’s over midway through the second quarter. There’s good news inbound for both schools, though: playing the role of sacrificial lamb for both UCLA and Florida in the same year should net the Aggies a nice sum of money with which they can improve their facilities, and this is the last year where Florida plays three non conference cupcakes, as the non conference schedule gradually begins to get harder next year. Prediction: Florida 59, New Mexico State 7
Game Twelve: @ Florida State
FSU will be better in Mike Norvell’s first year than they ever were under Willie Taggart. Better coached, with better players, with better mindsets, and with better results. That said: the Seminoles are still nowhere near where they’ll need to be if they want to compete with Florida for the state title and Clemson for the ACC Atlantic title again, even with star wide receiver Tamorrion Terry and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson returning for their senior years. The offensive line remains a major concern, the secondary still has a ways to go and James Blackman is running out of time to prove he’ll ever be good enough to win with. The Noles won’t roll over and play dead, but the Gators are a few years ahead of them and the gap Dan Mullen has created between the schools will become remain evident. Pencil in a third straight rout for the Gators in the series and a second straight in Tallahassee as Florida heads to Atlanta for its long awaited showdown with Alabama. Prediction: Florida 34, FSU 17
Game Thirteen: vs. Alabama (SEC Championship Game- Atlanta, GA)
At long last, the Gators will get their shot at the Crimson Tide, and this time, they’ll be far better prepared for it than the last time they faced them in 2016. But though the talk around college football is that Nick Saban’s dynasty is winding down, Bama is still loaded up for one more title run. Mac Jones may not be Tua Tagovailoa, but he does have an embarrassment of riches on offense to work with, including running back Najee Harris and receivers Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith. And with most of its defensive playmakers returning as well, the Tide should reclaim the SEC West and be right back in the College Football Playoff hunt. The Gators won’t back down, though, and that makes for a clash of the titans in Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. Ultimately, Alabama will pull away, but not before Dan Mullen’s squad does enough to prove to the Selection Committee that it is indeed worthy of becoming the first ever two loss team in the CFP. Prediction: Alabama 38, Florida 34
Postseason outlook: the CFP Committee has set a precedent of not punishing teams for a second loss in a conference title game if that second loss is respectable. Case in point: in 2018, the Committee had 11-2 Georgia ranked No. 5, one spot above 12-1 and Big Ten champ Ohio State after its 35-28 SEC Title Game loss to Alabama. In other words, they viewed Georgia the same as an 11-1 team, and only because Oklahoma picked up a win over a top fifteen team (Texas) in the Big 12 Championship Game that same weekend did the Sooners move past Georgia for the No. 5 spot. Because of all that: if Florida and Alabama enter the SEC Championship Game both ranked in the top four, and the teams play a close game, both will find themselves in the College Football Playoff.
Thus, as of right now, in these way too early predictions, I have Florida sneaking into the CFP as the No. 4 seed to face No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, while No. 2 Clemson draws No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State gets first choice of bowl location, but it’s doubtful that they’d pick the Sugar Bowl given its close proximity to Gainesville (it’s an eight hour drive) and so the two teams would head out west. There, I have Florida’s magical journey ending against a Justin Fields-led Buckeyes team that’s just a step ahead of the Gators in the end.
But the season I’ve predicted at this way too early stage would be, by all accounts, a rousing success for a program that’s suffered through the Muschamp and McElwain fiascos last decade, and it would be a hell of a statement for this program to be able to say that they’re capable of winning more than just non-playoff New Year’s Six games. And most importantly, it would solidify Florida’s place among college football’s elite for years to come.