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Thursday, February 02, 2023

Yes, the time has come to make a prediction.

The Florida Gators are blessed only four true road trips and will host seven home games in 2018. With one of the SEC’s most favorable schedules, UF could maybe make a run at 10 wins despite not having a clear-cut favorite to play quarterback.

I have Florida finishing at 8-4. If the Gators can reach this mark, that’ll be rather positive. However, it’s not going to be pretty getting there.

Despite being just a couple weeks into fall camp, it already appears it’ll be a tough season for the Gators offensively during their first season under coach Dan Mullen.

Co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Bill Gonzales said after five days of camp that the retention level for the team needs to get better.

Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson and Mullen have both voiced high hopes for what redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask and freshman Emory Jones can do after playing a full season in the new system, but they also expressed 2018 will be a work in progress for the signal callers.

UF needs to rely on its rushing attack. The talented backfield is led by senior Jordan Scarlett, who’s returning from a suspension spanning the 2017 campaign. But success in the running game will be determined by the play of the offensive line, a unit that struggled the previous three seasons under Jim McElwain.

Luckily for Florida, a cushy schedule should allow the starting quarterback, whoever that may be, to ease into Mullen’s system.

UF will play only one Power Five team in its non-conference slate: Florida State in Tallahassee for the final game of the season.

Home games against Charleston Southern on Sept. 1, Colorado State on Sept. 15 and Idaho on Nov. 17 should be easy wins, as the Gators have much superior athletes.

The matchup against the Seminoles on Nov. 24 should be close since FSU will also be under a new coach in Willie Taggart. However, quarterbacks Deondre Francois and James Blackman and sophomore running back Cam Akers are three of the best in the country at their positions, and they’ll make this the Gators’ toughest road game of the season. They’re talents superior to anyone on Florida, so Florida State should win this matchup.

It’s always nice for Florida when it doesn’t have to play Auburn or Alabama in the regular, but its sun shines even brighter in Gainesville when they avoid both in addition to Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M.

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The three most difficult SEC matchups for UF: at Mississippi State on Sept. 29, at home against LSU on Oct. 6, in Jacksonville against Georgia on Oct. 27.

I think the Gators drop all three.

Yes, Mullen coached Mississippi State for nine years and knows them inside and out. However, the Bulldogs, unlike Florida, have an established quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, who gets to welcome his former coach back to Starkville. Advantage MSU.

The October matchup with the Tigers is more of a toss up. LSU comes off a two-game homestand while UF returns home after two-straight road trips. Both teams will focus on running the ball and playing physical defense. I just think LSU will be the more fresh side, physically.

The World’s Largest Cocktail Party will be all Georgia once again. Led by returning starting quarterback Jake Fromm, the reigning SEC champs also boast one of the SEC’s easiest schedules and should come into Jacksonville heavily favored. The Bulldogs win big despite the Gators coming off their bye week.

If Mullen’s squad can pull of victory in one of the above games, it would show quite the progression for the young team.

But matchups at Tennessee on Sept. 22, at Vanderbilt on Oct. 13 and at home against Missouri on Nov. 3 should be ones where UF is favored.

Watch out for Kentucky and South Carolina.

A Week 2 collision with the Wildcats will not be easy. UF barely escaped with a win in Lexington a season ago to maintain its 31-game win streak over Kentucky, the longest active win streak over one opponent in college football. UK enters its sixth season under Mark Stoops. A victory over the Gators could launch Kentucky into a new era, and a loss could put Stoops in danger of being fired.

South Carolina and former UF coach Will Muschamp won’t travel to Gainesville until Nov. 10. The Gamecocks put up 245 rushing yards on a banged-up Florida side last season. Quarterback Jake Bentley threw three picks in the 28-20 win. However, look for a better performance from the junior quarterback this year.  

UF should be preseason favorites in both of these games, and I think they’ll take both. The streak over UK will move to 32, and Gators narrowly defeat South Carolina by three points or less.

Mark Stine is a sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter @mstinejr or contact him at mstine@alligator.org.

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