SUNSHINE STATE 2015 PREVIEW -- By : Tom James
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley plucks an offense-first coach out of the Mountain West Conference to rejuvenate the Gators. Two National Championships were the result of that formula last time with Urban Meyer. So how will it work with Jim McElwain? If Gator fans want instant results, they best tap the brakes. McElwain inherits an offense that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in scoring and passing last year. The glass is less than half empty. But since offense is the first thing McElwain thinks about when he wakes up and the last thing he ponders before shutting his eyes at night, expect that he'll have no more patience than the reptilian faithful to get it fixed. Defense will have to keep the Gators in games again this season, but since Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida State come to the Swamp and neither Alabama nor Auburn are on the schedule, 7-5 is doable.
Florida State Seminoles
They've been hearing it all summer long. "You've been supplanted, Florida State, at the top of the ACC heap by Clemson." ...Replaced atop its pedastal after three straight conference titles before the clock has been wound and the balls even inflated. But, if Florida State has designs on devouring the doubters and making the College Football Playoff again this season, it will have to rely on a rebuilt defense and a restocked offense. With the departures of Jameis Winston and his two best pass catching comrades, Rashad Green and Nick O'Leary, the Seminoles may be leaning hard on recently reinstated running back Dalvin Cook, especially since uncertainty still surrounds the quarterback position. Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson and unproven junior Sean Maguire continue to grapple for the starting job into the final 10 days of the preseason. Whoever gets picked will take snaps behind an offensive line containing four fresh new faces. FSU's previously stone-walling defense took a year off in 2014 and needs emergency resuscitation if the Noles expect to climb back into the nation's top-40 in most key categories. With teeth-clenchers against Louisville, Georgia Tech, and Clemson over a 4-week stretch mid-season, Florida State hopes to have built confidence from a 5-0 start or else things could go sideways and a 4-loss season is plausible.
If you measure it on the degree-of-difficulty scale, Al Golden's mediocre record in four seasons as Miami Head Coach is better than it seems. Even though the "U" has its historic appeal, the recent NCAA investigation has undoubtedly chased lots of top shelf talent away. Still, 28-22 makes this anything but the "Golden" age of Hurricane football...especially when five National Championship banners hang in clear view and a trip to the ACC title game hasn't happened under his watch. If Golden gets anything beyond a 5th year in Coral Gables, it will come from the arm of gunslinging quarterback Brad Kaaya. Last season's ACC Rookie of the Year will have to produce with an offense that lost quality talent to the NFL Draft. The sophomore signal-caller best have his top weapons picked out and tuned up by October when games against FSU, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Duke fall in four consecutive weeks. In meteorological terms, the Canes' cone of uncertainty forecast is wide. But 7-5 may be the best the south peninsula can hope for with what was once a Category-5 strength program, but which now more resembles a tropical depression.
UCF's ascension into the upper echelon of college football may not be complete until it's able to join a Power-5 conference, but the Knights have been able to check several important things off its bucket-list to the big time already, with wins over Alabama, Georgia, Penn State, Top-10 Louisville in 2013, and Baylor in the 2014 (BCS) Fiesta Bowl. A year after star quarterback Blake Bortles was the 3rd overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL Draft, the Knights were still able to win nine games (with three losses coming by a single possession) in a "rebuilding" year. Which brings us to the "reloading" year of 2015... or so UCF hopes. Bortles' QB heir apparent, Junior Justin Holman should now be in full bloom as the leader. A slice in his number of interceptions (14) from a year ago and an increase in completion percentage (56.9) is a must. However, that might not be easy with a young receiving corps. All-AAC runner Will Stanback is key in assuring an offense that can keep opponents guessing. Defense is where the real re-load takes place with seven new starters stepping in to pick up where the country's 5th best defense left off last year. Expectations for non-conference heavyweight opponents Stanford and South Carolina sit on a similar "trust by verify" perch heading into this season. Early wins in one or both of those games could help carve confidence into the UCF psyche and navigate the Knights back to the 10-win world.
Not a winning season since 2010... Nine wins combined the last three years... When Head Coach Willie
Taggart was hired as Head Coach at the University of South Florida in 2013, he put a rebuilding plan in place. And even though prognosticators have generally picked USF to finish again near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference standings, Taggart believes this is the year the Bulls' program begins to rise from the ashes. Why the confidence? South Florida's last two recruiting classes have been among the league's best. Transfers from Wisconsin, UCLA, NC State, and Stanford are on board, as are five new assistant coaches. But the ball and the Bulls' biggest hopes will rest in the hands of running back Marlon Mack. A second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season is very much a possibility for Mack under the team's new up-tempo attack. It's a stylistic change that was needed after USF's sputtering offense was the AAC's 9th best last year. Defensively, Coordinator Tom Allen will introduce a 4-2-5 scheme -- one that he employed during his time at Ole Miss. Despite trips to Florida State and Maryland, the Bulls' schedule is not murderous. In fact, it's workable enough to finally get USF bowl-eligible again. Taggart better hope so or he'll be updating his resume come the holidays.
***Tom is part of the Southern Pigskin Tonight team in North Central Florida. He is Play-by-Play man for
Marion County High School football, does ESPN3 TV and radio Play-by-Play for Florida Gulf Coast University basketball, and has hosted/co-Produced three (3) TV documentaries on FGCU’s Dunk City phenomenon. Tom is a 2-time Edward R. Murrow Award Winner & 2-time NBC-TV Sports Director.