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Matt Baker’s preseason AP Top 25: Florida Gators in top 10, UCF cracks the list

Clemson-Alabama is tricky at the top, but figuring out where Georgia belongs is the easiest choice of all.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen gets ready to run out of the tunnel during the game on September 8, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
Published Aug. 15
Updated Aug. 15

The Florida Gators will start with their highest preseason ranking since 2010.

If other pollsters think like me, that is.

I put UF No. 8 on my preseason AP Top 25 ballot. If my voting colleagues agree, that would be the Gators’ best start to the year since opening 2010 at No. 4.

RELATED: Can Florida Gators jump from very good to great?

The Gators’ defense should be good — maybe better than good. UF has its best receiving corps since the Tim Tebow era plus a strong backfield. But I have too many questions to put UF in the same tier as Oklahoma and Ohio State. Can Feleipe Franks perform at a high level consistently? Can coach Dan Mullen win 11 games? How good will the rebuilt offensive line be? How will a thin secondary withstand the season? I don’t know the answers, but the Gators’ potential put them near the top of my fourth tier.

Tier 1 is obvious: Alabama and Clemson. But what order? I put the Tigers first for a few reasons: Last year’s blowout, the uncertainty that accompanies more coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa and my faith in star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Georgia is in a tier all by itself. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs aren’t in the pantheon with Clemson and the Crimson Tide, but they’ve recruited at a high enough level to separate themselves from the next group. That’s why the first spot I finalized on my ballot was Georgia at No. 3.

Michigan was one of the trickiest teams for me. The Wolverines have the pieces to win the Big Ten (especially with a new coach and talented but unproven quarterback at Ohio State), but I’m still not sold on Jim Harbaugh as an elite, championship-level coach. Ninth felt like the right compromise for now.

Four teams I’m higher on than most

Boise State starts the year in Matt Baker's Top 25. We'll see whether the Broncos stay there... (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

No. 4 LSU: Advanced metrics like the Tigers, and their defense has a chance to be the best in the country.

RELATED: Why Grant Delpit is the next LSU defender Bucs fans should know

No. 10 Auburn: Coach Gus Malzahn calling plays is a plus for me, and both lines should be excellent.

No. 17 Mississippi State: Another advanced metrics favorite, and I feel good about Joe Moorhead with a quarterback he likes.

No. 25 Boise State: Four-year starter Brett Rypien is gone, but 13 starters return from a 10-3 team. I still think the Broncos beat Florida State in the opener in Jacksonville.

Three teams I’m pumping the brakes on

I get why Miami is on some preseason top-25 lists, but I'm not sold yet. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

22. Texas: Advanced metrics have steered me away from the Longhorns, who played down to their competition too much last year.

24. UCF: Repeat after me: Teams rarely lose all-time greats without regressing. I still think the Knights will be among the best in the Group of Five, but I’m skeptical of how they fare without McKenzie Milton. I fear that on the scale of Notre Dame grad transfer quarterbacks, Brandon Wimbush is more Malik Zaire than Everett Golson.

Unranked Miami: I understand why someone might rank the Hurricanes, but I’m not there yet. Too many questions about the offensive line, quarterbacks and first-time head coach Manny Diaz.

Finally, a few quick reminders: This is my best guess of which teams will be best in Week 1, not in January; I’m not trying to predict the future.

Accordingly, I ignore teams’ schedules for these rankings. That’s why Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies start No. 11, even though I doubt they finish there after playing the top four teams in my rankings. I will, however, take strength of schedule into consideration once the games begin.

RELATED: Jimbo Fisher wanted the SEC. Be careful what you wish for

I do not and, under AP guidelines, cannot give any special treatment to teams I cover. There’s no hometown benefit for USF, or UF, or Florida State, or anyone else.

My preseason ballot

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. LSU

5. Oklahoma

6. Ohio State

7. Notre Dame

8. Florida

9. Michigan

10. Auburn

11. Texas A&M

12. Oregon

13. Utah

14.Penn State

15. Wisconsin

16. Washington

17. Mississippi State

18. South Carolina

19. Missouri

20. Iowa

21. Michigan State

22. Texas

23. Iowa State

24. UCF

25. Boise State

Among those also considered (in no particular order): Army, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Miami, Virginia, Northwestern, Stanford, Nebraska, Memphis, Cincinnati, Washington State

RELATED: We ranked every 2019 college football game involving Florida teams

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. In this Jan. 2, 2017, file photo, Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain looks at the action on the field in the first half against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Times
    Coaches hired early in the 2017-18 carousel are 40-38. Coaches hired late: 39-52.
  2. Florida Gators quarterback Kyle Trask runs the ball in for a touchdown during the third quarter against Charleston Southern last season. MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times
    If Kyle Trask gets the first snap, it will be his first start since he was a freshman in high school.
  3. Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. (6) runs through a hole in the line during the first half against Louisville on Sept. 2. TIMOTHY D. EASLEY  |  AP
    More national college football: Jimbo Fisher, meanwhile, should be hyper focused on his quarterback, who hasn’t looked all that spiffy this season. Plus staff predictions.
  4. Tim Tebow. [Associated Press)] Associated Press
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Tom Jones and Rick Stroud debate Tebow, Dickie V, the first-place Bucs and the Rays playoff chase
  5. Notre Dame defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner (55) celebrates a sack of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) during the second half of 2017 game. Georgia defeated Notre Dame 20-19. MICHAEL CONROY  |  AP
    Unlike last week, Saturday’s slate is loaded. Sit back and enjoy. Plus: Times staff predictions.
  6. The Bucs will get their first look at rookie Daniel Jones Sunday when he starts for the New York Giants in a 4:25 p.m. game against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium. FRANK VICTORES  |  AP
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Exploring quarterback changes for the New York Giants, Florida Gators and USF Bulls.
  7. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells to his players in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Brigham Young Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne) WADE PAYNE  |  AP
    The Florida Gators’ next opponent is still stuck on Rocky Bottom thanks to bungled coaching searches.
  8. Tim Tebow answers a question during an interview on the set of ESPN's SEC Network in Charlotte, N.C. Associated Press
    Martin Fennelly: His sanctimonious rant against college athletes being paid is out of line
  9. Jim McElwain, now the Central Michigan coach, endured a rocky tenure as the Florida Gators coach from 2015-2017. He brings his Chippewas to the state to play Miami on Saturday. MORRY GASH  |  AP
    Jim McElwain’s Chippewas will play at Miami. If he had recruited that area better, maybe he’d still be leading the Florida Gators.
  10. Quarterback Kyle Trask (11) winds up to pass during the third quarter of the Orange and Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. TAMPA BAY TIMES
    Could Trask-Jones be the next Chris Leak-Tim Tebow? “We’ll see,” Dan Mullen says.
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