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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.
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, 2019
Updated Aug. 15, 2019

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. Auburn center Austin Wiley guards Florida forward Omar Payne during the first half of their game on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Gainesville. Payne, a freshman out of Montverde Academy, finishes with a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds for his first double double in college. [MATT STAMEY  |  AP]
    Freshman Omar Payne has a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds as UF earns its most impressive victory of the season.
  2. Florida's Keyontae Johnson, shown here scoring against Arkansas in last season's SEC tournament, is averaging 13 points and 6.8 rebounds this season. [MARK HUMPHREY  |  AP]
    UF looks for an elite win Saturday at home, where it has won five in row, to help strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume.
  3. Florida guard Andrew Nembhard shoots over Mississippi guard Devontae Shuler during their game Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in Gainesville. [BRAD MCCLENNY  |  AP]
    Coach Mike White says his point guard missed practice Thursday and Friday. If he’s out, freshmen Tre Mann or Ques Glover likely will start Saturday.
  4. Todd Monken spent two seasons in Tampa Bay, the last as offensive coordinator, before being dismissed along with the rest of head coach Dirk Koetter's staff after the 2018 season.
    Tampa Bay’s former play-caller will be designing game plans for the Bulldogs against the Florida Gators next season.
  5. Florida Gators wide receiver Antonio Callaway (81) runs the ball during the Outback Bowl in January at Raymond James Stadium. (Times file)
    Antonio Callaway was a talented but troubled player for the Gators who didn’t last two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
  6. Florida receiver Josh Hammond (18) on the field during practice for the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field on Monday. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Plus Plant High product Jake Fruhmorgen’s journey from Clemson to UF to Baylor to the East-West Shrine Game.
  7. From left, Florida's Andrew Nembhard, Kerry Blackshear and Noah Locke are key parts of a team that has had its ups and downs this season. Tuesday's rout of Mississippi gets the Gators back on track. [WILFREDO LEE  |  AP]
    UF rebounds from a bad loss in Missouri with a big home victory.
  8. Florida Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) gets emotional after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against Miami in the season opener. [ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times]
    The Florida Gators finished about where I thought. But about Willie Taggart’s job security ...
  9. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow holds the trophy after their win against Clemson in a NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans. LSU won 42-25. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) [DAVID J. PHILLIP  |  AP]
    The Heisman Trophy winner becomes the first Division I-A quarterback to throw 60 touchdowns in a season.
  10. LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss celebrates after scoring during the first half of Monday night's national championship game against Clemson in New Orleans. [DAVID J. PHILLIP  |  AP]
    LSU, of course, finished No. 1. But where did Matt Baker put the Florida Gators and UCF Knights?
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