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Gators’ 2021 season hinges on their defense, not offense

Don’t expect a return to the Muschamp or McElwain days. But if UF is going to win big this year, defense will be the reason why.
Florida's Zachary Carter, a Hillsborough High alumnus, will try to lead the Gators' defensive rebound in 2021.
Florida's Zachary Carter, a Hillsborough High alumnus, will try to lead the Gators' defensive rebound in 2021. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]
Published Jul. 19

HOOVER, Ala. — Take your pick of preseason projections and magazines, and you’ll find a common theme: Georgia is picked ahead of defending SEC East champion Florida in the division. The Bulldogs are expected to be College Football Playoff contenders, while the Gators are poised to take a step back.

“Didn’t they say that last year?” UF coach Dan Mullen asked Monday.

Not really. UF was picked to win the East in last year’s preseason media projections.

But if the Gators are going to avoid a regression and have a chance of defending their division title, they’ll have to do so differently than the way they did it in 2020. They’ll have to win with defense.

Related: Dan Mullen on Miami name, image and likeness deal: ‘Is that legal?’

Not exclusively, of course. If UF is stuck in the kind of unwatchable 9-7 games that defined the Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp days, something has gone terribly wrong.

It is, however, fair to assume that Mullen’s offense won’t be as dynamic as it was during last year’s record-breaking season.

Kyle Trask set school records in passing touchdowns (34), yards per game (356.9) and efficiency (180.02), which is why the Bucs drafted him as the potential long-term successor to Tom Brady. Teams rarely lose quarterbacks of that caliber without slipping at least slightly the next year. UF went from 13-1 to the Outback Bowl the year after Tim Tebow. Florida State fell from the College Football Playoff to 10-3 after the Bucs drafted Jameis Winston. USF dropped from 10 wins to seven without Quinton Flowers.

Kyle Trask is with the Bucs now, not the Gators.
Kyle Trask is with the Bucs now, not the Gators. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

UF’s other offensive departures are significant, too, including top-20 picks Kyle Pitts (one of the biggest mismatches in recent history) and Kadarius Toney.

“If you look at it, there’s a lot to replace,” Mullen said, “or there’s a lot of excitement that guys get to go replace that and have been waiting for their opportunity to go do that.”

That’s the kind of talking-season spin you expect from SEC media days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham. And it’s partially justified, given Mullen’s two-decade history of producing high-level offenses.

But realistically, UF’s offense is due for a step back, however small. Which means the defense will have to make up for it.

The good news for the Gators is that there’s nowhere to go but up after their 2020 defense was one of their worst since World War II. Mullen was defensive about it Monday, attributing some of the issues to the high-risk, high-reward way opponents had to play to keep up with UF’s elite offense and the steep learning curve caused by the lack of spring ball. But the numbers — 30.8 points per game allowed, No. 98 nationally on fourth down — are indefensible.

Related: Why the Gators think their historically bad defense will improve

“We know last year where we left off is not where we want to be,” defensive lineman Zachary Carter said.

The Gators also know that, unlike the offense, the defense is defined by what returned, not what must be replaced.

Carter, Brenton Cox and Ventrell Miller all turned down potential NFL opportunities for another season at UF. Kaiir Elam will be one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, if not the nation.

Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter turned down a shot at the NFL to play another season at Florida.
Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter turned down a shot at the NFL to play another season at Florida. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]

Transfers Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) should beef up the interior line, while new secondary coaches Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar can fix a secondary that gave up the most passing touchdowns in program history despite having a pair of draft picks.

“Definitely the defense is coming along,” Miller said. “... We plan on shutting people out this year.”

Shutouts shouldn’t be necessary, but some tangible signs of progress will be if the Gators are finally going to make the leap from good to great.

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