2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Florida Gators

(If this article looks familiar, that’s because it’s a slightly modified version of the preview that first appeared in our digital magazine. For those who have already read the magazine, thank you!)

The Florida Gators enter 2023 looking to rebound from a disappointing 6-7 season that included losses to all of their rivals, the first loss to Vanderbilt since 2013, and a bowl loss in which UF kicked a FG down 30 points in the fourth quarter to preserve a streak of not getting shut out. Granted, it was only year one for new HC Billy Napier, but he inherited Anthony Richardson (who apparently was a first-round NFL draft pick), and Florida didn’t require a complete rebuild.

In 2021, the Gators finished the season 6-7 against a difficult schedule, and Dan Mullen was let go. However, in the three years prior to the 2021 season, Florida had gone 29-9, finished top 10 in the final CFP poll all three years, and won an SEC East division title. They had five top 15 recruiting classes (with 2 in the top 10) five years before the coaching change. That left Napier with a 60% Blue-Chip ratio in year one, and he had 13 returning starters. It’s a lot like the “do less with more” story we talked about with Mario Cristobal at Miami, except Florida had a far more difficult schedule to navigate, facing six ranked teams last season.

Personally, I don’t think Napier is a bad coach, and what he did at Louisiana was impressive. He inherited a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons and, after a .500 record in year one, went 34-5 over the next three seasons. Of course, winning at the Power 5 level is a different animal. They opened with a big home win against Utah by stopping the Utes from scoring on a last-second drive to win the game. Two games later, they escaped losing to a 1-11 South Florida team in the swamp as the Bulls botched a late FG attempt allowing UF to win by 2. They did play Tennessee, LSU, and Florida State close, but in the end, they only beat two FBS teams with a winning record. (Utah and South Carolina)

The good news for Florida is despite the rough start; they still have a top 5 recruiting class at the moment. The bad news for Florida is they have the hardest schedule in the country in 2023, and 2024 doesn’t get much easier. The Gators could very well have two more long years ahead.

Florida is tricky to evaluate after losing 26 players to the portal, 6 to the NFL draft, and even more through attrition. The roster will look almost entirely different for 2023. According to the transfer portal tracker, Florida has added 12 transfers to help fill the gaps.

Napier had a run-heavy offense at Louisiana, keeping the ball on the ground around 57% of the time. He followed suit at Florida last year, running it 55% of the time, and UF finished with a top-25 rushing offense. While Florida has two quality backs, it didn’t hurt that Anthony Richardson was a gifted runner from the QB position and added 654 yards on the ground.

However, the passing offense wasn’t as successful, finishing the season ranked 77th. Richardson was inconsistent as a passer, to say the least. He threw for less than 200 yards in 7 of their 12 games but 400 or more in 2 games (UF lost both). Anthony Richardson was a big part of their offense, but he won’t return in 2023. The only returning QB that recorded a snap for the Gators last season is Jack Miller III (56.7 PFF). Miller’s only appearance of the season was in the bowl game, where he went 13/22 (59.1%) for 180 yards (8.2 YPA) with 0 TD/INT.

Florida went to the portal but landed a rather interesting choice at QB in Graham Mertz (75.3 PFF) from Wisconsin. Mertz may be the perfect fit to hand the ball off in a run-heavy offense like Florida’s. Last year Wisconsin’s pass percentage ranked 113th, and Mertz’s 287 passing attempts were 81st out of 93 QBs with at least 300 dropbacks. (Mertz had 328) Furthermore, over half (50.5%) of his pass attempts were under 10 yards. His 7.4 YPA ranked 56th of the 93 QBs, and for comparison, Jordan Travis was ranked 5th at 9.1 YPA. I will point out that his deep passing stats (20+) aren’t bad, but we’ll have to see if he can consistently push the ball down the field.

Mertz has a lot of game experience, with 32 career starts in the Big Ten, but 2022 was his first season topping the 2,000-yard mark through the air. (2,136 yards) He has a sub-60 % career completion percentage as a starter and has thrown 26 Interceptions to 38 touchdowns in those 32 starts. His stat sheet certainly doesn’t blow you away. He may get more opportunities to throw at Florida, but this feels like a game-manager situation that will rely heavily on the run game.

The issue for Florida is that you lose Richardson’s run threat but don’t add more of a passing threat to make up for it. Mertz is nowhere close to Richardson as a runner, only topping 100 yards in one of the last four seasons. Richardson’s mobility also allowed him to avoid sacks. His pressure-to-sack ratio in 2022 was 9.2% compared to Mertz at 22.3%.

I’m not saying that Mertz is a terrible QB. I’m saying he’s unlikely to give Florida more production than they got from Richardson last year. While Anthony Richardson was far from perfect as a quarterback, you at least had to respect his dual-threat ability and arm strength. If I were a defensive coordinator, I’d load the box and make Mertz beat me through the air. This is one of the biggest reasons I have Florida struggling again.

The other issue for Florida this year is a lack of dynamic receivers. They lost 45.3% of their receiving yards from a year ago, and another 6% (TE Keon Zipperer) got injured in the spring. Florida’s top target Ricky Pearsall (80.3 PFF), is back after leading the team in yards (661) and touchdowns (5). However, their #2 (Justin Shorter), #3 (Xzavier Henderson), and #4 (Daejon Reynolds) are all gone. If Zipperer can’t return, that also means #5 is gone for 2023 as well. Pearsall is the only returning player that topped 200 receiving yards last season. Florida has a few talented freshmen that could emerge to give the group some depth. There’s just not a lot of proven production coming back for 2023.

Looking at the portal database, Florida did not take a receiver or tight end, so what you see is what you get. When you combine their pedestrian receiving core with Mertz at QB, the passing offense doesn’t exactly scare you.

With what we just discussed, it will be no surprise that UF will lean heavily on the run as they bring back two high-quality backs to hand the ball off to. Montrell Johnson Jr (75.9 PFF), who followed Napier from Louisiana, led with 841 yards (5.43 YPC) and 10 touchdowns.

Making a quick comparison between Montrell Johnson and Trey Benson is pretty straightforward, with Johnson only having two more carries than Benson. (156-154) In 2022 with two fewer carries, Benson put up 149 more yards (+1.0 YPC), had 43 more missed tackles forced (79 – 36), and 5 more runs of 10+ yards.

That doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t a good running back. It just puts things into perspective, especially considering last season was Trey Benson’s first full collegiate season, whereas it was Johnson’s second playing in the same offense, just at a different location.

Trevor Etienne (76.7 PFF) is Florida’s other quality back. He was their #2 rusher with 719 yards (6.09 YPC) and 6 touchdowns. Etienne is probably the more dynamic of the two and had a nice freshman season. He had 38 fewer carries than Johnson, but only one less missed tackle forced, five fewer runs of 10+, and a higher YPC. The two form a solid 1-2 punch of power and elusiveness.

Florida lost #3 back Nay’Quan Wright (190 yards), and #4 back Lorenzo Lingard (75 yards). They added Tulane transfer Cameron Carroll, a 6th-year player with over 1,600 career yards, but he only had three rushing attempts for 3 yards last season. Treyaun Webb is a 4-star freshman that could also help provide depth.

Florida’s offensive line will be in a rebuild this year with only one starter returning. Their All-American RG O’Cyrus Torrence and 13-game starter at LT Richard Gouraige left for the NFL. Meanwhile, 3rd-team All-SEC LG Ethan White, RT Michael Tarquin (who started 8 games), and four depth players hit the portal. Two-year starting center Kingsley Eguakun (55.6 PFF) is the lone returning starter, but he’ll get some help from the transfer portal.

OT Damieon George transferred in from Alabama after playing only 20 snaps last year, but he did start three games for the Tide at RT in 2021. Micah Mazzccua (74.4 PFF) started ten games at RG for Baylor last year and is a big human at 6-foot-5, 337 pounds. Lyndell Hudson Jr. (60.8 PFF) was a multi-year starter at FIU and also has size at 6-foot-5, 329 pounds. Hudson was a 2-star recruit coming out of high school and only played three snaps against Power 5 competition, so we’ll have to see how he adjusts. Perhaps the biggest addition, and subsequent loss, was Kiyaunta Goodwin from Kentucky. Goodwin was a former 5-star with incredible size at 6-foot-8, 355 pounds, but he left the team to be closer to family that is dealing with an illness.

The transfers will help with the rebuild, but losing that many players and their best addition from the portal will be a tough situation. Florida does have some additional returning experience from last year’s roster. Austin Barber (79.3 PFF) started five games and played 655 total snaps at tackle. Richie Leonard IV (64.6 PFF) played 222 snaps at OG. Florida appears to be the opposite of Miami when it comes to the talent shift of incoming vs. outgoing. The transfers might have some experience, but they are replacing an All-American and All-Conference player. That doesn’t pair well with losing a dual-threat QB.

Florida’s offense was its strength last year (38th in Total Offense vs 97th in Total Defense). Given the losses, it would be hard to expect them to carry a bad defense again this year. Florida needs the run game to step up in a huge way but will have to do so without Anthony Richardson, behind a new offensive line, and without a legit pass threat. Unless Mertz comes out of nowhere and they see something nobody else did; Florida’s offense looks like they will take a step back. After our own failed experiment with a Wisconsin quarterback transfer, I have my doubts that will happen.

2023 Florida Football Schedule

Speaking of Florida’s defense, we’ll move to that side of the ball. They did face 4 top-25 offenses last season but did not rise to the occasion. Florida finished 87th in scoring defense (28.8 PPG), 93rd in explosive plays allowed, 129th in third-down defense, and 96th in sacks. That poor performance led the Gators to bring in a new co-DC.

Austin Armstrong comes in from Southern Miss, where he served as DC for the past two years. Armstrong runs a 3-3-5 defense just as UF did last year so the scheme won’t change. Southern Miss finished 45th and 80th in scoring defense during Armstrong’s two seasons.

Southern Miss had a very aggressive defense under Armstrong. In 2022, Southern Miss had a 40% blitz rate, the 8th highest in college football. Because of that aggressive style, USM finished 4th in sacks, 7th in interceptions, and 3rd in TFLs. However, that can play two ways, as they were 114th in explosive plays allowed. Remember that FSU had the third most explosive plays last year, which could equal a fireworks show if his defense continues to give up the big play.

Florida finished 96th in sacks and 100th in rushing defense last year. They allowed over 200 rushing yards in 5 games, including 227 yards and 5 touchdowns against FSU, so the defensive line has plenty of room for improvement.

For 2023, they lose 13-game starter Gervon Dexter, Antwaun Powell-Ryland, who started five games and played in all 13, and NT Jalen Lee, who started three and played in 12.

The notable returners are DE Princely Umanmielen (82.1 PFF), who started 11 games and was their highest-graded defender. NT Desmond Watson (75.4 PFF) managed to play 418 snaps at over 400 pounds. Tyreak Sapp (70.8 PFF) and Chris McClellan (56.2 PFF) return after playing a combined 576 snaps in the interior. Justus Boone (73.2 PFF) played 282 snaps at DE last season, but it was reported that he suffered an ACL tear in fall camp.

Florida added two transfers for additional depth. Memphis transfer Cam Jackson (72.4 PFF) gives UF another massive body on the interior to go along with Watson. Jackson comes in at 6-foot-6, 371 pounds, and started all 13 games for the Tigers last season. Louisville transfer Caleb Banks also has plenty of size at 6-foot-6, 323 pounds, but he only played 38 snaps in 2022. Florida signed 5 Blue-Chip defensive linemen last year, so a young guy could also emerge. The Gators’ defensive line isn’t the most dominant group, but they have incredible size to throw around, and running a three-man front will help keep the big boys somewhat fresh.

Florida will be starting over at linebacker in 2023 after losing four starters. Brenton Cox Jr was dismissed from the team after eight games last year. Amari Burney (13 starts / #3 tackler) and Ventrell Miller (10 starts / #4 tackler) departed for the NFL. UF’s starter at the STAR position Tre’Ves Johnson, hit the portal along with three backups. (Chief Borders, Diwun Black & David Reese)

They added a pair of transfers to help fill the holes. Teradja Mitchell comes in from Ohio State as a 6th-year player. He only played one snap last year but started eight games in 2021, his only season playing over 100 snaps, and graded out below average at 43.9. Deuce Spurlock transferred in from Michigan and is a former 3-star recruit who played 12 snaps during his freshman year. Lastly, Mannie Nunnery (74.2 PFF) from Houston brings seven starts of experience from the G5 level.

Florida gets some experience back from last year with three players who logged over 100 snaps at linebacker. Scooby Williams (54.2 PFF) played 146, Derek Wingo (61.9 PFF) played 124, and Shemar James (60.6 PFF) started four games, logging 368 snaps in 2022. Jaydon Hill (69.7 PFF) is projected to move to the STAR position after starting nine games at corner last year. The unit will take a hit in experience and talent, losing two NFL draft picks and Cox Jr, who started 33 games and was a former top-100 recruit.

Florida’s pass defense finished 83rd, allowing 235.8 YPG last season. Pass efficiency came in at 65th, and interceptions at 97th. They lost both starting safeties, Trey Dean and Rashad Torrence, Florida’s #1 and #2 tacklers last season. They also lost a few depth players but no one that made a significant impact.

Miguel Mitchell (55.8 PFF) and Kamari Wilson (60.3 PFF) got experience as freshmen last season. Wilson started two games last season and played in all 13; meanwhile, Mitchell saw limited action in 8 games. However, Dean and Torrence played 75% of the snaps. They brought in Michigan transfer RJ Moten (64.8 PFF), who played over 900 snaps in the Big Ten the last two years and could be a day-one starter.

At corner, Jalen Kimber (65.8 PFF) and Jadarrius Perkins (64.1 PFF) return for 2023. Although they did not start last season, both played around 200 snaps each. Jason Marshall Jr. (65.9 PFF) brings back the most experience after starting 20 games in the past two years, including against FSU. Last season he graded out at 47.8 against the Noles, his second-lowest grade behind Georgia at 47.0.

Jaydon Hill started nine games at CB last season, but as mentioned earlier, he’s projected to move to the STAR position. Avery Helm started four games and played in 10 but transferred to TCU.

Their strength will be the defensive line, but if you can block them, the losses at linebacker and in the secondary could lead to some opportunities down the field, which an offense like Florida State’s should be able to take advantage of. The Gator defense gave up over 500 yards in three games last year, and FSU put up 497. It will be year two in the scheme, which could lead to some improvement, but the talent level will be down from last year outside of the defensive line.

Florida returns all of their specialists from last season. K Adam Mihalek hit 66.7% of his FGs and had three over 50 yards.

Last season FSU edged out Florida in a game that was closer than most expected. However, not only was it a rivalry game, but Florida’s Blue-Chip ratio was 60%, and they had six NFL draft picks. As bad as their season was, the roster was not devoid of talent. Florida has brought in some talent through recruiting, but those players are still young. They lost a lot of key pieces, and some of the transfers they brought in aren’t as good as the players they will be replacing.

Florida State has to travel to the swamp where they haven’t won since 2017. It’s year two for Florida under Billy Napier, but half the team is new, and so is the DC, so it’s almost like year one all over again.

Let’s make a quick comparison.

Florida only brings back 47.9% of its yardage from an offense that put up 5,513 yards last year (6.58 YPP) and averaged 29.5 PPG. They have to replace their starting QB and did not add any receivers from the portal. Their offensive line has 72 career starts as a unit. Florida faced 4 top 25 defenses last season.

FSU brings back 82.8% of its yardage in an offense that put up 6,295 yards (6.96 YPP) and scored an average of 36.1 PPG. They don’t have to change quarterbacks and added over 1,700 yards from the portal. Florida State’s 206 combined starts on the offensive line are the most in college football. FSU faced 3 top 25 defenses.

Florida brings back 44.6% of their tackles and 11.5 of their 23 sacks from last season. Their defense allowed 5,343 yards (5.92 YPP) and 28.8 PPG. Florida faced 4 top-25 offenses. They added three 3-star transfers and three 4-star transfers on defense.

Florida State brings back 67% of its tackles and 31 of its 40 sacks. Their defense allowed 4,183 yards (4.85 YPP) and 20.6 PPG. FSU faced no offenses in the top 25 but 2 in the top 30. FSU brought in four 4-star transfers and one 3-star transfer on defense.

FSU brings back more production and has an obvious advantage at QB, WR, and TE. They have more continuity with no coordinator changes and not losing 30+ players. This is not me being a homer. It is just what the numbers tell us.

FSU will be coming off back-to-back home games against Miami and North Alabama. On the other hand, Florida will be at the tail end of a tough stretch against Georgia, Arkansas, at LSU, and at Mizzou.

If Florida keeps recruiting at their current level, they will be fine once that young talent gets developed and on the field, but that’s not this year. I like the Noles to get it done in the swamp and make it two in a row over the Gators. Thanks for reading! Go Noles!

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