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South Carolina 2016 opponent preview: Can Florida’s new (and old) faces lead them to SEC East repeat?

Will Muschamp’s defensive recruits got the Gators to Atlanta in Jim McElwain’s first year. With many of those players gone, Florida hopes to do it again as another wave gets set to graduate.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As much as Florida rags on Will Muschamp, they may have him to thank for a strong defense that got them to the SEC Championship Game last year. Sure, it wasn’t as dominant as it was in the Muschamp days, and they did get throttled by Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, but Muschamp deserves a lot of credit for at least laying the groundwork for what we saw in 2015. The offense? Well, that’s a different story.

The main thing to start with when it comes to Florida is that aforementioned defense - which carried them throughout the year since their offense sputtered in the absence of Will Grier last season (the Gators averaged 32.1 points in Grier starts, but just 16.5 points a game when Treon Harris started). With Jonathan Bullard, Vernon Hargreaves III, Alex McAllister, Antonio Morrison, Keanu Neal, and Brian Poole all gone, a few key pieces of that Coach Boom-built defense are missing. But other parts, like safety Marcus Maye, talented end Bryan Cox Jr., cornerback Jalen--I mean, Teez Tabor and stud LB Jarrad Davis are still around, with up-and-comer (and McElwain recruit) Cece Jefferson ready to capitalize on his strong freshman campaign (8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks). Alex Anzalone looks to be the option at MIKE in Morrison’s absence, with Caleb Brantley set to take over for Bullard at tackle.

Back to the quarterback situation. After Grier’s suspension (and ultimate transfer to West Virginia), followed by Harris’s transfer (following a suspension of his own), the team has settled on redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio (son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio), who is now on his third collegiate roster and has thrown just eight collegiate passes. Quite a odd situation when backup and grad transfer Austin Appleby (former Purdue starting QB) has tons more experience, but McElwain apparently feels that Del Rio is the better option right now. At least top receiver Antonio Callaway is back in the fold, but there’s that little sexual assault accusation that will no doubt be a big topic of discussion. Brandon Powell and C.J. Worton, both hampered by injury last year, should be big factors in the receiving game, while JUCO transfer Mark Thompson and sophomore Jordan Scarlett stand to get significant carries in the backfield.

Last year: 10-4 (7-2 SEC); SEC East champions; lost to Michigan in Citrus Bowl 41-7

Best returning players: Teez Tabor and Jarrad Davis

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators lose a great deal of defensive production from last year, but Tabor and Davis are two of the key players on this unit. Tabor was a first-team SEC pick after his four picks (two returned for TDs) and 14 pass breakups (tied for tops in the league) helped establish him alongside Hargreaves as one of the country’s top shutdown corners. Davis is the team’s top returnee in tackles (94) and tackles for loss (11.0) after a incredible increase in production from his sophomore to junior season. Both should continue on their upward trajectory in 2016 and could see a boost to their draft stock - Tabor (draft-eligible as a junior after this year) is being projected by many experts as a Top 5-10 pick, while Davis is showing on some boards as a late first/early second rounder.

Prognosis: Florida still has a few questions on offense. However, if Del Rio doesn’t pan out, they have a fallback option in Appleby, as well as a good receiver corps. Defensively, with the team losing so much production, it’s hard to say that they’ll be as good on that side of the ball as they were last year, but the players that they do have should keep them near the top of the division. I’m going to have to stick with Tennessee as my pick to come out of the East, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Gators squeaked it out by a head-to-head tiebreak or something of that nature.