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Early Look: South Carolina hosts Florida in final SEC clash

The Gators are aiming for their third straight SEC East crown in 2017.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Jim McElwain era began in Gainesville, the Gators have defeated South Carolina and won the SEC East with an elite defense and below-average offense. In 2017, the defense is expected to take a dip, but the offense is expected to improve.

Florida has been stacked on defense for years. They have lost many players to the NFL and the 2017 draft took even more. Linebacker Jarrad Davis went in the first round to Detroit while DBs Quincy Wilson (Indianapolis) and Teez Tabor (Detroit) went in the second round and LB Alex Anzalone went to New Orleans in the third. When Anzalone was selected, he became the fifth Gator defender to go in the top 76 picks. Defensive tackles Caleb Brantley (sixth round) and Joey Ivie (seventh round) went later to take the number of Florida defenders picked to seven. McElwain also lost defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. Collins was hired to be the head coach at Temple. Replacing him is former Miami head coach Randy Shannon.

Though they’ve lost a lot on defense, many of the guys stepping in played during last season due to injuries. They’ll have three sophomores at linebacker this year with Kylan Johnson, David Reese and Vosean Joseph. All three played in every game and started at least one with Reese starting six and Johnson starting four. The biggest question the Gators must answer on defense is at corner. Senior Duke Dawson returns but will move from nickel to corner. Sophomore Chauncey Gardner is expected to move from safety to play corner as well. The make-shift secondary, though, took a huge hit as it was announced today that fifth-year senior Marcell Harris would be out for the season with a torn Achilles.

Since Tim Tebow left Gainesville, the biggest problem Florida has had is the quarterback. The position has kept them from competing for a national championship over the past 8 seasons. Whoever leads the Gator offense out against Michigan in the opener will be the fifth different starter under McElwain. That may not be decided until the week of but their is a favorite in the group. With returning starter Luke Del Rio out for the Spring after shoulder surgery, freshman Feleipe Franks was believed to be in pole position. That was until they added former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire this summer as a grad-transfer. He’ll likely lead the Gators out in Arlington against the Wolverines.

The rest of the Gators offense is loaded with returnees. Tailback Jordan Scarlett will want to take the next-step in his junior campaign after rushing for 889 yards (4.97 per carry) and six touchdowns as a sophomore. Lamical Perine backs him up after running for 421 yards (4.63 per carry) and a score in his freshman season. At WR, the Gators bring back dynamic playmaker Anotino Callaway. The junior caught 54 balls for 721 yards and three scores last season. He is also a weapon in the return game, averaging 18.2 per punt return and had one kick-off return for touchdown. Senior Brandon Powell and sophomore Tyrie Cleveland will round out the starters. Cleveland caught only 14 passes as a sophomore but racked up 298 yards (21.3 per catch). Reliable, senior TE DeAndre Goolsby is also back after 342 yards and three scores last season. Florida’s offensive line struggled in 2016, ranking 10th in sacks allowed and last in rushing yards in the SEC. Four starters return for 2017 with junior Martez Ivey (former ESPN #5 recruit) leading the group at left tackle.

The Gators will not have the luxury of leaning on an elite defense like they have had in the past. They hope Malik Zaire is the answer to their prayers at QB. If he is and the line improves, then the run-game should improve with Scarlett carrying the load. If the offense can help out a young-but experienced defense early, then the Gators will be right back in the thick of things in the SEC East. If the offense fails to improve under Zaire and Shannon doesn’t get the defense clicking, then their will be a new champion in the East and the Gamecocks could get their first win over the Gators since 2014.