As we launch 2016, I break down the Gators, Noles, Canes, Knights, and Bulls from three (3) perspectives - that of the optimist, the pessimist, & the realist. So, let's wind the clock!
Florida Gators (2015: 10-4)
The optimist in me sees quarterback Luke Del Rio quickly evolving into a calm, steady presence under center. He'll get the ball to wide receiver Antonio Calloway in space and be good enough to keep defenses honest. Florida's defense will be as good or better than last year, despite losing two (2) top draft picks in Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal.
The pessimist in me fears Calloway will get blanketed and Del Rio will be shaky in the pocket, having a hard time finding the 2nd and 3rd receivers with any consistency. Thus, opposing defenses will able to load the box and stuff the run. Defensively, VH3 and Neal will prove irreplaceable.
The realist in me believes that by the Tennessee game (9/24), Del Rio will have a firm grasp of the system. The offense will be balanced and Calloway will be every bit the playmaker he's ever been. The experience on defense should overshadow most of what was lost to the draft. The Gators go 2-3 against its five (5) toughest opponents (Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, FSU) and finish 9-3 (2nd in the SEC East).
Florida State Seminoles (2015: 10-3)
The optimist in me thinks Jimbo Fisher will find the perfect marriage at quarterback between veteran Sean Maguire and talented freshman Deondre Francois. Running back Dalvin Cook will chew up yardage like a lawn mower and find himself in New York as a Heisman finalist, while the defense stifles the powerful offenses of Louisville and Clemson.
The pessimist in me knows there are no perfect marriages and friction will develop in the locker room as to who should get the majority of the snaps at quarterback. This hurts stability and puts too much pressure on Cook, making the offense predictable. Defensively, no leader emerges at linebacker.
The realist in me sees Maguire developing into a steady leader, with Francois being utilized in a number of key packages. Cook should easily top 1,500 yards behind the Seminoles' monster offensive line. There are a few question marks in the middle of FSU's defense (ie: linebacker), but talent is everywhere. With only three (3) games outside the State of Florida, the scheduled sets up beautifully. Florida State gets revenge on Clemson, goes 12-0, wins the ACC Championship game, and makes the College Football Playoff.
Miami Hurricanes (2015: 8-5)
The optimist in me thinks that in Mark Richt, the man with the ready-made suntan, Miami has found the perfect coach for South Beach. Richt will bring the ingredient the Canes have missed in recent years - an SEC toughness, which will help them compete for the ACC's Coastal Division title.
The pessimist in me worries that the pieces aren't yet in place on defense to slow down the likes of Florida State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina (who dropped 59 on the Hurricanes last season).
The realist in me likes that the U's schedule brings the Seminoles and Tar Heels to South Florida and is void of Clemson (who throttled Miami 58-0 in 2015). Unfortunately, October's 5-game gauntlet of Georgia Tech, FSU, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame is brutal. Richt has a history of working with uber-talented quarterbacks at Georgia and should be Brad Kaaya's dream coach come true. Kaaya (Jr.) has skill around him with standout receiver Stacy Coley and a solid stable of running backs. The Canes go 8-4 in year-1 of the Mark Richt era.
UCF Knights (2015: 0-12)
The optimist in me can, with supreme confidence, hereby declare that the Knights will not go winless in 2016. To be as optimistic as senior linebacker Domenic Spencer, who predicted an AAC title, UCF would have to adjust to new Coach Scott Frost's warp speed Oregon-style offense nearly overnight. Coming out of camp, the Knights are clearly fitter (faster, stronger, leaner) than they ever were under George O'Leary. Conference foes will be caught off guard and UCF will win eight (8) games and go bowling.
The pessimist in me knows that when you implement an entirely new system, you need players who are ready made to run it. The up tempo is so different from what UCF is used to that it will take time for guys to learn new positions that fit the new schemes. Thus, fans best tap the brakes and give Frost time to recruit his own guys.
The realist in me feels like UCF heads into conference play 2-2 (after wins over South Carolina State & FIU and losses to Michigan & Maryland). If the Knights can reach the War on I-4 against rival USF with a 5-6 record, they'll play to become bowl eligible.
USF Bulls (2015: 8-5)
The optimist in me sees a roster full of veteran talent - talent that helped the Bulls finish last year's regular season winning seven (7) of its last eight (8) games. This means USF has learned how to win again after four (4) straight losing seasons. It will propel them to equal or eclipse last year's 8-win total and get back to a second straight bowl game.
The pessimist in me wonders if a depleted offensive line can open holes for running back Marlon Mack. If the Bulls struggle there, they'll be forced to rely more on 3rd down conversions to keep drives alive. Last year, they converted a measly 20% of those.
The realist in me looks at the USF schedule as very workable. They'll be favored in most games and have an embarrassment of riches on offense that will keep the scoreboard operator busy. The Bulls will average close to 40 points per game and finish 10-2, champions of the AAC East Division.