Preseason Top 25: No. 6 Florida looks to make SEC Championship Game for first time under Dan Mullen

Coach Dan Mullen has led the Florida Gators to New Year’s Six bowl games in each of his first two years in Gainesville. What’s the next step? Winning the SEC East title and a trip to the SEC Championship Game — a game that the Gators haven’t played in since 2016.

Mullen has an established quarterback in senior Kyle Trask back after he stepped in for Feleipe Franks early last season and caught fire during the final two months en route to an Orange Bowl berth. But there are questions throughout the roster. Offensive weapons and defensive line depth are two areas that need to be shored up during the offseason before things get cranked up in the fall.

Do the Gators have enough to unseat Georgia as the class of the SEC East? Let’s break down their 2020 outlook.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 6 in the CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: 11-2, won 36-28 over Virginia in the Orange Bowl

This is the first offseason that Trask has occupied the top spot on a depth chart ever — high school included. Because of that, it’s fair to assume that he will take a big step forward alongside Mullen, who’s a renowned offensive wizard. How much will he have to do, though? Defensive attrition — including the loss of star defensive lineman Jon Greenard and cornerback C.J. Henderson — has put pressure on coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense.

Key departures

DE: Jon Greenard: The ultra-versatile star posted 52 tackles, 15.5 for a loss and 9.5 sacks in his final season of college football.

DB: C.J. Henderson: The star cornerback had 11 pass breakups, jumped to the NFL one year early and was the ninth overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

RB La’mical Perine: The Gators’ leading rusher from last season had 132 carries for 676 yards and six touchdowns.

Three experienced wide receivers: Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland were three of the Gators’ five leading receivers in 2019. All three were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Who’s back?

QB Kyle Trask: The rising senior stepped in for an injured Franks and threw for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. It was Florida’s most productive season from a quarterback since Tim Tebow’s final season in 2009.

TE Kyle Pitts: The 6-foot-6, 239-pound junior established himself as one the nation’s top tight ends last season with 54 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns.

WR Trevon Grimes: The senior had 33 catches for 491 yards and three touchdowns in his second season with the Gators after transferring from Ohio State.

DB Marco Wilson: Wilson had three interceptions and 36 tackles last season after missing most of the 2018 season.

LB Ventrell Miller: The 6-foot, 222-pound junior is the Gators’ leading returning tackler after notching 55 last season.

Fresh faces

OL Stewart Reese: The brother of former Gators linebacker David Reese II played in 37 games in four seasons at Mississippi State before coming to Florida as a graduate transfer. The versatile offensive lineman started at right tackle and guard during his career in Starkville.

DE Brenton Cox: The former Georgia edge rusher had 20 tackles for the Bulldogs in 2018. He’ll get plenty of chances for playing time after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Pouncey brothers: Wide receiver Jordan Pouncey will need a waiver to play immediately. His younger brother, cornerback Ethan Pouncey, was the third-highest ranked player in Florida’s 2020 signing class.

Critical games

Week 4 at Tennessee — Sept. 26: The trip to Rocky Top will be a key early-season test against a Tennessee team that has plenty of experience and is riding a six-game winning streak heading into the season.

Week 6 vs. LSU — Oct. 10: Two weeks after the Tennessee game, the Gators host the defending national champions in a huge revenge game from last season. Which team will have filled more roster holes by mid-season?

Week 9 vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville) — Oct. 31: A Halloween edition of the River City Showdown could be one of the most important games of the entire college football season, and potentially a de facto SEC East Championship Game.

2020 outlook

Mullen’s first two seasons leading the program have set the foundation. It’s time to reap the rewards. Anything other than an SEC East title should be considered a disappointment. Trask returns as one of — if not “the” — best quarterback in a conference that will be going through a massive signal-caller overhaul. The schedule sets up well since the Gators draw Ole Miss as their cross-division opponent, while three-time defending division champion Georgia has to go to Alabama in Week 3. The defense is going to have a different look, but Grantham has proven during his first two seasons that he can build aggressive units that emphasize the strengths of his best players. Gators fans, start booking those hotel rooms in Atlanta for the first weekend in December. You might want to make them refundable, but better safe than sorry.

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