It truly was a tale of two seasons in Gainesville this year. Florida's improbable 6-0 start under first-year coach Jim McElwain gave us the sense that there was something very different about this team. There was more confidence and an actual offense.
Then, starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for a year after testing positive for a banned substance. The team was handed over to Treon Harris, and things quickly went downhill on that side of the ball. Florida eventually won the SEC Eastern Division for the first time since 2009, but without much of an offense, the shine wore off against talented defenses, as the Gators lost their final three games by a combined score of 97-24, including Friday's embarrassing 41-7 bowl loss to Michigan.
It can't be understated that McElwain helping to lead this team to a 10-4 record and a trip to Atlanta in his first season was a very impressive feat when you consider the shape of the program when he took over, but getting blown out in the final three games of the season won't sit well with folks in Gainesville. There is going to be a little more pressure on the Gators and this staff in the offseason.
1. Who will be the quarterback?
Ever since Grier's suspension, Florida’s offense devolved in front of our eyes. The offensive line struggled, but Harris’ play really held this unit back. Going into the spring, the quarterback position is completely up for grabs with Grier gone. It’s not a guarantee that Harris will return at quarterback or even with the team. If he does, though, he will battle incoming freshmen Feleipe Franks (No. 4 pocket-passer) and Kyle Trask, who will both enroll early. Also, walk-on Luke Del Rio, who was once at Alabama and Oregon State, will get every chance to win the job, too. He has impressed in practice, and word is that players have been very impressed with the throws he can make. Finding the right quarterback to run coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s offense is critical to Florida’s evolution.
2. Who will help Antonio Callaway at receiver?
Demarcus Robinson leaving for the NFL draft and Jake McGee graduating, Florida will return zero players with at least 30 receptions from this season, with the exception of Callaway. No other players will have at least 400 yards, either. Brandon Powell moved from running back to receiver, but only caught 29 passes this fall. McElwain does have a solid group of receivers coming in with his 2016 recruiting class, including ESPN300 members Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain and No. 6 junior college receiver Dre Massey, who will all enroll this spring.
3. How will the offensive line develop?
This offensive line surrendered a nation-high 45 sacks this season. It dealt with injuries and relative inexperience all season, and deteriorated as the season went on. It won’t matter who is throwing the ball in 2016 unless the offensive line is loads better. Florida will lose the starting right side -- Trip Thurman and Mason Halter -- but three starters are back. But development is so important, because the inconsistency this line had in games contributed to Florida’s struggles. Three offensive linemen are currently committed to the Gators.
4. How will Florida make up its defensive losses?
Friday’s dismal performance might not have shown it, but the Gators’ defense was one to admire this season. However, All-America cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III headlines a handful of players who won’t be in Gainesville next season. Star defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, who totaled 17.5 tackles for loss, and on-and-off-field heart of the team Antonio Morrison are gone. Rush end Alex McCalister's Florida career is over, as is nickel cornerback Brian Poole's. But there is a lot of young talent up front, and safeties Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal haven’t decided whether to leave for the NFL. Losing them would be huge, though cornerback Jalen Tabor has All-America talent, Jarrad Davis provides a big lift at linebacker, and often-injured -- but very talented -- Alex Anzalone should be a major sidekick to Davis.
5. What's the next step in maturity after a disappointing end to 2015?
A loss like this can have a few different effects on a team that went from nowhere fast to almost making a New Year’s Six bowl. It was clear this team didn’t buy into the practices preceding the 41-7 obliteration by Michigan, but if this program is truly going to get off the ground, that can’t bleed into spring preparation or practice. McElwain and his crew need a fresh start. He needs to find the right quarterback and instill his true vision of the offense. He needs playmakers and he needs leaders. He needs to find a team that will be upset by the bowl game and motivated to get back to Atlanta, or it’s going to be a rough second year for McElwain and the Gators.