The Comeback’s college football preview coverage continues as we steer our way closer to the top 10 in our Top 50 countdown. Up next,  we take a peek at the Florida Gators. We’ll continue to move up the list each day until the beginning of the regular season when all the fun begins.

It wasn’t too terribly long ago that the Florida Gators ruled the college football universe. The program was arguably at the peak of its history with Urban Meyer running the show and winning national championships after the 2006 and 2008 seasons. The program began to decline just a wee bit, however, towards the end of his tenure. Florida has yet to recover since Meyer’s depature because of health reasons after the 2011 Outback Bowl.

As we sit on the doorstep of the 2017 season, the Gators program is still looking to ascend the mountaintop yet again. Will Muschamp couldn’t quite get it done, and the job is now up to Jim McElwain, who enters his third year in Gainesville.

McElwain has made progress with two straight SEC East Division titles, but the elephant in the room and measuring stick is still the SEC West and big, bad Alabama. Can the offense that’s been stuck in the mud over the last couple of years improve, and can the Gators close the gap and turn the Tide of recent history?

No. 14 Florida Gators

Record: 9-4 overall (6-2 in the SEC) (Defeated Iowa 30-3 in the Outback Bowl)

Coach: Jim McElwain 41-24 overall (19-8 at Florida)

Last Year in a Nutshell

The Gators hit the ground running early in 2016 by beating hitting three relative lay-ups in the non-conference to go to 3-0. It looked like the offensive woes of 2015 were behind them with a combined score of 101-14 over the likes of UMass, Kentucky, and North Texas.

Things looked even better at halftime against a real, live athletic Tennessee team, as the Gators jumped out to a 21-3 lead heading into the locker room. But things changed quickly as the Volunteers rattled off 38 straight points to give Florida its first loss of the season.

All in all, though, things went well with a smothering defense that was able to cover up the warts of an offense which struggled to find any sort of consistency. The Gators went on to lose just one more game in the SEC and chomped their way to Atlanta to take on Nick Saban and Alabama. For the second straight year, Florida and Alabama clashed for the league championship.

Just like 2015, the Gators were unable to seal the deal, losing in embarrassing fashion, 54-16. But the Gators redeemed themselves by administering a public flogging to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl, ending the season on a high note.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 10th

According to 247Sports composite rankings, the Gators hauled in an impressive recruiting class nationally for 2017, but finished just fifth in the highly competitive world that is SEC recruiting. If the staff is serious about toppling ‘Bama, it’ll have to start bringing in more five-star talent to be on the same playing field. Still, the class has more than enough talent to stay in the upper echelon of the league and have a shot at getting to Atlanta again in future years.

And even though the class is void of five-star talent, it can boast of having 11 four-star athletes. Six of those are considered to be in the top 200 of the country with OG Tedarrell Slaton (69), WR James Robinson (116), DE Zachary Carter (130), and a trio of corner backs in Christopher Henderson (136), Brad Stewart (151), and Marco Wilson (175). Now go land more of the best-of-the-best the talent-rich state of Florida has to offer and really get things crankin’.

Three Key Stats

.714Florida’s offensive red zone percentage from last year. There’s only one team that fared worse in 2016 (Rutgers), and it’s probably the biggest reason why the offense couldn’t keep up its end of the bargain. The number of opportunities wasn’t all that bad at 42, but points were left off the board far too often by only cashing in on 30 of those attempts. If the offense is going to take a step forward in 2017, that has to get much, much better.

293.0 –Total yards per game allowed by the Gator defense. There were only four teams in the entire country that gave up less real estate in 2016. Surprisingly, under offensive-minded McElwain, the defensive effort has always been there. There are only five returning starters on D, but there should be enough talent and leadership to keep things to a boil on that side of the ball. And don’t sleep on the hiring of Randy Shannon as the new coordinator. Now, it’ll be up to the O to step things up…

344.0 – The amount of yardage per game the Gators’ offense managed last year. It wasn’t just missing out on red zone opportunities that hamstrung things against the better teams, it was gobbling up yards in totality. Under 350 yards of total offense per game won’t pay the bills in today’s age of up-tempo, spread offenses that can put up points in bunches. The offensive line has to get better, and the quarterback play has to travel light years from where it’s been the past few years.

Make-or-Break Games of 2017

SEPT. 2 vs. MICHIGAN

Record in the last five meetings: 0-3 (the two programs have only played three times)
Last result: L, 41-7 in the 2016 Citrus Bowl

Why it matters: Okay, Florida — are you ready to fix the offensive woes and be the real deal against the really, really good teams? Michigan may have lost a ton of starters on defense, but there won’t be a big drop-off with the amount of talent that received game experience and with the reinforcements coming from some fantastic recruiting classes. This will be an important litmus test for a revamped offense under a new offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier and a new quarterback.

OCT. 28 VS GEORGIA

Record in the last five meetings: 3-2
Last Meeting: W, 24-10

Why it matters: With the talent level of both teams, and with a schedule that’s easier to navigate than normal in the SEC, this could be for the East Division. The Gators would love nothing more than to get back to the SEC Championship Game and get another crack at a potential Alabama matchup, but they’ll have to win the game formerly known as the “World’s Biggest Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville first. If so, Florida will make it four in a row against its neighbor to the north and have an inside track to the division.

Three Key Players

Whomever Wins the QB Job – One of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the country resides in Gainesville. Yeah, there are others in the mix, but it’ll likely come down between redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and former Notre Dame starter, transfer Malik Zaire. We know what the multi-talented Zaire can do if he’s right between the ears and has a solid line, but it’s Franks who has the advantage of being in the program for a year with the promise of the future.

At 6-foot-6 and 219 pounds, Franks has the size and arm strength to get the offense rockin’ again for McElwain. But if he’s not the guy, there’s a lot worse than having Zaire as the fallback plan. So far, it’s been Franks getting the reps with the first team, but there are still weeks to go. Either way, the offense will only reach its full potential if the quarterback can find a groove in 2017.

Antonio Callaway, WR – The most explosive playmaker on offense for Florida is Callaway, hands down. But he’s been in some off-the-field troubles over the last couple of years. If he can keep his nose clean and build upon what we’ve already seen from the speedy threat on the outside, it’ll make the entire offense that much better.

The 5-foot-11, 196-pound junior is the x-factor that all opposing defenses scheme around, and he is poised to have a huge 2017. If he can keep the right company and keep things between the guardrails when not in football pads, then look out.

Nick Washington, S – With the news that leading tackler Marcell Harris has been lost to a season-ending Achilles tear, someone in the secondary needs to step up. Look no further than fellow senior safety Nick Washington as that man. He already has a starting spot locked up, but now he’ll have to help bring along a less-experienced partner, lead by example and be the big play, hard-hitting missile everyone expects him to be.

Washington has all the tools to be a high NFL draftee, and he’ll be counted on in the aggressive, run-supporting scheme the defensive backs will be a part of again in 2017.

Bold Predictions

Florida will win the SEC East for the third straight year. Perhaps it’s not really that bold, but everything is in place for the Gators to get back to Atlanta. The schedule sets up nicely with only three true road games against lesser SEC foes, the O-line should be much improved, and the quarterback play should be better to help out a defense that’ll have no problem plugging holes. From there, it’ll be time to roll the dice against the champion of the West Division. Wonder who that could be?

Feleipe Franks will start at quarterback. All the hype is being thrown at Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, but don’t forget about Franks. He’s been the guy getting most of the work so far in spring camp, he’s had a full year to sit and learn the offense, and he has all the physical abilities to make the quarterback position at Florida hum again. Maybe Zaire beats him with a good finishing kick, but my money is on Franks getting the job and being the QB of the next few years in Gainesville.

Florida’s offense will be in the top half of the SEC. It’s been a lot of teeth gnashing and hand wringing on that side of the ball for the better part of three years now, but the offense is ready to break out. The overall playmaking ability isn’t quite where it needs to be for the offense to be at an elite level, but there are enough key pieces for new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to tinker with. With a new culture, new quarterback, and new attitude, the Gators offense won’t be a liability in 2017.

Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.

About Phil Harrison

Phil has been writing about college sports for over eight years. In addition to contributing to The Comeback, he is a frequent contributor to collegefootballnews.com and talking10.com. His writing has been featured on foxsports.com, espn.com, and cbssportsline.com among others. He's a Jack of all trades, and a master of one -- living in the doghouse at home far too often. Follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB