Tampa Bay Sports Day

BEAIRD: Great Expectations in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Coral Gables

PHOTO BY TIM CASEY/UF

This could be the biggest year for state of Florida teams in many years. The big three-Florida, Florida State and Miami- are expected to finish in the top 25 for the first time in years. This is not just preseason optimism. The trio of teams have legitimate reasons for high expectations.

FLORIDA: Last year was no fluke for the Gators. It was a preview of the future under Coach Jim McElwain one of the best coaches in the SEC. McElwain was able to get his team in the SEC title game with inferior talent at several positions. This season quarterback, running back, receiver, kicker and even some of the defense has better players than last year.

Either Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby is an improvement over Treon Harris, who is no longer on the team. JUCO transfer tailback Mark Thompson (6-2, 240) has Derrick Henry type size. Thompson along with the Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite lead a deep group at running back.

Antonio Callaway, who was suspended most of the preseason for an alleged sexual assault investigation, heads a talented group of receivers. Junior C.J. Worton and freshman Dre Massey have been impressive in camp. The key to the season for Florida is the effectiveness of the offensive line. They have to stay healthy particularly after losing guard Antonio Riles for the season.

Maybe the biggest upgrade on the team in kicker Eddie Pineiro who hit several attempts from 50 plus yards in the spring game.

If the Gators can beat Tennessee in Knoxville and even split with LSU and Georgia then they will find themselves in the thick of the divisional race again in November. Contrary to all the love that Tennessee is receiving, I think the Gators will face Alabama again in the SEC title game.

FLORIDA STATE: The ‘Noles are a legitimate Final Four team. FSU’s offense returns virtually intact especially on the offensive line.

Running back and Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook is the great equalizer for this offense. If Cook remains healthy he will take a lot of pressure off of redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois.

There is legitimate concern around the loss of senior quarterback Sean McGuire for perhaps the first month of the season, but several beat writers who cover the Noles have speculated that Francois would have won the job in the preseason scrimmages regardless.

FSU’s defense is legit with All-American candidate Demarcus Walker, who is from Jacksonville. Walker spurned the NFL partly because he and some of his teammates believe they can win a national title. The secondary, even without Jalen Ramsey, is one of the best in the nation with Derwin James.

There are not many weaknesses on this team, but a bit of a concern is at kicker with the loss of Roberto Aguayo. His replacement is his younger brother, Ricky.

Ole Miss in Orlando on Labor Day night will provide a big test for the Noles. Despite all the attention focused on the Clemson game on Oct. 29, FSU can’t afford to overlook games at Louisville and Miami.

MIAMI: New coach Mark Richt is giving Hurricane fans some hope that they have not had in years. Richt has galvanized the fan base. Cane fans are encouraged that Richt can win double- digit games per year similar to what he did several years at Georgia.

The best quarterback in the state is Brad Kaaya, who would be the No. 1 signal caller in his conference if not for Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Miami has capable receivers in Stacy Coley, Braxton Berrios and Darrell Langham and running backs Mark Walton, Gus Edwards and Marquez Williams.

The offensive line coached by Stacy Searels has a veteran returning group in Trevor Darling (a junior) at left tackle, KC McDermott (junior) at left guard, Nick Linder (junior) at center, Danny Isidora (senior) at right guard and Sunny Odogwu (junior) at right tackle.

The Achilles heel for this team for the past several years is defense. Manny Diaz, whose father Manny used to be the mayor of Miami, comes from Mississippi State to improve a unit that has been far from dominating during the coach Al Golden era.

The Canes will be more aggressive under Diaz. Another huge hire for Richt is former Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who produced four first round draft choices since 2009. Recruiting went well as evidenced by the signing of freshman linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who has impressed the coaches during spring and fall camp.

One of the smartest moves for Richt is to continue to champion an indoor practice facility that will become a reality in a few months.

NEXT TIME: WE WILL EXPLORE THE IMPROVEMENT OF USF, UCF AND FIU.

Brent Beaird, who lives in Fleming Island, Fla., writes for the Clay Sun edition of the Florida Times Union and does an SEC column for Gatorbait magazine. Brent, who is a Heisman Trophy voter, can be heard on 1010XL sports radio in Jacksonville, Fla., among several other stations across the Southeast. Brent is the college football analyst for First Coast News in Jacksonville. Follow Brent on twitter @brentbeaird