Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

YEAR IN PREVIEW; Hot Topics for 2004

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

YEAR IN PREVIEW; Hot Topics for 2004

Article excerpt

A fans' guide to the top five things to look for in area sports this year. For more to watch, see D8.

1 JAGUARS

NFL DRAFT: APRIL 24-25

SEASON OPENER: SEPT. 12

The Jaguars "took back their house" in 2003, finishing with a 5-3 record at home and winning their final four games at Alltel Stadium. The next goal is to build on their strong finish and make a run for the playoffs for the first time since 1999. April's draft and trade negotiations are crucial. The Jags, who pick ninth in the first round, must bolster their pass defense with a pass rusher, another linebacker and a cornerback. They also must upgrade special teams. Another key to their playoff hopes will be improving their passing game. They need another receiver and they need quarterback Byron Leftwich to make progress.

2 COLLEGE FOOTBALL

FLORIDA VS. MIDDLE TENN.: SEPT. 4

FLORIDA ST. AT MIAMI: SEPT. 6

In Tallahassee, the return of 10 offensive starters and tested defensive depth should make coach Bobby Bowden's 29th Florida State team a national championship contender for the first time since 2000. In Gainesville, after back-to-back seasons of less than 10 wins, Florida is poised to become a major player in the Southeastern Conference again. Much is expected of National Freshman of the Year Chris Leak in 2004, and after an expected second solid recruiting class the Gators could be the favorite in the Eastern Division.

3 AUTO RACING

DAYTONA 500: FEB. 15

PEPSI 400: JULY 3

The first Nextel-sponsored circuit race will take place Feb. 15 with the Daytona 500, after 33 years of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco-sponsored Winston Cup racing. Similarly, Sunoco will supply the gasoline after 55 years of Unocal 76. But corporate changes aren't the only ones for the boys who turn left for a living. Labor Day, for instance, won't be spent at Darlington (S. …

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