The 150th season of College Football starts with a rivalry that, while fierce for many years, has not been played since 2013.
The Miami Hurricanes and the Florida Gators will open not only their respective seasons, but the entire college football season, with a “neutral site” match-up at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL on August 24th.
Miami is looking to get the swag — and success — of old with new Head Coach Manny Diaz. Florida had a resurgent 2018 season under then-new coach Dan Mullen, and look to keep that upward trajectory going in this game. And, if there wasn’t enough bad blood between these teams (which there is, trust me), Florida beat Miami for several recruits in the 2019 cycle, and Dan Mullen was passed over for the Miami HC job twice, when it went to Al Golden and Mark Richt, respectively.
So yeah, there’s plenty of football to discuss, but this game cuts much deeper than JUST what happens on the field.
Florida on Offense
The Gators hired Mullen to do two things: fix the QB position and get the program back to winning big. After one year on the job, Mullen is making strides towards both goals.
Before coaching Mississippi State 9 years, Mullen was a trusted Urban Meyer assistant at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, helped develop Alex Smith into the #1 overall NFL Draft pick at Utah, and was a record-setting Offensive Coordinator for the Gators, helping the team to 2 National Championships, and got the absolute most out of Tim Tebow’s incredible size and athleticism (and limited skill). Tebow won the Heisman Trophy under Mullen’s coaching.
The QB play at Florida had lagged for a few years until Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, and that led to the Gators’ offense being quite pedestrian. The move to bring Mullen back as HC was a direct step to address that issue. And, in year 1 back in Gainesville, QB Feleipe Franks was the beneficiary of Mullen’s QB coaching experience and offensive scheme. The sophomore from Wakulla, FL saw increases across the board statistically, and had a 24-6 TD-INT ratio with nearly 2500 yards passing.
Franks had a couple big time, game-winning throws, but was only 54% completions on the year, so there’s room for improvement, or the chance for Miami to make plays defensively. Franks has a very strong arm, but as evidenced by his completion percentage, he can lack touch at times. Miami will try to use pressure, and solid coverage, to affect him in the passing game. Franks is a big QB at 6’5” 227lbs, with good running skills. Franks can use his legs to move around in the pocket, scramble for yards, and as a runner in designed QB runs.
A key to Franks’ improved passing was the methodical, physical, and diverse Florida run game. Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett both ran for more that 775 yards, and Dameon Pierce added 424, Franks himself ran for 350, and do-it-all athlete Kedarius Toney added 240 on a variety of traditional runs and trick plays. Of those players, only Scarlett has departed. And, there are other talented backs on the roster, like Malik Davis and Nayquan Wright, who could find playing time for the Gators.
Florida was very effective running the ball in 2018. The Gators ran for 213.8 yards per game, good for 27th nationally. This was buoyed by 4 games rushing for over 250 yards, and highlighted by a 367 yard effort against Vanderbilt. Not only is Florida’s offense predicated on an effective run game, it is efficient as well. The Gators averaged 5.27 yards per carry in 2018, and were held under 5.0ypc on only 4 occasions last year. Florida lost 3 of those 4 games, which comprised all of their losses on the year, so stopping or at least limiting the run will be paramount for Miami in this season-opening game.
Florida’s receivers are a diverse and talented group. Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes are the headliners, but Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland, and the previously-mentioned Kedarius Toney all bring plenty of speed to the field as well.
Jefferson led the Gators with 35 catches, 503 yards, and 6 TDs a year ago. But 7 other players caught 10 or more passes, 6 other players had 170 receiving yards or more, and 5 other players (not including Toney who only had 1) had 3+ receiving TDs in 2018 for Florida.
So, Florida’s passing game is moderately successful, predicated on a strong run game, and diverse to the point that stopping 1 player won’t necessarily be the death knell for the group as a whole. But, despite inaccurate statements to the contrary parroted by some UF fans on social media, the Gators do not heavily feature their TEs in the passing game. But, that may be a wrinkle UF tries to deploy in the season opener to go against their tendencies and expose a weakness in Miami’s defensive gameplan.
Florida’s offensive line was pretty good a year ago. You can’t be a top-30 rushing team in the country without a solid line. The Gators will, however, have to replace 1st round NFL Draft Pick Jawaan Taylor, and that could weaken this group a bit.
Florida on Defense
While Mullen was brought in to revamp and revitalize the Gators’ offense, the defense is something that has been playing at a high level for years. The formula for Florida is play ball-control offense, hit a couple explosive plays, and lock opponents down with a tough, physical defense. And, in large part, they did just that in 2018.
The Gators’ defensive line is an interesting mix of experienced players and talented newcomers. Seniors Jabari Zuniga and Adam Schuler look to be top of the rotation guys along the line. A big hole up front, however, is the departure of DE Jachai Polite, whose pass rushing prowess will be tough to replace. Junior Jeremiah Moon is the likely candidate to fill that role, but it remains to be seen if he can approach the level of excellence that Polite displayed.
Additional players to know up front are Kyree Campbell, T.J Slaton, Antonneus Clayton, and a bevy of talented freshmen. This is a deep group on talent, but production and performance will need to improve from a few guys to replace the departed starters.
At Linebacker, David Reese leads the way for the Gators. Fellow starers Vosean Joseph left early for the NFL Draft, and Rayshad Jackson, a redshirt senior, elected to transfer this offseason. That attrition was replaced by the arrival of Jonathan Greenard from Louisville.
In 2018, Reese and Joseph were the top 2 tacklers for the Gators, but the next 9 highest players in terms of tackles were DBs or DL. But, the absence of Joseph, the team’s leading tackler and a destructive force on the defensive side of the ball, is a big hole for the Gators to fill for the upcoming season.
Florida (incorrectly) bills themselves as “DBU”, and the plethora of DBs they sign on a yearly basis is a likely reason why. Florida has several players with top end pedigree in the secondary, and those players will look to curtail Miami’s passing game, which looks to take a major step forward after a miserable 2018 season.
CBs Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are South Florida natives, so they’ll obviously want to put on a show against the Canes. Joining them in the secondary are Trey Dean, Shawn Davis — yet another SoFLA native, and Brad Stewart, along with, you guessed it, even more DBs who signed this past year with the Gators.
While many may deride what UF DBs do in the NFL, they are among the top groups on performance in the college ranks, and Miami will have to find a way to navigate the offense to contend with that fact.
With Florida coming off a strong season, and Miami coming off a scuffling 7-6 campaign, the Gators are an early 7.5 point favorite in this match-up. This is a pretty heated rivalry, despite the fact that these teams haven’t played in 6 years, and I expect things to be chippy early on, if not throughout.
This game is the opener of the 2019 season, College Football’s 150th year. To give it the spotlight it deserves, and to serve as the appropriate opening course to a year long celebration of the sport, Canes-Gators was moved up from it’s originally planned and announced date of August 31st to the new date: August 24th. This Week Zero game is the earliest either team has played a contest, and will be a tough test for each.
For Florida, the stakes are moderately high. They want to build towards a potential championship season — if they can get by the Georgia Bulldogs — and use a win over Miami as the starting step along that path.
With a staff that’s been there for a year, a strong 2019 recruiting class, and a 10-win season to their credit in 2018, the Gators look the stronger and more settled program heading into this game. And, yanno, they’d like to beat Miami for a 3rd time (in 11 games) in the last 35 years.
For Miami, this game is hopefully the beginning of a return to greatness. The Canes have dominated the Gators in recent games, going 8-2 in the last 10 games against the team from Gainesville. There’s a new staff in town, a new energy, and The New Miami would like to showcase itself in a new, better light. Fleeting flirtations with greatness have been few and far between over the last 15-ish years, but beating Florida would certainly be an addition to that list.
Miami has a new coach. A new OC. Tons of new players (Transfer Portal, wassup!?). And another chance to begin to build a path toward returning to the CFB elite. Maybe that’s a bit much to put on this one game, but a strong showing and (hopefully) a win would be a major statement, and give the Canes an early-season calling card victory upon which they would hope to build a strong season.