One hundred fifty years ago, Princeton and Rutgers squared off in the first ever college football game in front of a grand 100 people. On Saturday night, the Miami Hurricanes and the Florida Gators will kick off college football’s 150th season, in front of about 65,000 people. The Canes and Gators are reigniting a dormant rivalry, one that hasn’t been played since 2013. That day, Miami triumphed over Florida, 21-16, giving them another win in a series that they’ve dominated recently. Since losing to UF in 1985, the Canes have won seven of the last eight matchups; however, the series doesn’t tell the story of how both teams played last year.
The Canes, coming off a 10-win season and an ACC Coastal title in 2017, floundered to a mediocre 7-6 record in 2018, including just a 4-4 record in conference play. That season was the beginning of the end of Mark Richt’s head coaching tenure at Miami, as he stepped down a few days after UM’s embarrassing 35-3 Pinstripe Bowl loss to Wisconsin. As Richt left, former Canes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was hired to take his place, despite taking the same job at Temple only a few weeks earlier.
The Week 0 clash with UF will be Diaz’s first game as a head coach, but he isn’t new to the Miami program. He was Miami’s DC from 2016-2018, and the Miami native catapulted what was a lethargic defense into elite status. Last year, UM’s defense ranked fourth in total defense, as well as first in both tackles for loss, and 3rd down conversion percentage for the opposing offense.
With Diaz in charge, the coaches of Miami’s anemic offense were all let go. The most notable coach hired by Diaz was Dan Enos, who was hired as UM’s offensive coordinator after leaving his post as Alabama’s QB Coach. Enos will look to help elevate a Miami offense that ranked a meek 104th in total offense last year.
Leading the charge for Enos’ and Miami’s revamped offense is redshirt freshman QB Jarren Williams, who beat out Tate Martell and N’kosi Perry to be the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback.
Saturday will be Williams’ first collegiate start, as he only took three snaps last season in a reserve role. While Williams was looked at as an outsider at the beginning of the QB competition, Williams comes with immense pedigree coming out of high school. The four-star was rated as the sixth-best dual threat passer in his class by ESPN, and he was rated seventh and eighth in that category by Rivals and 247Sports respectively. Williams was selected to the prestigious Elite 11 in 2017, as well as the US Army All-American Bowl in 2018. While there are questions about how Williams will do on as big a stage as this one, there’s no questioning his high school credentials.
In addition to the bright lights of primetime, UF’s stiff defense will make life harder on Williams.
The Gators are coming off a strong 10-3 season, as the momentum from last season has resulted in UF being ranked as the #8 team in the country in the first AP poll. It’s very likely both defenses will have their way in this game, which could lead to a very low-scoring contest. UF finished last year with the 28th best total defense in the country, and some key contributors are back to lead Florida’s defense.
Senior defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga, who finished 2018 with 11 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, can definitely wreak havoc on Miami’s young offensive line, which features two freshman, including a true freshman in LT Zion Nelson. The strength of UF’s defense is in the secondary, as junior CJ Henderson (38 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks, two INTs), and redshirt sophomore Marco Wilson lead the way for the Gators defense. Wilson is returning from a torn ACL, which ended his season after Week 2, but the preseason Third Team All-SEC member in 2018 will be a challenge for Miami’s receivers. However, Miami’s receivers will present a challenge of their own. The electrifying Jeff Thomas, as well as highly-regarded transfer from Buffalo KJ Osborn (892 yards, seven touchdowns in 2018), are the leaders of a highly-talented but very young Miami receiver room.
As mentioned before, Miami’s defense is certainly no slouch either, as their four senior linebackers, headlined by First Team All-ACC LB Shaq Quarterman, are only a part of UM’s special defense. The Canes defensive line, led by exceptional DE Jon Garvin (60 tackles, 17 TFLs, 5.5 sacks last season) helped Miami finish 9th in sacks in the entire FBS last year. Virginia Tech transfer Trevon Hill, as well as supremely talented freshman Greg Rousseau and Jahfari Harvey, will make Miami’s d-line an incredibly difficult unit to deal with this season.
The Hurricanes defense will be tasked with stopping UF’s offense, who saw a drastic improvement from 2017 to 2018, jumping from 109th in total offense two seasons ago to 42nd last season.
Entering his second season as Florida’s head coach, Dan Mullen will hope UF’s offense can build off the success they had last season. The engine of the Gators offense will be junior QB Feleipe Franks, who threw for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns, and only six interceptions in 2018. Franks improved dramatically from his freshman season, a year where he threw only nine touchdowns in addition to eight interceptions. In addition to Franks, the Gators have a stout supporting cast including upperclassmen receivers Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Kadarius Toney, as well as junior RB Lamical Perine. UF’s experience at skill positions could pay dividends against the Canes, who will have safety Gurvan Hall and either CB DJ Ivey or Al Blades Jr. making their first career start in college.
It will be interesting to see how both offenses perform against two stellar defenses. One intriguing storyline is the offensive line play of both teams, as that is a major question for both the Canes and the Gators entering the game. Miami has two freshman starting (Zion Nelson and John Campbell) on a unit that was very shaky last season. Meanwhile, UF is tasked with replacing 80% of its starting offensive line from 2018, including 2019 NFL second-round pick Jawaan Taylor. The inexperience of both lines are just another reason why this game might be low-scoring, as both defenses will look to feast on the opposing offensive line.
College football is back, and what a way to open this anniversary season with a renewed rivalry between two in-state adversaries.