Here we go. Florida opens it’s 2023 season with a tough challenge on the road at Utah. The Utes will have revenge on their minds after last year’s close 29-26 loss to the Gators at the Swamp, but there are serious extenuating circumstances surrounding both teams that make predicting who will win this game very difficult.
Utah’s QB situation is murky right now, and that’s being kind. Cam Rising is coming off of an ACL injury in the Rose Bowl only 7 months ago, and has seen little practice time in fall camp. He has not been cleared by doctors yet for any full contact, so there’s a real chance he doesn’t play, which is a big hit for them. Freshman Brandon Rose came in and right away passed Bryson Barnes as QB2, but suffered his own knee injury a few weeks ago and is out. That leaves Barnes as the presumptive starter, with hardly-used Nick Johnson as the backup. Barnes saw some action late last season and in the Rose Bowl, but really didn’t show much. IF……if Rising doesn’t play (and I think he will until the game starts and he’s in street clothes), then Florida will benefit. Rising is a tough runner and very experienced player who makes that offense go, and his loss will be felt, no matter how well coached the Utes are by Kyle Whittingham and his staff.
If it’s Barnes, then expect a heavy dose of the running game led by Micah Bernard and Ja’Quindon Jackson. Both are big backs that are tough to bring down behind a solid O-line. Barnes can run effectively as well, but unless he can establish a passing game that shows it can threaten the Gator defense, they could struggle. Utah usually relies on it’s TEs in the passing game, and I expect the same this season. But even there they are hurt by the loss of Dalton Kincaid to the NFL, and Brant Kuithe is coming off of his own ACL injury last September. I think he’ll play, and Florida has to slow him down and force Barnes to look for other receivers. Utah does have one big concern other than Rising’s availability – they very well could be playing a true freshman at left tackle.
Of course, maybe none of Utah’s concerns at QB will matter unless the Gator defense can finally leave behind the stink of terrible play the past 3 seasons and can show significant improvement. The D-line lost Gervon Dexter to the NFL, but Napier did well in the portal acquiring Cam Jackson and Caleb Banks to be immediate contributors at tackle along with Chris McClellan and Dez Watson. Utah will always look to run the ball early and often, and the interior defense has to be stout. If Rising doesn’t play, then I expect an even heavier reliance on the running game until the Gators show they can slow it down. Florida lost it’s best run-stopping LB in Ventrell Miller to the NFL along with Amari Burney, so it’s time for Shemar James, Scooby Williams, Trey Wingo, and transfers Deuce Spurlock and Teradja Mitchell to step up against the run and also improve the pass coverage of the LB corps, which has struggled for years. It appears new Defensive Coordinator Austin Armstrong will run a lot of 4-2-5 alignments, which means an extra defensive back – especially at the Star position – will be relied upon to help cover the Ute TEs. Jason Marshall, Jalen Kimber, and Jaydon Hill are good enough to handle the Utah WRs, but the safety play of RJ Moten, Kamari Wilson, and Miguel Mitchell has much to prove. This group has to show it can be in the right position, take proper angles, and tackle well when necessary. There is little experience and continuity, and they can’t afford many miscommunications or blown assignments.
Florida comes into the opener with it’s own concerns at QB. Graham Mertz has distanced himself from Jack MIller and Max Brown as the starter, and comes into his 4th year of college ball with 2 years of starting experience at Wisconsin. However……his play there wasn’t great by any means, and he doesn’t approach what Anthony Richardson could do in the running game or to avoid sacks and generate big plays with his legs. Mertz needs to play smart and manage the game – he has to prove he can complete passes in the short and intermediate zones to extend drives, throw with accuracy, and make the correct reads. He’d better, as Billy Napier has thrown all of his eggs into the Mertz basket for 2023. The Gators will undoubtedly rely on their running game again in 2023, led by RBs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne. The O-line has been rebuilt after losing 3 starters, including All-American O’Cyrus Torrence. The staff did a good job of filling those openings by acquiring Micah Mazzccua, Damien George, and Lyndell Hudson through the portal, to go along with returning starters Kingsley Eguakun at center and Austin Barber at left tackle. There is better depth and some experience among the backups, which is a welcome change. I expect the Utah defense to crowd the box to try and slow the run game and make Mertz prove he can hurt them throwing the ball. That means a young and inexperienced receiving corps has to make some key plays. Ricky Pearsall is the best of the group, but likely gets extra attention until others show they can make plays. Some combination of Caleb Dougkas, Marcus Burke, and Ja’Quavion Fraziars need to prove they can get open and help the Gators move the ball through the air if Pearsall is the focus of the defensive secondary. Perhaps one of the true freshmen – Aiden Mizell, Andy Jean, and Eugene Wilson – can surprise early, but that’s a big ask.
Florida’s special teams, er, “Gamechangers”, struggled often in 2022, and must show improvement. The Gators will have little room for error against it’s better opponents, and need positive contributions from the kickers and returners. Etienne is an excellent kickoff returner, and it looks like Pearsall will be the #1 punt returner. It’s risky having two valuable skill players at those positions, but that’s what happens unless you have quality depth in the entire roster. Jeremy Crawshaw will need to provide solid punting, and Adam Mihalek hopefully comes through when needed for any FGs.
This is a huge game for Napier and the Gators. If they can pull off the upset win, or even lose a close game in which they show some balance on offense and an improved defense, that would go a long way in showing not just Gator Nation but themselves that progress is being made, and Napier’s long-term rebuild is on schedule. Suffer an ugly loss filled with bad QB play and poor defense, and the criticism from outside will start immediately and only intensify. I think Florida knows what it’s up against both on the field and regarding it’s perception nationally, and I expect a good performance and close game. I just think the change at QB and this being a road game against a well-coached and experienced team are too much to overcome in a season opener.