The season is finally here, and it certainly will be an interesting one. The past 9 months has been a whirlwind for new head coach Billy Napier – filling out his coaching staff, hiring a very large (and quality) support staff to finally match the other winning programs of the past decade, cobbling together a 2022 recruiting class (and doing much better than expected), working on the 2023 recruiting class (off to a very good start), and trying to figure out what kind of talent he has to work with for the upcoming season.
Napier and the Gators do not get the luxury of easing into a new season with an overmatched opponent. Utah comes to the Swamp off of winning the PAC-12 and getting to the Rose Bowl last season, and have a lot of preseason hype surrounding them. They have some distinct advantages coming into this game – an established starting QB, a quality RB, experience on their defense, and the comfort of a stable coaching staff and scheme. Kyle Whittingham is entering his 18th season as head coach – remember he replaced Urban Meyer when Meyer took the Florida job……seems like a lifetime ago.
Florida will likely need to rely on it’s defense to carry the load early in the season as the offense finds it’s footing. They have a tough assignment right away, starting with controlling mobile QB Cam Rising and 1,000-yard RB Tavion Thomas. The Gator front seven knows it must handle these two, and do have the advantage of the noise of the home crowd along with Utah breaking in 2 new tackles and a center. Those are critical positions, and the Gator DEs, along with DT Gervon Dexter, must get penetration and create havoc early and often. Rising can keep plays alive with his legs and is a solid running threat, but can find trouble when forced to throw from the pocket.
Utah historically has used it’s TEs very effectively in the passing game, and I expect them to attack Florida’s LBs early and often. Gator LBs have struggled mightily in pass coverage for years now, and have to prove they are better in the new scheme devised by DC Patrick Toney. Utah does not have game-breaking WRs, and Florida’s secondary should play well under new coach Corey Raymond. No more soft coverage and bad tackling will be tolerated. The front seven will have it’s hands full, so the secondary must perform at it’s best.
It’s Anthony Richardson time for the Gator offense. He will have to carry a lot on his shoulders, despite little experience and coming off of a handful of nagging injuries in 2021. With no backup QB having any real experience until Jack Miller returns from injury (broken thumb), he’ll have to manage his running in order to stay healthy. The most important ability for him to exhibit this year will be availability.
Napier will be calling the plays with help from OL coach Rob Sale. They will have to lean on a solid RB corps and (hopefully) a better-coached and developed O-line. Once again, Florida’s O-line starts another season having to prove itself SEC-worthy. It’s been over a decade of essentially the same story, and it’s no surprise that it correlates with the past 3 coaching firings. Napier definitely upgraded the coaching with Sale and Darnell Stapleton, but how fast will their teaching translate into performance? If this group struggles, the offense – and season – could look very rough.
The Gators RB room is as good as anyone in terms of depth. Nay’Quan Wright, Lorenzo Lingard, and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson all are capable runners, and Wright is solid in the passing game. Freshman Trevor Etienne may not see many carries early in the season, but could contribute in the kick return game as he settles in.
I expect Utah to stack the box early in the game and force Florida to prove it can move the ball consistently by passing when necessary. The Gator WRs have much to prove, trying to overcome a combination of little returning experience and incorporating senior transfer Ricky Pearsall. Justin Shorter needs to show he can lead this group with his on-field performance – he has the size to be a weapon in the red zone. Xavier Handerson, Ja’Quavion Fraziars, Ja’Markus Weston, and speedster Marcus Burke have shown little to date and must improve. AR has already developed a good rapport with Pearsall, who along with Trent Wittemore in the slot are his most reliable targets. Those two could really help open up the rest of the field for the outside receivers by making plays and moving the chains in the middle zones. Utah has had to replace it’s entire LB corps (including Florida transfer Mahmoud Diabate) and could be susceptible in pass defense.
It’s Napier’s first game, it’s a night game at the Swamp, and Utah comes in highly ranked and talking a big game. It may sound counterintuitive, but the fact that the Utes will have little film to work off of may work into Florida’s favor, despite the new scheme and some new starters at key positions. There is much to be said for coaching and scheme continuity traveling well, but many of the Gator players have big-game experience of their own, and have a lot of motivation to prove themselves after 2021’s late-season implosion. I expect a tough, physical game that won’t be decided until the 4th quarter. The noise and humidity will play large factors, as will the Gators developing a real trust factor with their new coaches. Florida embarrassed itself in the second half of last season, and there’s no better time than right now to start washing away the bad taste and stain of that performance.
Predicction: Florida 24 Utah 21