Much has been made this offseason about the status of the quarterback position for both the Florida Gators and Utah Utes. Perhaps even more so than in most years.
For the Florida Gators, there was a lot of groaning about the loss of Jaden Rashada, what felt to fans like a missed opportunity to grab Sam Hartman, Grayson McCall, or Michael Pratt from the transfer portal (none of them were ever coming to Florida to begin with, but that’s a story for another day) and what was perceived to bee a weak “take” of Graham Mertz. For the Utes of Utah, all eyes were locked onto the knee of Utah starter Cam Rising, who tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl and was unofficially listed as questionable for this game- and the games beyond it- the instant he announced he was coming back to school.
But in all honesty, for this game? Sure, Graham Mertz will have to play smart football. Yes, Utah third-stringer-turned-starter Bryson Barnes will have to make plays. Those things will be important, of course. But not as important as the play in the trenches.
A quick look at the rosters dictate that Florida should control the lines of scrimmage tonight. The Florida Gators are bigger, faster, and stronger than Utah across the offensive and defensive lines. And indeed, Florida’s offensive line did own the trenches last year… but Florida’s defensive line left something to be desired. Tavion Thomas and Cam Rising torched Florida for over 200 yards on the ground, and Rising usually had plenty of time to go through his progressions and make smart throws.
And that nearly cost Florida the game. The Gators’ defensive line, while bigger than the guys they lined up against, could not dominate Utah at the point of attack despite those physical advantages. Thus, there was Utah deep in the Florida red zone, one play away from ripping Florida’s hearts out with a deflating loss on its home field to start the Billy Napier era.
That’s not what happened, of course, because Rising made a mistake. Throwing the ball in the direction of a teammate who had fallen down proved fatal, as Amari Burney jumped the route and picked it off. The point is that, with Florida’s distinct size advantage in the trenches, it should have never gotten to that juncture where one play could decide the game.
Tonight presents a different kind of challenge. The difficulty Utah had in the heat and humidity of the Swamp has been removed as a factor; in its place is the additional difficulty for Florida to acclimate to the high altitude of Salt Lake City. Breathing is not the same at such a high elevation as it is near or at sea level. Utah fans making jokes about Florida being able to handle the atmosphere aren’t technically wrong. It’s a real phenomenon.
But Florida still has the advantage of being bigger at the lines of scrimmage. This time, though, the Gators have to fully use it to their advantage.
Florida’s starting five on the offensive line- from left to right- Austin Barber, Richie Leonard, Kingsley Eguakun (if he’s healthy- if not, Jake Slaughter, who actually chose Florida over Utah), Micah Mazzccua, and Damieon George- weigh an average of approximately 318 pounds of solid muscle. The first three of those proved their worth at Florida last year, and there’s been high praise for Mazzccua and George since they’ve arrived from Baylor and Alabama, respectively. Florida should be fine here. I trust that they’ll open up holes for Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson to run through and give Mertz time to throw.
It’s the defensive line that’s the question mark.
On the front line for Florida’s defense is largely a new group of faces. Princely Umanmielen has been in the program before this year, as have Desmond Watson, Jack Pyburn, Tyreak Sapp and Chris McClellan, but besides those guys it’s almost all true freshmen and transfers. New defensive tackle Cam Jackson finally gets his chance to play football for an SEC program after growing up an LSU fan and starting his career at Memphis. Caleb Banks slides into one of the end spots after transferring in from Louisville. And though they’re not in the starting lineup, you can also expect a bevy of true freshmen to see some action, including Will Norman, TJ Searcy, Kamran James, and Kelby Collins.
Can this group of newcomers fluster Bryson Barnes, shut down the Utah running game, and blow up the Utes’ game plan before they have a fair chance to execute it?
Utah wins games because it’s a disciplined and fundamentally sound football program that’s well coached, resilient, and clutch. But just go look at the recruiting rankings- and pick whichever site you trust most. Florida, even under Mullen, has completely and utterly dominated Utah on the recruiting trail for… well, pretty much ever. Now, of course that’s not to say Florida will or even should win this game, but it does give you an idea that the natural talent advantage goes to the Gators. It’s simply time for Florida to start using it.
On our podcast (which is now a live YouTube show, too!) we talk at great lengths about how Florida has got to stop worrying about beating Georgia, LSU, and Alabama. Florida has to learn to take care of the Kentuckys of the world, the Missouris, the South Carolinas, and now you can throw Vanderbilt in there. It’s great to dream big, and of course Florida should always strive for a national championship, but Florida needs to start dispatching the teams it’s more talented than and is simply superior to as a program before it can take aim at the big dogs. Even if Florida were to pull a miracle and beat Georgia and wreck their season, losing to those other teams less talented is going to render that win irrelevant. Remember the Ron Zook days?
And so here we go again. Another season is upon us, a fresh, clean slate where Florida is undefeated and beginning the process of writing its story for the season. Taking care of the opponents it should take care of is a process that starts tonight. Yes, Utah is a strong opponent even without Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe, but Florida is just more physically gifted of a team. And that has to start becoming clear when the Gators take the field against these types of opponents.