When you think of college football rivalries in Florida, Florida vs. Florida State and Florida State vs. Miami are the ones that come to mind.
But on Saturday night, the rare Sunshine State rivalry between the No. 8 Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes plays for only the seventh time since 1987. The teams are in the spotlight after moving their season opener up a week to make it a standalone feature attraction for TV viewers and a sellout crowd of more than 65,000 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Much is at stake, even at this early juncture.
Florida is widely projected to challenge for the SEC East Division title under second-year coach Dan Mullen after finishing the 2018 season with a 10-3 record and boatracing Michigan 41-15 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Miami is playing its first game under coach Manny Diaz, its defensive coordinator the past two years who knows a little bit about Mullen. After all, he worked two seasons under Mullen at Mississippi State.
“I think we view the game similarly,” Diaz said of himself and Mullen. “He is a very creative guy and an outside the box thinker. I try to be the same way defensively and that’s why we get along well. I don’t think there will be any type of advantage because we know him and he knows us.”
While Diaz’s background is in stopping offenses, he has to demonstrate that he can help fix an offense. Once renowned for its explosive attack, Miami was 93rd nationally last year and a pitiful 108th in passing.
The Hurricanes’ no-show 35-3 Pinstripe Bowl rout at Wisconsin’s hands was the final straw for coach Mark Richt, who retired 24 hours after the game. Most believe Diaz has the energy needed for the job, but his decision to name redshirt freshman Jarren Williams the starter at quarterback was a shocker. Williams, whose sole game experience last year consisted of three garbage-time passes in a blowout win over Savannah State, beat out more-touted N’Kosi Perry and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell.
“It’s tough preparing for a guy you’ve never seen play,” Gators cornerback Marco Wilson told the school’s athletics website. “I heard he’s a pretty good quarterback, but he’s also young so we can try to use that to our advantage.”
Florida has no such worries about its quarterback. Feleipe Franks blossomed at the end of last year, leading the offense to an average of 45 points per game in a season-ending four-game winning streak. Franks threw for 2,457 yards, bagging 24 touchdown passes and tossing only six interceptions.
Franks’ productivity and decision-making will get an immediate test. Led by linebackers Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinkney and Zach McCloud, Miami finished 2018 fourth in total defense (247.7 yards per game) and first in third down defense.
“Look at what they did last year,” Franks said to the Gators’ website. “They are doing something right.”
When the teams last played in 2013, the Hurricanes earned a 21-16 home win. Miami leads the all-time series 29-26.
—By Bucky Dent, Field Level Media