Gator Kickoff Preview

By: Robert Craft news services

The Florida Gators open their 2023 season Thursday at Utah, the second matchup of their home-and-home series with the back-to-back Pac 12 champions.

UF upset the No.7 Utes last year in The Swamp, 29-26, as Billy Napier became the school’s first coach to defeat a ranked team in his debut.

Here are three key matchups in this year’s game between the Utah offense and Florida’s defense:

New UF defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong is going to bring the house against Cam Rising. One of Armstrong’s trademarks as the Southern Miss DC was getting after the quarterback.

Rising tore his ACL on Jan. 1 in the team’s Rose Bowl loss to Penn State and he didn’t participate in 11-on-11 drills during fall camp. He’s still expected to play and listed him as the starter on its Week 1 depth chart.

The Utes allowed just 15.0 sacks last season, which ranked No. 20 nationally. They return three offensive line starters and a fourth player who made two starts in 2022.

Rising also threw for 216 yards at Florida last season, with tight end Brent Kuithe accounting for almost half of them.

Kuithe suffered a torn ACL last season on Sept. 24 against Arizona State. He was limited in fall camp but should be greenlit for the opener.

The Gators must do a better job defending Kuithe on Thursday, luckily they have a few more coverage options to throw at him this time around.

In addition to Rising, Florida was also torched by Tavion Thomas on the ground. The former Utah running back rushed 115 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in The Swamp. Not a good look.

It must have been foreshadowing, because The Utes finished with the No. 11 rushing offense in the FBS at 217.6 yards per game, while Florida’s rushing defense ranked 100th nationally.

Utah returns two backs in sophomore Ja ‘Quinden Jackson and junior Micah Bernard, both of whom eclipsed 500 yards rushing last season.

Bernard had 106 carries for 533 yards and four touchdowns, while Jackson rushed 78 times for 531 yards and nine TDs. Jackson has been named Utah’s starting running back in this mean rotation.

The Gators lost four full-time starters from last year’s offensive line and the status of redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun is in question.

They may return with all new guys if Eguakun isn’t cleared. Regardless of who starts , it will be key for the Gator Offensive Line to handle the road environment well and assist redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz in getting settled.

The Gators boast one of the best tailback tandems, junior Montrell Johnson Jr and sophomore Trevor Etienne aka TNT.

They will be featured much more in this year’s Utah matchup. It’s going to take a heavy dose of Etienne and Johnson for Florida to win this game.

That will be easier said than done against the Utes and their No. 18 national rank in rushing defense. They allowed only 111.23 yards per game.

Utah ranked No. 1 in the Pac 12 and tied for eighth nationally in sacks last season, registering 41.0 total sacks to average 2.39 per game.

The Gators didn’t give up any sacks last year’s game. If Mertz can handle Utah’s  pressures and the O-line protects him, the Gators have a great shot. But this year I don’t think a shot will be enough to take this one home.

Utah 31 Florida 20