Intriguing questions abound as No. 7 Utah travels to Florida for a prime-time matchup on Saturday night.
Can the Utes’ loaded defense derail the hype train for Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson? Will underdog Florida deliver head coach Billy Napier a win in his Gators debut?
Can defending Pac-12 champion Utah withstand the literal and figurative heat in Florida’s raucous, sold out Swamp?
As for Richardson, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore is projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. He also has one career start. With his elite arm talent and 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, some have compared Richardson to Cam Newton. But Napier is trying to temper the expectations.
“I know we all want to put a crown on his head,” Napier said. “I think the guy’s completed 33 passes in his career, right? The great quarterbacks at the University of Florida, they completed 33 in one game. We’ve got work to do there.”
Napier, a former Clemson and Alabama assistant who went 40-12 the last four years at Louisiana, has created much buzz in Gainesville after replacing four-year coach Dan Mullen, who went 6-7 last fall.
From his previous stop, Napier brought his top running back, Montrell Johnson (891 total yards, 12 touchdowns), adding to a deep backfield, and his top blocker, O’Cyrus Torrence, to join three returning starters on a formidable offensive line.
Edge rusher Brenton Cox, who had 14.5 tackles for a loss last season, leads a defense that will be guided by another Louisiana import, co-coordinator Patrick Toney. The unit needs a major revamp. Its low point last year was surrendering 52 points in a shootout win over FCS Samford.
A season in transition usually calls for a cupcake opener. The Gators get anything but in the Utes, however, who went 10-4 last year and with 17 starters back are the pick to repeat as the conference champions.
Leading the offense are Pac-12 first-teamers in quarterback Cameron Rising (20 touchdowns, five interceptions) and running back Tavion Thomas (1,108 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns).
Also back is a veteran offensive line and five of Utah’s top six receivers, including tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid who combined for 1,121 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The defense is formidable with a pair of huge, run-stuffing linemen, a secondary full of NFL prospects and a linebacker, Mohamoud Diabate, who had 89 tackles last year at Florida.
While the atmosphere at the Swamp will bear little resemblance to that in arid Ogden, at least one of the Utes knows what to expect.
“Nothing compares to it,” Diabate said. “It’ll be a great environment, a great opportunity.”
It’s also a chance for Utah to show it can win on the road, which was a sticking point from last year when its losses came at BYU, at San Diego State, at Oregon State and in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State.
“When you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida, it’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We have to make the most of it.”
–Field Level Media