On a rare Thursday night game, the University of Florida football team will open the season at 8 p.m. ET in Salt Lake City to face No. 14 Utah in the season opener for both schools.
This is Florida’s third true road game in a season opener in the last 38 years (1987 at Miami, 2020 at Ole Miss) and the Gators’ first Thursday night game since 1992.
It will be a sellout crowd (seating capacity of 51,444), marking Utah’s 77th consecutive sellout which dates back to 2010. Utes fans will cover the stadium in red for this “Red Out” game.
Last year, Florida upset No. 7 Utah, 29-26, in Gainesville behind 274 yards of total offense and three rushing touchdowns by QB Anthony Richardson, who was selected fourth overall in this year’s NFL draft, and a game-sealing pick by LB Amari Burney.
But after the season-opening win Florida struggled and finished just 6-7 overall (3-5 SEC) under first-year head coach Billy Napier.
In spite of a 6-7 record during Napier’s first season at the helm, UF outscored its opponents 29.5-to-28.8 points per game and a total of 384 yards per game offensively while giving up 375. Florida lost their six regular-season games by a total of only 61 combined points.
Five of those games were lost by 10 points or less and three by only one score.
A lot of the attention for tonight’s game has revolved around Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, who will start at quarterback tonight for the Gators, and Utah star QB Cam Rising, who is doubtful and is not expected to play.
The key to a victory for the Gators could come down to the Florida running game of Montrell Johnson Jr. (155 carries, 841 yards, 5.4 YPC, 10 TD) and Trevor Etienne (118 carries, 718 yards, 6.1 YPC, 6 TD).
The Gators’ 5.5 yards per carry in 2022 ranked fourth in program history (behind the 2008, 1976 and 2009 seasons).
A good night running the football and what should be an improved defense could also sway the game in the Gators’ favor.
Joining new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong are seven defensive transfers this year: DL Caleb Banks (Louisville), EDGE Quincy Ivory (East LA CC), DL Cam Jackson (Memphis), LB Teradja Mitchell (Ohio State), S R.J. Moten (Michigan), LB Mannie Nunnery (Houston) and Deuce Spurlock II (Michigan).
The new Gators bring in a combined 44 starts and over 4,170 snaps played compared to 30 defensive returners with 69 total starts and 8,792 snaps.
But this game could come down to coaching.
Napier is entering his 14th game as head coach at Florida and his 66th game overall. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is set to coach in his 355th overall game at Utah and his 229th as head coach.
Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer, who left for Florida and coached the Gators from 2005-10.
While Utah has had the same coach since 2005, Florida has had five different head coaches during that time period, including Meyer, Will Muchamp (2011-14), Jim McElwain (2015-17), Dan Mullen (2018-21) and now Napier, who enters his second season.
Now in his 30th year overall at Utah, Whittingham is coming off back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl and league titles. He is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 Conference and the second-longest tenured head coach at the same school in the NCAA FBS.
Utah, which has finished with a winning season in 16 of Whittingham’s 18 years as head coach, including nine straight, is even tougher to beat at home under Whittingham.
The Utes have gone undefeated at home the last two years under Whittingham (2022, 6-0; 2021, 6-0) and they’ve won 25 of their last 26 home games, including a streak of 14 in a row (Dec. 5, 2020-present).
Utah is 112-36 (.756) in Rice-Eccles Stadium (1998-present) and is 84-25 during the Whittingham era.
ESPN will have coverage of the game at 8 p.m. with Chris Fowler (Play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (Analyst), and Holly Rowe (Reporter) calling the game.