Today is the day after a long offseason. that Florida football finally gets to take on an opponent other than themselves. ESPN will be on hand with their A-team as the Gators take on the Utah Utes at 8 PM in Salt Lake City.
As the season’s first game, many hypotheticals surround this matchup. And while Vegas and the national media don’t have much faith in the Gators, Florida has three pathways to pull off the upset tonight.
Florida Football: Six yards per carry
It is no secret that the Gators plan to be a run-first team when on offense in 2023, and Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson will be major factors in the success or failure of Florida.
Last season, in their six wins, Florida averaged 7.3 yards per carry.
In the seven losses last year, Florida averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
Against Utah specifically, Florida had 7.3 yards per carry, though Anthony Richardson had 106 yards off 11 carries. Graham Mertz isn’t getting 106 yards on the ground tonight.
But Etienne and Johnson combined for 140 yards off 17 combined carries (with Nay’Quan Wright getting another 10), for an average of 8.2 yards per carry against Utah last season.
There are question marks with Florida’s offensive line, specifically center Kingsley Eguakun’s availability, but if Florida can keep the ball moving at a six-yard per carry clip, it will simplify the game for the Gators.
60% Completion Rate
Here is a fun stat that the Gator Nation Football Podcast pointed out this week: Graham Mertz was 13-0 at Wisconsin when he had a completion rate of at least 60%.
While completion percentage and winning percentage do have a correlation, it is a sign that Mertz doesn’t have to be Superman for Florida to win the game. 60% completion rate is the Mendoza Line in the NFL.
And as we have talked about all offseason, this benchmark goal of 60% falls right in line with the overarching narrative of the Gator offense. If Etienne and Johnson can get six yards per carry, all Mertz has to do is find Ricky Pearsall and Eugene Wilson on some nice and easy throws and let them do the rest.
While Napier loves to set up deep shots, Florida was far more effective last season when it could execute simple plays and pick up yards in chunks.
Shemar James has 10 or more tackles
Leading into this game, there was a ton of mystery surrounding who will be under center for Utah. And while it appears Cam Rising will not be available tonight, Utah still has two formidable running backs in Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson.
And much like Florida football, Utah will look to lean on its running game.
This is where sophomore linebacker Shemar James becomes the single most important cog in the Florida defense tonight.
Last year against Utah, Ventrell Miller had nine total tackles, and Utah was held mostly in check for the first half. Trey Dean ended up with the most tackles for the Gators with 12, which isn’t necessarily a good thing to have your safety leading the way. It means Utah was able to bypass Florida’s linebackers and get into the secondary in the first place.
If James can rack up tackles, control the running game of Utah, and force them to throw it, the Utes are not nearly as deep with their receiving core as they were last season.
If James and company don’t control the running game, Utah could put Jack Miller under center and still come away with the victory.