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One of the most intriguing games of the college football weekend will take place on Thursday night in Salt Lake City, as Florida travels to play Utah. For the Gators, they might not return to Gainesville with a win, but Billy Napier better have something to build off of.
The narrative around head coach Billy Napier is still sitting at a wait and see approach. We don’t know what this Florida team will look like coming off a tough first season. Will they be improved? I would hope so, but there’s a chance it takes us awhile to get a full grasp on the Gators.
Replacing Anthony Richardson with Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz will test the nerves of Florida fans all over, along with the coaching staff. We can listen to Billy Napier preach about how much improvement he’s seen out of Mertz over the last five months, but proving it on the field is a totally different story.
If you ask Gator fans, they’ll tell you that their hopeful in the quarterback, while biting off what’s left of their fingernails. For an offense that at least had an explosive quarterback last season, there’s only so much Wisconsin footage of Mertz your stomach can handle. He had productive games, sometimes shining under the spotlight, but there’s a reason why he entered the transfer portal, landing in Gainesville.
He needed a fresh start, even if only for a short period of time. And while he’s working to lead the Gators, he won’t have to do it alone, considering the running back situation should help. The one thing this team could use from fans and donors is patience, which Billy Napier knows he will not get.
This makes the Utah game so important.
Even If Gators Lose, Don’t Have Fans Freaking Out Early
Yes, this is much easier said than done, especially in the SEC, where Florida fans expect to compete for titles every season. Dan Mullen tried, but that train finally came off the tracks in an embarrassing way. For Billy Napier, it’s all about setting the tone for 2023, even if that comes with a loss.
Utah is talented, especially if Cam Rising is cleared to play quarterback. Last year should be clear proof of that, even in Gainesville. But the status of Rising is still a tad bit up in the air, with head coach Kyle Whittingham refusing to address whether or not he’s been cleared to play. The depth chart released says he’s QB1, but we all know about those darn pieces of paper.
But, if Cam Rising does play on Thursday, it will be up to the Gators defense to attack the stud quarterback, in his first action since tearing his ACL in last year’s Rose Bowl.
Besides winning the game outright, Florida needs to prove this is not going to be a season where fans are paying they win the last game, just so the Gators can play in a meaningless bowl game. No, Florida fans need to see progress on both sides of the ball, and the coaching staff.
“The last thing Florida fans want to see is a team being outworked in the second half, or losing by three touchdowns in the season opener of Billy’s second year. The money folks want to see progress and the fans want to see what life after Anthony (Richardson) will look like in the Napier offense. He’s (Billy Napier) has found the quarterback of the future in DJ (Lagway), but that’s still a ways off. Just go play competitive football and have a chance in the fourth quarter,” one Florida source told OutKick.
Hurricane Changes Florida Travel Plans To Utah
Originally scheduled to depart on Wednesday, Florida will now leave this afternoon for its trek to Salt Lake City. The Gators will fly to Dallas and practice, staying the night before finishing their trip on Wednesday. Due to Hurricane Idalia, the Gators had to move up their travel date by a day, getting out before air-travel could be impacted.
Billy Napier had mentioned recently that he wanted to ‘get in and get out’ when it came to dealing with the altitude in Utah. After consulting with numerous NFL teams, the consensus was to keep the altitude exposure at a minimum.
“The altitude, we’ve spent extensive time researching that relative to our sports science and our training staff,” Napier said, “and all indications tell us to go stay in your normal routine.”
The decision to spend the night in Dallas certainly had to play a part in the travel itinerary, when the logical thing to do would be flying straight to Utah. I do feel for the equipment guys, as this will be one hectic road trip. But, if Napier is only wanting to expose his players to the altitude for 24 hours, this is the smart play.
As for the game itself, the Gators need to leave Utah with either a win or some type of positives to take away. If they return from Salt Lake City with a 17 or 20 point loss, things will get hot pretty quick, in the already scorching Gainesville heat.