Florida sophomore center T.J. McCoy has noticed a different energy in camp.
More hitting. Sharper focus. Longer overtime periods.
“Intensity has been high because the first game is a very big game,” McCoy said. “Every day is a challenge, and we’ve accepted the challenge.”
Call it the Michigan effect. No. 17 Florida’s season opener Saturday against No. 11 Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will be one of the showcase games of the opening college football weekend. For the short-handed Gators, it will provide the kind of immediate test that could benefit the team beyond week one.
At stake is UF’s string of 27 straight season-opening wins, the longest in Division I. The last time Florida lost a season opener, in 1989 against Ole Miss, Kyle Morris was the quarterback, George H. Bush was president and stonewash jeans were still in fashion.
Michigan, led by eccentric coach Jim Harbaugh, will present an entirely different challenge. Florida is opening the season against a ranked team for the first time since 1987, when it lost 31-4 at No. 20 Miami. The Gators haven’t opened the season against a BCS conference opponent since knocking off Kentucky 35-19 to start the 1992 season and haven’t opened the season outside the state since falling 14-10 at Houston in 1979.
Florida coach Jim McElwain is taking a page from one of his mentors, Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has advocated opening the season with a high quality opponent because it keeps players on edge during the offseason. No. 1 Alabama is facing No. 3 FSU in Saturday’s other marquee game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“The guys realize it’s for real right off the bat,” McElwain said. “You know, it’s an opportunity for them to go on national television in a great environment and find out who they are. I think that this is one of those games where you get to find out who you are, and yet you’ve also got time to recover. You also have time to learn from it and continue through the season.
“I just think it’s good for college football. I think the conferences playing each other, two storied programs meeting at a neutral site, I think that’s the way it should be.”
The season-opener for Florida has taken on a different feel this week, with 10 players suspended, including nine related to a debit card fraud investigation. Among the suspended are UF’s leading receiver (Antonio Callaway) and rusher (Jordan Scarlett) from last season. Oddsmakers have made Michigan a 5.5-point favorite.
“It’s going to be a high intensity game,” Florida cornerback Duke Dawson said. “Previously we started off with teams that were lower than us, but now we’re going against a high-caliber team.”
To prepare for the matchup, McElwain discussed making UF’s camp uncomfortable. Players were tested, physically and mentally.
“We responded well,” Florida sophomore receiver Josh Hammond said. “We came into work every day. And no matter how hard it got I think we pushed through. And I think that really showed our toughness and a lot of things we figured out during camp, I think we’ll be able to deal with a lot of different adversities this season and move forward.”
Starting the season with a high-profile game is a trend the Gators will continue. In 2019, Florida will open the season with Miami in the Camping World Kickoff Game in Orlando.
From a strength of schedule standpoint, which now factors in gaining berths into the College Football Playoff, opening with a marquee game makes sense. The risks include getting physically beat up before SEC play and diminished confidence if a blowout loss occurs. But the reward in pulling off a win and building momentum for the rest of the season is enormous.
“We’re ready for it,” Hammond said. “I think we all came to Florida to play in these types of games. I don’t think the stage will be too big for us. I think we’re going to seize the moment and just play well.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.