HOOVER, Ala. — During their lifts, runs and film sessions this summer, one thing keeps pushing them on, driving them, motivating them to work just a little bit harder, a little bit smarter.
The early showdown — Aug. 24 — with the Hurricanes in Orlando to kick off the 150th year of college football has given the Florida Gators a sense of purpose, a sense of urgency this offseason.
“It comes up on you fast,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “We have a quick summer and a quicker fall camp. You have to prepare like the season is right around the corner because it really is.
“You have to walk around with a chip on your shoulder. We don’t have time to goof off or time to have mistakes or take a couple of days off. We’ve got to go right now. That’s the most important thing.”
The Gators sound like they are ready right now, today. That’s what happens when you’re opening the season a week earlier than everybody else against an arch-rival on a national stage.
This is much different than opening the season with, say, Charleston Southern or Eastern Michigan.
This is Miami. The Hurricanes.
“I get chills just thinking about it,” Franks said. “How can you not be excited about a game when the entire nation will be watching. The stage is set and now we have to go out and perform.”
Gator minds have been focused on Miami, on this game, all summer, senior wide receiver Josh Hammond said.
“Knowing we’re opening with Miami, it’s definitely motivating,” Hammond said. “The guys are working a little bit harder because we know we have to be on point on week one.”
The Gators were in a similar situation two years ago, getting ready to play another UM — the University of Michigan — in the season opener at a neutral site on a national stage.
That game did not go well for UF. The Gators were physically pushed around in a disheartening 33-17 loss that was the start of what turned out to be a 4-7 season that led to a coaching change.
Many of the players on the current team experienced it. Therefore the sense of urgency this summer.
“We don’t have time for errors because we start the season off with a big-time ball game,” Hammond said. “The guys that were here for the Michigan game experienced that week one loss. We know the right steps now to correct the wrongs we made then.”
The UM game two years ago at Jerry World was big. This one is bigger. Because it is Miami, an in-state rival, and the expectations for the Gators heading into the season are bigger than they’ve been in a long time.
This almost feels like a must-win game for the Gators if they’re going to have the kind of season they’re anticipating.
“I think it’s huge,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “It’s going to be a catapult for one of the teams. Whoever wins that game ends up really kicking off the season on the right note with a big win in a big game with a lot of national exposure.
“It’s a big one. The first game of the season is always a big one. You want to have a winning record, I like having a winning record. I don’t ever like having a non-winning record during the season, so if you win the first one, you’re halfway, you got a jump start. But it’s a great rivalry game, and obviously, being the game to kick off the season, it’s special.”
Like any rivalry game, it is coming with considerable trash talk from both sides. That’s certainly been the case in the buildup to this game. The trash talk has been flying back and forth on social media for months among fans and some players.
The Gators have noticed.
“I’ve seen it, but I don’t pay attention to that,” cornerback Marco Wilson said. “Usually when guys talk a lot they might be afraid. I just keep my mouth shut and keep grinding and stay focused on Aug. 24.”
The trash talk isn’t what’s been keeping the Gators fired up throughout the summer. It’s the fact they’re opening the season against Miami at a neutral site — and the college football world will be watching.
“It’s a really hyped-up game,” Franks said. “It’s the start of the season. We have to start strong and get momentum going our way. It’s going to be an exciting game for a lot of people.
“This is the kind of game you want to play in. You come to a big university so everybody in the country watches you. You go out there and shine under those lights.
“I’ve always been told that pressure busts pipes, but it also makes diamonds. How are you going to respond when the lights come on and everybody is watching? It definitely will be fun.”