Florida coach Billy Napier faces challenging coaching debut at The Swamp vs. Utah

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

Game week is finally here for Florida football, and first-year head coach Billy Napier admitted there will be butterflies when he takes the sidelines at the The Swamp on Saturday night.

Napier won’t be easing into his coaching debut. The Gators host No. 7 Utah (7 p.m., ESPN), which returns 17 starters from a team that won the Pac-12 championship and went to the Rose Bowl last season.

With Utah as a two-point favorite, Florida will be an underdog in a home opener for the first time since 1978. The Gators have won 31 straight home openers and 31 of their last 32 openers overall.

 “We've got a tremendous amount of respect for Utah and the brand of football that they play on offense, defense, and special teams,” Napier said. “Very fundamentally sound group. They play with effort. They're tough. They've been a very consistent performer in the Pac-12.”

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Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier yells toward the quarterbacks during fall football practice at Sanders Outdoor Practice Fields in Gainesville, FL on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

How will new system play against Utah?

Napier brought a detail-oriented approach into spring practices and fall camps. But there are still some nerves in implementing a new system against a Utah opponent that has become a trendy pick to reach the College Football Playoff.

“I don't think I'm ever going to be beyond that,” Napier said. “I think, as a competitor, man, football in particular, you work the entire year and you only get so many opportunities to compete.

“I think what I've learned over time is the important part is that how do you get to a place where you are well-prepared and you have confidence, right, as a competitor. I think, as a head coach, having done that, I don't know how many times, 40-plus times, you make a lot of mistakes.

“So I think along the way you learn what works for you and what helps you deal with some of that. So I think I'm a little bit more seasoned maybe than I would be if this was the first time.”

There is plenty of curiosity about how a Napier-coached team is going to execute in all three phases. Napier intends to keep things close to the vest.

"My wife (Ali), she's burning me up last night with questions about game day," Napier said. "But I think it's important that we set priorities. We've got a very specific plan to get ready ...

"Each week you start over. It's almost like you're taking a final exam each week. It's a new set of material, new personnel, new venue, new variables, new matchups."

Gators to face returning starter at QB: Utah's Cameron Rising

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) runs for a touchdown during the first half in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State on, Jan. 1, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif.

The Utes are led by returning starting quarterback Cameron Rising, who threw for 2,493 yards with 20 TDs and five interceptions last season. In Rising's last start, he threw for 214 yards and 2 TDs and rushed for 82 yards and 1 TD in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State before being knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter of an eventual 48-45 loss to the Buckeyes. When Rising left the game, the score was tied at 38.

"He's a great quarterback," Florida linebacker Amari Burney said. "He played last year. We seen what he did last year. He's coming back again. I feel like -- and I think they are mad about the Rose Bowl game. So I feel like they've got a little vengeance on them."

Burney, who was part of season-opening wins against Miami (2019) and Ole Miss (2020) in his UF career, said the Utah game presents an opportunity to boost momentum in Napier's first season.

"It can set a good tone," Burney said. "We have a lot of faith in Coach Billy Napier. I'm sure the fans do too. If we go out there and we perform like how we should perform and come out with a win, then I feel like it's going to set the tone for a very good season."

Amari Burney says he's ready for game

Burney, who has been in and out of practices in fall camp with injuries, declared himself good to go for Saturday against the Utes.

"Very tired of riding that bicycle," Burney said. "I feel like they didn't disclose the injury, so I'm not going to say too much about that. But I'm 100 percent healthy, and I'm back."