Gators Gameday: Question marks and key matchup for Florida versus No. 8 Utah

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

Three questions for Florida football heading into Saturday's matchup No. 8 Utah in head coach Billy Napier's debut.

Can the Gators match Utah's physical play?

Utah is considered the most physical team in the Pac 12, which played a role in the Utes winning their first conference title in school history last season. Utah coach Kyle Wittingham will look to establish the run first to open things up for standout quarterback Cameron Rising and the passing game. Florida can't afford too many missed tackles.

On offense, Florida will look set a physical tone as well behind a starting offensive line that averages 321.4 pounds. Utah's defensive front four averages 271 pounds, so there could be chances to open some holes for the run game.

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Who wins the turnover battle?

Gators' Tre'Vez Johnson (16) runs a drill in the first practice of the fall training camp, held at the practice facility on the Florida campus in Gainesville on Aug. 3, 2022.

Florida was one of the worst teams in the country in turnover margin last season, ranking 115th out of 130 FBS teams at minus-8. The Gators forced just 13 takeaways in 13 games. Turnover circuits were emphasized in practice during fall camp. 

“You got to take the ball," Florida defensive back Tre'vez Johnson said. "That’s our motto when we break it down in the DB room. We’ve to get turnovers to win the game.”

Utah was more in the middle of the pack in turnover margin, ranking 64th in the country at plus-1 with 16 takeaways. UF quarterback Anthony Richardson (5 interceptions in 64 pass attempts last season) is going to need to be on point with his throws and decision making.

Will a special teams play make the difference?

Gators kicker Trey Smack (29) warms up before the preseason football scrimmage, Aug. 13, 2022 at Sanders Football Practice Field in Gainesville.

One of Napier's signature wins at Louisiana, a 31-14 upset at No. 23 Iowa State to start the 2020 season, featured a 95-yard kickoff return for a TD and an 83-yard punt return for a TD. Receiver Ja'Markis Weston, receiver Xzavier Henderson, running back Nay'quan Wright and freshman running back Trevor Etienne are return man possibilities for the Gators on Saturday. Could one of them pop off a big play?

In a tight game, a field goal could make the difference. Florida hasn't made a concrete decision on a kicker yet, with Trey Smack and Adam Mihalek listed as co-starters on the depth chart. Both could end up alternating on field goal attempts and/or kickoffs on Saturday night.

Key matchup for Gators and Utes

Utah's tight ends versus UF's linebackers and defensive backs: Utah has two dangerous tight ends, Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kinkaid, who could cause the Gator defensive fits if they are not covered well. Both are exceptional pass-catchers who combined for 14 TDs last season. Kuithe (50 receptions, 611 yards, 6 TD) and Kincaid (36-510-8) sometimes line up on the field together in two-TE sets.

Johnson said Florida's defensive backs and linebackers are ready for the challenge. "You’ve got to be a lot more physical against a tight end," Johnson said. "He’s going to use his hands, so I’m going to use mine.”