GAINESVILLE — When Florida and Miami kick off Saturday night at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, they’ll have college football’s biggest stage of the weekend all to themselves.
There’s no other marquee game all day. There’s no real TV competition that night. Just two big-name programs celebrating the 150th anniversary of their sport by basking in the national spotlight.
Now all they have to do is prove they deserve it.
“Everybody is watching,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “What do you want them to think about you?”
For too long, neither program has been thought of much at all on the grand scale.
Sure, there have been flashes of success for both. The Gators won back-to-back SEC East titles under Jim McElwain. Miami rose to No. 2 in the country two years ago. But neither team has had a run of sustained success, the way both did a generation ago.
“We used to say whoever won the state championship usually had the inside track for the national championship,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “And that’s gone away for whatever reason, but there’s no reason why that can’t be the rule of law again.”
Mullen, naturally, agrees. The Gators, Hurricanes, and Seminoles still have most of the advantages they had when they won 11 national titles in 31 years.
“I think when you look at the programs, the local talent that still is here in the state,” Mullen said. “And you look at the history that all three programs have, I don’t see why it couldn’t get that way where you used to have three top-10 programs in the state.”
It won’t happen this year. When the preseason Associated Press top 25 came out Monday, No. 8 UF was the only one ranked at all. Miami and Florida State were both unranked for the first time since 2008.
Expectations are understandably muted at Miami, where the ’Canes are breaking in a new quarterback (redshirt freshman Jarren Williams) and a first-time head coach.
But the Gators deserve their preseason buzz. They return most of a roster that won 10 games last year and trounced Michigan in the Peach Bowl. They have the comfort that comes with a veteran quarterback and Year 2 of a coaching staff.
“Last year we were kind of still learning,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “We didn’t know what to expect as far as results-wise. I think now that we’ve done it, you know we put up a 10 win season and a New Year’s Six bowl and we’ve seen those results happen, I think the expectations will be a lot higher being that we’ve done it once already.”
Now they have to do it Saturday on the national stage to prove they belong, again.
Miami still hasn’t decided whether N’Kosi Perry or Ohio State transfer Tate Martell will back up Williams. But Diaz is open to the idea of playing Martell at receiver. “That would be up to Tate,” Diaz said, “but we’re going to do whatever we can to get our best personnel on the field the best way to help us win a game.”
Mullen doesn’t praise his quarterbacks often, so it’s worth noting that he said Feleipe Franks has improved more this offseason than he did all of last season.