For the Florida Gators and their fans, Saturday’s opener against No. 7 Utah is big because it’s Billy Napier’s debut.
For the Utes, the trip to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is beyond big. It’s monumental.
“I’ve been saying and writing for a long time…” The Salt Lake Tribune’s Josh Newman said, “that this is the biggest opener in the history of the program.”
The matchup is historic for Utah for several reasons, starting with the obvious: The Utes are really good.
Utah counts 17 returning starters from a team that won the Pac-12 and took Ohio State to the wire in the Rose Bowl. Nine of those returners earned all-conference recognition, including first-team quarterback Cameron Rising. Another, Tavion Thomas, rushed for 1,100 yards and 21 touchdowns. Only Georgia has a better tight end tandem than Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, and the defense should (again) be one of the best in the Pac-12.
The returning talent and the stability of 18-year coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff make the Utes preseason Pac-12 favorites and College Football Playoff contenders.
“It’s the kickoff game for what could be potentially the biggest season in program history,” said Utes play-by-play announcer Bill Riley, who also hosts a midday radio show at 700-AM KALL.
Those high expectations would make Week 1 big for Utah, regardless of the opponent. But the fact that it’s Florida resonates with lifelong fans like Brad Taylor — even if the Gators are only pegged to finish fourth in the SEC East.
“It doesn’t matter where Florida is,” said Taylor, a 26-year-old attorney who is flying into Tampa this weekend before driving up for the game. I think there’s so much cachet around the Florida program.”
And around the SEC and The Swamp. Though Utah as some history with the SEC — highlighted by the 14-point win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2008 season — it isn’t deep. The Utes have only played at two SEC schools: three times at Tennessee (most recently in 1984) and at UF in 1977. That’s it.
This, then, this a rare opportunity to not only beat an SEC school but to do so at one of the best stadium environments in the country. That’s why Utah fans got excited about the opportunity when the series was announced three years ago (with a meeting at Utah next year) and why Sam Weston began talking about it soon after the Rose Bowl.
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“We don’t get opportunities like this very often,” said Weston, a 27-year-old accountant.
Weston won’t be alone when he makes the trip from Salt Lake City. Utah sold out its original allotment of 3,000 tickets. Riley estimates the Utes will bring at least 10,000 fans.
As if the atmosphere and stakes aren’t enough, a few other stories add to the hoopla.
The Utes’ potential breakthrough year comes in a season likely to have three elite teams (Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia) and a bloated second tier. It’s easy to envision an undefeated or one-loss Utah team challenging for the final playoff spot. The fact that conference realignment remains unsettled adds to the urgency.
“Maybe there’s a sense that Utah needs to make a pretty big statement to get the attention of the Big Ten or SEC,” Weston said.
Regardless of Utah’s future, its past is connected with Florida. Before Urban Meyer and then-assistant Dan Mullen led the Gators to a pair of national titles, they went 22-2 at Utah. Though Meyer’s reputation in the UF fan base is mixed (to put it nicely), the Utes remember him fondly.
“Urban made it cool,” Riley said. “(Whittingham) has taken it and built upon it.”
Now Whittingham will take the program Meyer helped build into The Swamp for a matchup that’s big for the Gators but historic for the Utes.
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