A new era will begin on Saturday night as Dan Mullen runs through the tunnel for the first time as head coach of the Florida Gators, who are hosting the Charleston Southern Buccaneers from the FCS ranks. Florida will look to improve on its 4-7 record from a year ago, while Charleston Southern will also hope to improve its 6-5 record from 2017.
This will be the second time Florida and Charleston Southern have faced off. The first time was in 2009, when the Gators won by a commanding score of 62-3.
Charleston Southern at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida Gators offense
Under previous head coach Jim McElwain, the Gators offense was heavily criticized for being ultra conservative. Florida has not finished in the top 100 in scoring offense since 2014 and has not finished higher than 96th in total offense since 2010. That's why the team decided to hire Mullen, an offensive specialist, in the first place.
After struggling in 2017, quarterback Feleipe Franks will get a fresh start under Mullen. In 11 games last year, Franks threw for 1,438 yards, with nine touchdowns against eight interceptions. He also had a completion percentage of 54.6 that ranked outside the top 90 nationally.
The good news for Gators fans: While at Mississippi State, Mullen's offenses ranked 42nd (420.4 yards per game) among FBS teams in total offense from 2009-17. In the nine seasons before Mullen’s arrival, the Bulldogs ranked 114th in the country (313.3 yards per game).
While Charleston Southern probably won't provide much of a test, Florida could get fans optimistic about the season ahead by piling up the points on Saturday.
2. Charleston Southern's triple option
Charleston Southern runs a triple-option offense, but in an unconventional way. The Buccaneers operate the triple option out of the shotgun, creating confusing looks for opposing defenses.
Both Shane Bucenell and London Johnson are expected to see playing time at the quarterback position against the Gators. Noah Shuler is Charleston Southern's returning leading rusher after running for 583 rushing yards on 115 carries last season. Shuler also registered eight total touchdowns, which ranked eighth in the Big South last year.
It will be essential for the Gators defense to trust their assignments and not over-pursue against the Charleston Southern attack.
3. Gators defense
Florida's defense will return nine starters from a defense that finished 31st nationally last season (349.3 yards allowed per game), marking the first time since 2014 that it finished outside the top 10, and the first time since 2007 that it finished outside the top 15. With an offense that's expected to improve, the Gators will hope they can regain their top-10 status defensively this season.
Junior linebacker David Reese is one of the leaders of the Gators defense after finishing with 102 tackles in 2017, including a career-high 14 against Florida State. He was one of eight SEC players to record 100-plus tackles last year.
There should be plenty of opportunities for the Gators to force turnovers against the Buccaneers offense. The Gators were able to haul in 14 interceptions last season, which tied for second among SEC teams, as they ranked 19th nationally in interceptions per game.
Saturday's game is nothing more than a tune-up game for the Gators, who will kick off their SEC schedule the next week against the Kentucky Wildcats. It isn't a matter of if Florida will win, but by how much.
Florida 48, Charleston Southern 9
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo by Tim Casey, courtesy of floridagators.com)