College football’s 2019 season officially kicks off tonight with Miami and Florida meeting in Orlando in a clash of Sunshine State rivals. This game was originally scheduled for Aug. 31 but was shifted to Aug. 24 for college football’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2019.
Florida was one of the nation’s most-improved teams in coach Dan Mullen’s first year in Gainesville last season. The Gators finished 4-7 in 2017 but jumped to 10-3 after beating Michigan in the Peach Bowl in ’18. Mullen hopes to maintain the momentum established from last fall and push Florida into contention for the SEC East title. The Gators return quarterback Feleipe Franks and one of the SEC’s top cast of skill players, but big question marks remain in the trenches with four new starters. Despite some attrition in the secondary, Florida returns one of the SEC’s top defenses.
Change is the best way to sum up Miami’s offseason. The Hurricanes had high expectations going into 2018 but slumped to 7-6 and finished outside of the top 25. Mark Richt decided to retire, which prompted Miami to bring back Manny Diaz after he left his post as defensive coordinator to take the head-coaching job at Temple earlier in December. Diaz revamped the staff and hired one of the nation’s top play-callers in Dan Enos. He also hit the transfer portal looking for instant help on both sides of the ball and came away with a couple of potential impact newcomers for 2019. While this is Diaz’s first opportunity to be a head coach, he’s pushed the right buttons to get the Hurricanes back on track this fall. Diaz worked under Dan Mullen as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State for two one-year stints (2010 and 2015). The first-year coach would certainly like to deliver a similar turnaround effort to the one Mullen led in his debut at Florida last season. With a wide-open Coastal Division, contending for a trip to Charlotte in December is within reach if Miami is able to get consistent and steady play from its quarterbacks.
Miami holds a 29-26 edge in the all-time series versus Florida. These two teams have not played since 2013 and have met only twice since ’05. However, the Gators and Hurricanes inked a two-game series for 2024-25, ensuring this rivalry will be more active on the gridiron in the future.
Florida vs. Miami (Orlando – Camping World Stadium)
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida -7.5
When Miami Has the Ball
Miami opened fall practice with three quarterbacks – Jarren Williams, Tate Martell and N’Kosi Perry – vying for the starting job. Williams edged Martell and Perry and will get his first start on Saturday night. The Georgia native ranked as the No. 77 prospect in the 2018 signing class and played in one game as a freshman to preserve a redshirt year. The backup battle between Perry and Martell is still ongoing, but Martell received some snaps at receiver late in the fall.
Arm talent or the ability to create plays with his legs certainly isn’t in question for Williams. However, he doesn’t have much experience and will be working behind an offensive line that is a question mark going into the season. The Hurricanes expect to start two freshmen in the trenches on Saturday night, which is not an ideal setup against a Florida pass rush that recorded 37 sacks in 2018. Jabari Zuniga is the headliner for coordinator Todd Grantham in the trenches, with Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard slated to wreak havoc off the other side in 2019. Steady senior David Reese patrols the middle of the defense at linebacker for the Gators, and the secondary ranks among the best in the nation with C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson lining up at cornerback.
When Williams drops back to pass, he’s got one of the ACC’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Jeff Thomas decided to transfer after the 2018 season but returned to Coral Gables and is primed for a big year under Enos. Additionally, Buffalo transfer K.J. Osborn has added another weapon over the middle for Williams. Tight ends Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory will also be involved. Running back DeeJay Dallas ran for 617 yards on just 109 attempts last fall and ranks among the ACC’s top rushers going into 2019. Florida struggled to stop the run at times last fall, so if Miami’s line holds its own, Dallas could find a few big plays on the ground.
When Florida Has the Ball
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks was one of the SEC’s most-improved players in 2018. After an uneven performance against Missouri on Nov. 3, Franks went on to throw eight touchdowns to zero picks and added four more scores on the ground over his final four games. He finished the year with 2,457 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 350 yards and seven scores.
If Florida wants to challenge Georgia in the SEC East, Franks has to pick up where he left off in 2018 and continue to elevate his performance. Mullen’s coaching was a big reason for Franks’ development, and a full offseason to work under the staff again should pay dividends. Mullen also has a deep cast of skill talent to utilize. The Gators return their top six statistical receivers from last fall, along with running backs Lamical Perine (826 yards in 2018), Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis.
While Franks is poised to push for All-SEC honors and the skill talent is loaded, Florida does have a glaring weakness on offense. Similar to Miami, the Gators enter this matchup with uncertainty up front. This position has been a preseason question mark over the last few years but improved significantly in 2018. However, four starters from that group have departed Gainesville, and depth was an issue this offseason.
Mullen and Florida’s offense will find out right away on Saturday night just how far this group has improved since spring practice – or how far it has to go before SEC play hits. Miami brings one of the nation’s best defensive lines and linebacker units to Orlando. Junior end Jonathan Garvin collected 5.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss last season and is poised to challenge for All-America honors in 2019. The Hurricanes have good depth in the trenches, allowing this unit to rotate in a hot and humid atmosphere on Saturday night. The senior trio of Michael Pinckney, Shaquille Quarterman and Zach McCloud has started for three consecutive years and will also be a handful for the rebuilt Florida front.
Can Mullen find ways to move Franks around and outside of the pocket while the line finds its footing early in this matchup? Or will Miami's front seven simply win the battles up front, stuff the run and force Florida's offense to convert third-and-long all night?
It seems simple, but this game is likely to come down to one factor: Offensive line play. Which team can get enough of a push up front to open up their running game and keep pass rushers at bay? With this being the first game of the year and offenses still working out the kinks, a low-scoring defensive affair should be expected on Saturday night. With two standout defenses in place, big plays on special teams or any mistakes/turnovers will be amplified. In a tight game like this, quarterback play is even more important. Advantage: Florida.