The first season of the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville can be described as a mixed bag. The Florida Gators began the 2015 season 6-0, but they went just .500 over their last eight games including a 41-7 loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl to Michigan. So while the Gators won 10 games for the first time since 2012, the team is hoping for a better finish this season.
While the No. 25-ranked Gators had a surprising 2015 season, their opponent on Saturday did not. UMass went just 3-9 last season. The Minuteman will hope their first season as an independent will bring better success in the FBS as the program has failed to finish with more than three wins since moving up from the FCS ranks.
UMass at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Florida -37
Three Things to Watch
1. Luke Del Rio
Despite being 21 and having spent time in three different programs, Del Rio will make his first collegiate start on Saturday against UMass. Prior to transferring to Florida in 2015, Del Rio was at Alabama in 2013 and Oregon State in ‘14.
McElwain named Del Rio the starting quarterback after competing with a Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby and freshman Feleipe Franks during the spring. Del Rio has played sparingly throughout his career, as he enters with just 18 pass attempts, all of those coming when he was at Oregon State.
Florida’s offense was dreadful in its last six games to end the 2015 season, averaging just 12.8 points per game during that span. With the Gators opening SEC play against Kentucky next week, Saturday will be a good opportunity for Del Rio to start developing chemistry with his receivers during live game action.
2. Florida’s Offensive Line
No one likes talking about offensive line play until it becomes an issue. To say the Gators' offensive line was a major issue last season would be putting it mildly.
At one point, Florida played five freshmen on the line and their inexperience was a huge reason the team surrendered an FBS-high 45 sacks.
Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier acknowledges that the offensive line was bad in 2015, but he was impressed with the effort of his young players.
“You also looked out there, and what you saw was at times, you saw five true freshmen and you saw guys competing, maybe in situations that weren't ideal,” Nussmeier said. “They never backed down. They fought, they competed and that's how you develop a championship-caliber team. Obviously, we have to get better at a lot of things.”
Left tackle David Sharpe and Cam Dillard are the veterans of the unit. Sophomores Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson could use a lot of reps against an opponent like UMass before the team begins SEC play in Week 2.
3. Ross Comis
The player that might be the key to the UMass program this season is its starting quarterback. Comis is replacing Blake Frohnapfel, who threw for 2,919 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015.
Comis appeared in six games last season in relief of Frohnapfel, but his action was limited. Comis has yet to attempt more than eight passes in a game. The redshirt sophomore will face a huge test as he will be playing against an athletic Gators defense.
Florida ranked fourth in the SEC in both total and scoring defense in 2015. No matter the result, Saturday will be a great learning experience for Comis against one of the nation’s best defenses.
Florida won’t learn a lot about its team against UMass. This game will solely be used as a warm up before Kentucky comes to Gainesville in Week 2.
After the way the team played to finish out last season, Florida has to be chomping at the bit to get back on the field and attempt to silence the critics. While Del Rio will play a lot, expect a lot of younger guys further down the depth chart before this game is over.
Prediction: Florida 52, UMass 10
— 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, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.