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Utah vs. Florida Football Prediction and Preview

Billy Napier's Gators debut has defending Pac-12 champion Utes paying visit to the Swamp.

Few college football Week 1 games promise to be more intriguing than Utah facing Florida in the Swamp on Saturday.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 1

The defending Pac-12 champions are facing an SEC opponent for the first time since defeating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. No. 7 Utah poses a stiff challenge to a rebuilding Gators squad. The Utes are a preseason pick to finish atop the Pac-12 again, mostly because they return virtually every major contributor from their championship team. Utah has an efficient offense to pair with a punishing defense and Kyle Whittingham is one of the top head coaches in the game.

The Gators are more of an enigma wrapped in a riddle under first-year head coach Billy Napier. Florida was thoroughly mediocre in Dan Mullen's final season, sputtering to six wins and a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2017. Napier molded Louisiana into a Top 25 program in four seasons with the Ragin' Cajuns. He has the coaching acumen and enough talent on the roster to get the Gators back on track right away, but it may take some time for new pieces on both sides of the ball to gel.

Florida won the only previous meeting between the two teams, beating Utah 38-29 in 1977.

No. 7 Utah at Florida

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Utah -3

When Utah Has the Ball

Cam Rising is the x-factor on Utah's offense. When Rising takes snaps at quarterback, the Utes have a dynamic and efficient attack. After he took over as a starter last season, Utah averaged 37.3 points and 446.1 yards per game against Pac-12 opponents. The Utes racked up 50 touchdowns in those 10 games, culminating in another Pac-12 South title and a win in the conference championship game. Rising's ability to extend plays and make teammates look good will take Utah far this season.

Rising's surgically repaired shoulder is at full strength, meaning he will be able to test defenses with the deep ball more often this season. Five of Utah's top six receivers are back as targets — led by tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. The duo combined for 1,121 yards and 14 touchdowns on 86 receptions a year ago. Rising stars Devaughn Vele and Money Parks will also be big contributors in the passing game.

A more potent passing attack will complement the usual powerful running game. Tavion Thomas leads the backfield again after rushing for 1,108 yards and a school-record 21 touchdowns a season ago. Thomas will earn the bulks of the carries in the backfield, but Micah Bernard, Chris Curry, and true freshman Jaylon Glover also figure to be in the mix. Bernard will likely be used frequently as a receiver on some plays.

Florida will need to shore up its run defense to avoid getting burnt by Utah's backfield. The Gators allowed 163.9 yards on the ground per game last season — ranking 10th in the SEC.

When Florida Has the Ball

Anthony Richardson has all the tools to be a special quarterback. Richardson tallied 930 yards of total offense in eight games while playing behind Emory Jones last season. At 7.9 yards per carry, he showed he can be an explosive runner. Still, Richardson needs to show improvement in his pass efficiency and accuracy. He completed only 59 percent of his pass attempts a year ago.

Nay'Quan Wright and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson Jr. headline the backfield. Wright battled injuries in the spring after tallying 326 yards and a touchdown in a crowded backfield last season. Johnson ran for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns during his freshman campaign with the Ragin' Cajuns last season.

Richardson will have experienced targets in the passing game. Justin Shorter was Florida's No. 2 receiver a year ago, racking up 550 yards and three touchdowns on 41 catches. Xzavier Henderson may be on the cusp of a breakout season after becoming a starter this fall. Henderson had 277 yards and two scores on 26 receptions in 2021.

Utah's secondary is at full strength after struggling with injuries a year ago. That should shore up a pass defense that unraveled in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State and complicate Florida's potential offensive resurgence. Stopping the run shouldn't be a problem for the Utes, who led the Pac-12 in allowing 119.4 rushing yards per game last season.

Final Analysis

Bringing Utah into the Swamp gives Florida a chance to make a major statement in its first game. The Gators will be a vastly improved team this season. The only problem is the Utes are deeply talented and simply more experienced on both sides of the ball. Utah has carved out an identity as a punishing physical football team and excels at imposing its will down the stretch. The Utes have a knack for wearing down opponents faster than the Florida humidity wears down the human body — a lesson the Gators will learn on Saturday.

Prediction: Utah 31, Florida 21

Podcast: Week 1 Preview and Predictions + Betting and Picks Against the Spread

Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.