Miami lineman Zion Nelson talks Gators opener
Let the one-month countdown begin, because four weeks of hype is not too much for this. Miami Hurricanes. Florida Gators. Neutral site. Two old rivals. Two pedigreed programs trying to be great again. Two high-aiming teams acting pretty cocky and trying to build evidence why they should be.
As the Canes begin preseason practice Friday night working toward the Aug. 24 opener in Orlando, we’ve already been reminded why we’ve missed what used to be UM’s greatest rivalry. Miami and the hated Gators played every season for a half century, through 1987, but next month will be meeting for only the seventh time since ‘87 and the first time in six years.
“I don’t really see them as a challenge,” Florida linebacker Andrew Chatfield said of the Canes, with rather blunt force. “We face SEC teams, big-boy teams. They faced one SEC team and they got smashed by LSU [33-17 to open last season] last time I checked.”
Then there was this delicious exchange on social media.
Miami mocked Florida for bragging about its secondary after the Gators referred to themselves as the “real DBU” — the Canes tweeting a reminder that UM had the No. 1 pass defense in all of college football in 2018, allowing only 135.6 yards per game.
Florida mocked right back.
“You right!!!” tweeted Gators assistant defensive coach Ryan Osborn. “No need to pass when Badger football runs for 333 yards!!!” The reference was to Miami’s 35-3 loss to Wisconsin in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl to end a 7-6 season. The tweet included three laughing-tears emojis, for added emphasis.
The Gators earned the right to be a little mouthy by finishing 10-3 last season, a six-game improvement under new coach Dan Mullen. A decisive bowl win over Michigan vaulted the Gators to No. 7 in the final polls.
“We understand what the Gator standard is all about,” declares Mullen, for now the most popular coach in Gainesville since Steve Spurrier scissored along the sideline of The Swamp.
UF is No. 8 in the 2019 preseason Top 25 at NCAA.com (the AP Top 25 poll has not been released yet.) Miami is unranked, and a seven-point underdog in next month’s game.
The Canes, though, are popping with confidence under first-year head coach Manny Diaz.
Miami should be great on defense with maybe the best linebacking in the country, led by Shaq Quarterman, who describes his goal as “pure domination,” noting, “It’s not supposed to be fair.”
Offense was UM’s big problem last season, but the Canes snatched Dan Enos from Nick Saban’s Alabama staff to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Says Diaz: “The minute Dan walked on campus, I think all of our quarterbacks improved.” This week on ESPN’s “Golic & Wingo” show Diaz said, “The best recruit we signed was Dan Enos.”
Much is made of Miami still being unsettled at quarterback, with N’Kosi Perry trying to hold onto the job against the charge of highly touted transfer Tate Martell, with third guy Jarren Williams perhaps also in the mix. But Diaz is convinced it’s a battle of strength and UM can win with whomever earns the job.
“I don’t know who that [starter] is,” says Diaz. “I’m going to find out here in the next two or three weeks.”
Perry must continue to show improved accuracy since last season and, even more so, improved maturity and no repeat of the off-field incidents that Diaz will have no tolerance for. Same for Williams, who was suspended one game last year for violating team rules and pondered transferring. Diaz surely had both QBs in mind when he praised the addition of Martell for improving “the culture in our quarterback room.”
Whomever emerges as the starter will have plenty of help from a deep running backs room and top targets like Jeff Thomas, transfer K.J. Osborn and beast tight end Brevin Jordan. Offensive line might be a weakness, but Diaz says, “My suspicion is they’ll play a lot better than a year ago.”
Miami is out to show it is greatly improved and ready to get back to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, while Florida is out to verify last season was no fluke.
One team will come out of next month’s season opener believing it is there: Great, or close enough to dream.
The other will be humbled and need to be quiet and put the swagger away a little bit.
It is ingrained in college fans that conference games are paramount, and Miami vs. Florida is not one of those. There is something about Canes-Gators, though. The history of it. The rivalry that foments the back-and-forth needling we already are seeing.
It feels like the biggest game of the season in a lot of ways, a matchup that rises to meet the honor of being the very first game of the sport’s 150th season.
Both programs have larger league concerns, yes.
Miami has never won an ACC championship since joining the league in 2004, though the Canes were in the ACC title game in 2017. The Canes’ big conference rival is Florida State, and the big roadblock is reigning national champion Clemson.
Florida has not won a Southeastern Conference championship since 2008, the Tim Tebow days, though it reached the SEC title game in 2015-16. The Gators’ big conference rival is nemesis Georgia and the big roadblock mighty Alabama.
Canes vs. Gators won’t affect either team’s path to their league’s championship game. But next month’s result will launch one season into orbit and knock the other to the canvas. It will set a tone either pitch-perfect or off-key.
Both teams talk pretty big for programs that haven’t won a lot lately.
A month from now, only one will have earned the right.
Welcome back, Canes-Gators. We’ve missed you.