Week 1 of the college football season has finally arrived, and we have a doozy of a primetime game on Thursday night. After pulling off the upset against Utah last year, Florida makes its way to Rice-Eccles Stadium with the Utes hungry for revenge.
Despite that opening win last year, the Gators had a disappointing 6-7 season in the first year with Billy Napier. Meanwhile, Utah won the Pac-12 for the second season in a row. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes could be without quarterback Cam Rising, which is one of the biggest storylines to watch in Week 1.
Florida Gators Vs. Utah Utes Prediction & Pick
I locked in Florida +8 on July 28, and the number trickled down from that point on. If Rising is officially in, I’d be willing to take the Gators at anything +6.5 or better. If he’s out, I’m betting Florida all the way down to a pick ‘em. Utah’s quarterback depth is a real issue in this game and for the season as a whole.
Not only is Rising questionable to start the year, but backup Brandon Rose suffered an undisclosed injury. That leaves Bryson Barnes, a walk-on junior who relieved an injured Rising in the Rose Bowl, as the presumed starter if Rising can’t go. Barnes completed 10 of 19 passes in that game for 112 yards, an admirable effort given the circumstances.
Here is Kyle Whittingham talking about Cam Rising's status and how Nate Johnson has closed the gap on Bryson Barnes for the #2 quarterback spot. pic.twitter.com/RfHgUiSt8S
— Dana Greene (@dana_greene) August 22, 2023
It’s also important to note that Utah lost its top target, NFL first-round pick Dalton Kincaid. Tight end Brant Kuithe is expected to ease that loss, but he’s recovering from an ACL injury of his own suffered last September. His status remains unclear for this game.
Whether it’s a hobbled Rising or an inexperienced Barnes, I like Florida’s chances in this game. Their new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong orchestrated the “Nasty Bunch” defense at Southern Miss last year that ranked top five nationally in both tackles for loss and sacks. They’ll put pressure on Utah’s quarterback.
I ultimately believe Kyle Whittingham is too smart to force Rising out there for a non-conference game if he’s not ready given their aspirations to win their third straight Pac 12 title. Utah has the opportunity to complete the first Pac 12 three-peat in almost two decades and just the eighth in over 100 years of Pac 12 football.
This line is overinflated given how last season ended for these teams, but Florida has a more talented roster on both sides of the ball. Whittingham is one of the best coaches in the country and Rice-Eccles boasts an electric home crowd, but I like Florida’s chances to make this the most entertaining game of the season thus far.
Florida Gators Vs. Utah Utes Odds
This game between Florida and Utah has seen the most line movement of Week 1 given the uncertainty surrounding Rising’s recovery from his ACL injury. Rising tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl in January, and it remains to be seen if he’ll be ready to play nine months later. The spread for this game opened with Utah as 9-point home favorites, but the spread had dropped to as low as 4.5 with the Rising uncertainty.
On August 25, Utah released its official depth chart for the 2023 season. Money quickly flooded in on the Utes, pushing the spread back to 7, where it sits on Sunday night as I’m writing this section. Keep your eyes peeled on Twitter leading up to kickoff for official confirmation one way or the other on Rising’s status.
The over-under in this game is also impacted by Rising’s availability. At open, the total was set at 56.5, but money has come in on the under, pushing it down to a low point of 45.5. These teams played to a final total of 55 points last season, so taking an over on a deflated total line could be an intriguing move for this game.
Florida Gators Vs. Utah Utes Key Matchups
Graham Mertz vs the Utah secondary
I believe Graham Mertz was done a disservice by his coaching at Wisconsin. Former head coach Paul Chryst led a bruising wide zone run scheme, but that didn’t turn into a high rate of play-action like it should have. Mertz was at his best in play-action sets as his passer rating improved over 40 points on those throws. However, he was in the bottom ten in play action rate among qualified quarterbacks in his last two years at Wisconsin.
Now, Mertz enters a Billy Napier offense that embraces deep shots off play-action. Anthony Richardson had a 37.3% play-action rate, which was 14th in the FBS last year per PFF. In Napier’s Louisiana offense, Levi Lewis averaged a 28.5% play action rate from 2019 to 2021. For reference, Mertz’s rate was 19.8% in 2022.
This is an NFL throw from Graham Mertz. Classic max protect play-action with a backside post and a deep crosser underneath it. Mertz layers the ball nicely over the linebacker for a solid gain pic.twitter.com/BtAifWpyyb
— Tyler Forness (@TheRealForno) June 19, 2023
Florida’s running back tandem Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne combined for over 1,500 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Utah coughed up 139 yards on just 17 carries against them last year (8.2 YPC) and had a hard time preventing big rushing plays last season, ranking 117th in explosive runs allowed and 71st in tackling.
Utah might be compelled to commit extra resources to run defense in this game, which would afford Mertz play-action opportunities against a Utes secondary that lost its best player, Clark Phillips III, who’s now on the Atlanta Falcons. Look for Ricky Pearsall, who averaged 20 yards per reception last year, to put some pressure on that secondary.
Ja’Quinden Jackson vs Florida’s run defense
Regardless of who’s under center for Utah in this game, we should expect a heavy dose of the run game – the Utes ranked 25th in run play rate last season. With Tavion Thomas moving on, Ja’Quinden Jackson has become the lead back after just 79 total rushing attempts last season.
While the sample size was small last year, Jackson was electric – he averaged 6.7 YPC and 4.22 yards after contact per attempt. Both were top 20 marks in the FBS among qualified RBs, per PFF. Jackson averaged 101 yards over his final three games including the Pac 12 championship and the Rose Bowl.
Jackson will be running into a Florida run defense that vastly underperformed last year, ranking 111th in EPA. Armstrong will bring some of that “Nasty Bunch” energy to the Gators, though. Florida’s nose tackle Desmond Watson is one to watch in this game. The 6’5”, 440 lb behemoth had 25 tackles and is a Florida fan favorite.
Desmond Watson is a 6’5” and 415-pound TRUE SOPHOMORE
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) September 21, 2022
There will be some new faces for Florida upfront as they’re replacing five of their top seven players in front seven snaps. Still, the addition of Armstrong should work wonders for this team’s high-level recruits. Specifically, edge Princely Umanmielen and LB Shemar James are breakout candidates.