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Game of the Week Preview: Florida-Miami

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The two powerhouse in-state programs will play for just the second time in a decade-and-a-half, kicking off college football's 150th season with a made-for-TV week zero showcase.

Overview -- The two powerhouse in-state programs will play for just the second time in a decade-and-a-half, kicking off college football's 150th season with a made-for-TV week zero showcase in Orlando's Camping World Stadium. Fresh off ten wins in Dan Mullen's debut, Florida enters with a top ten ranking in the polls and national expectations. Miami, with former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz taking over, moves forward from the Mark Richt era. Season-long storylines will, in part, be set by Saturday's result. Consider this neutral site pairing a rivalry reintroduction as the Gators and Hurricanes have announced a future home-and-home series for 2024 and 2025.

Why to Watch -- Fans have waited six months for college football and this contest stands as a warm welcome back. These are two of the nation's preeminent names, with an intertwined history that comes with natural narratives. Simply put, these two being on the big stage is good for the game. The matchup of Florida signal caller Feleipe Franks, fresh off becoming one of only ten SEC quarterbacks the last 20 years with at least 24 passing touchdowns and seven rushing scores in a single year, against a Miami unit that just led the nation in passing defense and tied for first in tackles for loss will be fascinating. Expect a night of high energy and big plays.

Keys for Florida

1. Limit Miami's Big Plays -- Florida has to make the Hurricanes, namely new quarterback Jarren Williams, work for everything. If the Gators give up consistent production, so be it; they cannot allow the Hurricanes to switch fields or gain momentum with chunk gains. Defensive focus will need to center on receiver Jeff Thomas, over 16 yards per catch, and running back Deejay Dallas, nearly 5.7 yards per rush. Both players are remarkably dynamic in space. Proper defensive alignment and sound tackling form will be key. Simply put, it's unlikely that a freshman quarterback making his first-ever start will be able to consistently and proficiently lead his team up and down the field against one of the nation's premier defenses, and elite secondaries, by only converting short-to-intermediate passes all night long. All offenses need big plays, especially units so young under center. For Florida's defenders: be aggressive, but keep everything in front of you, be smart and make any and all production earned.            

2. Production From Greenard, Zuniga -- Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will obviously look to attack, confuse and frustrate Jarren Williams. His lack of game experience, for Miami, is a vulnerability that Florida needs to exploit. Proven defenders Jon Greenard, 15.5 tackles for loss at Louisville in 2017, and Jabari Zuniga, 27.5 career tackles for loss, bring agility and quickness to the line of scrimmage; it's there that the Gators can take control. With the questions the Hurricanes have under center, step one, for Florida, is to win consistently up front. On paper, Greenard and Zuniga are one of the premier edge tandems in the SEC. Greenard could prove to be quite the difference-maker as his familiarity with Grantham from his time with the Cardinals will likely smooth out some of the learning curve that transfers sometimes have. Constant disruption in the trenches from the front four, namely the defensive ends, would likely make Saturday night a long one for Williams and the Hurricanes.    

3. Establish a North-South Running Game -- One of Florida's big questions on paper is an inexperienced offensive line. Center Nick Buchanan returns as the lone starter and lone senior on a front five soon to step right onto the big stage. Miami's front seven, with stars like Jonathan Garvin, Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney, is clearly one of the best in all of college football. The best way to mitigate some of the Hurricanes' aggressiveness is to play downhill, running right at the athletes who want to run themselves. Running back Lamical Perine is a productive between-the-tackles runner capable of being the offensive focal point. A sturdy after-contact runner, he averaged 6.16 yards per carry in 2018. Additionally, Perine has a track record of stepping up in big games. While Feleipe Franks' mobility should also be used to keep Miami's defense off balance, a heavy dose of Perine and company may prove to be the best way to stem that tide. Early production on the ground would also help the Gators settle into a groove up front, an absolute-must given the Hurricanes' strengths.

Keys for Miami

1. Early Success -- With a new head coach and a new quarterback, it's imperative for the Hurricanes to get off to a good start in Orlando. Confidence is critical in every football game, but especially in a case like this. Though Manny Diaz has been one of the nation's best defensive coordinators with Miami and the talemted Jarren Williams has clearly earned his first-team opportunities, the relative unknowns are still there. Facing a top ten opponent, one fresh off ten wins and riding a notable wave of momentum, a statement out of the gate could change the entire tenor and tone of the matchup. Conversely, it might be difficult for a the Hurricanes, and Williams, to rally back against Florida, boasting one of the top secondaries in the game, by overcoming a significant early deficit. Every football game, most-specifically those early in the year, has unique storylines and narratives; here, Miami needs to write the first few words. Diaz's team needs to hit the ground running.    

2. Get the Football to Brevin Jordan and Deejay Dallas -- The Hurricanes have an unparalleled history of tight end play and the next in line at "Tight End U" is Jordan. He proved to be a very reliable target as a true freshman, catching 32 passes, including four for touchdowns. Tight ends are often great security blankets for young quarterbacks and Jordan just might be Jarren Williams' new best friend. Additionally, the best way to attack Florida's defense may be via Jordan both underneath and through the seams. While the Gators are brimming with talent in the defensive backfield, there may be more favorable matchups with Jordan against linebackers or even safeties in coverage. Dallas might be the best pure playmaker on the field. He runs with great vision and is a home run waiting to happen however he touches the football. Not only should Dallas be a clear focal point in the run game, giving him plenty of opportunities to get loose and decreasing the responsibility on Williams, he can also be dynamic as a receiver. Such throws, to both Jordan and Dallas, may be safer in nature for Williams.

3. Force Third and Long Situations -- Impressively, the Hurricanes led the nation in third down conversion defense in 2018, holding opponent's to just a 25.27% success rate. You can win a lot of football games that way, even big ones. Part of what makes Florida so difficult to defend is the fact that Dan Mullen's system, focusing heavy on the run, including utilizing the quarterback, creates many third-down-and-short circumstances. There, the versatility of Feleipe Franks and the rugged running ability of Lamical Perine become even more effective. Miami has the talent to dominant absolutely any foe defensively; step one is limiting gains on first and second downs, the specialty of star linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney, thus creating obvious passing situations that give edge rushers Jonathan Garvin and Virginia Tech-transfer Trevon Hill the chance to pressure the quarterback. From there, the entire gameplan (see chain, turnover) falls right into place.

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Florida -- Feleipe Franks was a revelation in Dan Mullen's first season, progressing nicely and scoring 31 total touchdowns. His overall progression has been critical. Jarren Williams will soon step into the spotlight for Miami.

Running Back: Florida -- Though the talented Deejay Dallas is poised for a huge season, the Gators have one of the best collections of running backs in all of college football. Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce combined for 1,250 rushing yards a year ago. 

Pass Catchers: Florida -- Again, the Gators' depth is quite notable. Led by Van Jefferson, Florida's top six receivers all return. Keep an eye on Miami's one-two combo of Jeff Thomas and Buffalo-transfer K.J. Osborn, along with Brevin Jordan at tight end.  

Offensive Line: Miami -- Guard Navaughn Donaldson is a star up front for the Hurricanes, one of the nation's best at his position. Though there is inexperience for both teams, Florida returns just one starter overall.

Defensive Line: Florida -- Though end Jonathan Garvin will be the best defensive lineman in this game, the Gators get a slight edge due to depth and experience at tackle. From Garvin and Trevon Hill to Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard, great talent will be showcased.   

Linebackers: Miami -- Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud form the nation's premier unit. Quarterman and Pinckney have combined for 452 career tackles, 60.5 tackles for loss, 21 sacks, 26 quarterback hurries, 14 pass breakups and four interceptions. 

Secondary: Florida -- No team in the country has a better three-man cornerback rotation than the Gators with C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean. An impressive safety rotation is also there. Miami, replacing a lot, just led the game in pass defense. 

Special Teams: Florida -- The Gators return an outstanding kicker-punter combo in Evan McPherson and Tommy Townsend. Freddie Swain and Deejay Dallas are both big-play return specialists for Florida and Miami, respectively.

Coaching: Florida -- Dan Mullen's staff has the benefit of a year of cohesion and experience, plus ten wins of validation. Manny Diaz has assembled an impressive collection of coaches, including former Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos.

Intangibles: Miami -- With national expectations, there may be a little extra pressure on Florida, who entered last season, and excelled, starting under the radar. Expectations for the Hurricanes seem to be relatively-modest, which may prove to be a great motivator.

Players to Watch

Florida: Jon Greenard, DE -- Two years ago, Greenard ranked in the top five in the ACC in tackles for loss. Reunited with Todd Grantham, he could have a game-shaping impact in his first-ever contest with the Gators. Much of Florida's success will hinge on his ability up front.   

Miami: Deejay Dallas, RB -- With a freshman quarterback with him in the backfield, Dallas' big play ability will be even more important. Expect the offensive gameplan to center around Dallas, who can impact games a number of different ways.

Prediction

There is the potential for these two elite defenses to take center stage. Season-openers sometimes come with offensive inconsistency; scoot the schedule up a week and we may see even more of the same. A few big plays could prove to be the difference. While Miami's front seven will largely control the line of scrimmage, the veteran experience of Feleipe Franks proves to be the difference in a hard-fought, close game. This treat of a showcase is a wonderful way to start college football's 150th anniversary. Florida -- 23, Miami -- 16

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports