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Gators Ready for Rare Week 1 Spotlight

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Florida Gators will start the year with the spotlight squarely on them, a position they aren't used to being in.

Over the past three years, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M have all played early-season neutral-site games against Power Five opponents – one of the newest crazes in college football over the past decade.

One SEC blueblood is noticeably absent from that list: the two-time defending SEC East champion Florida Gators.

That changes this fall, when Florida ventures to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to battle Michigan in the program’s first regular-season non-conference game outside of the Sunshine State since a 38-21 defeat at Syracuse in 1991. That was so long ago that the SEC still had 10 teams and no divisions. It’s been a quarter-century since the Gators even opened against a current Power Five opponent, doing so a year after the Syracuse debacle in 1992 against Kentucky.

Gone are the days when the Gators could simply go through the motions and start 1-0. Extending the nation’s longest streak of opening-week victories (27) will require a high-level performance against a Wolverines team that blasted the Gators, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl just 18 months ago.

For third-year head coach, Jim McElwain, unlike his players, a marquee Week 1 contest isn’t new. McElwain spent three seasons at Colorado State from 2012-14, in which the Rams opened up with rival Colorado at the venue that should still be named Mile High Stadium in Denver. The underdog Rams were victorious in two of those three meetings.

McElwain hopes to channel some of that magic from his time in Colorado with his current team come September.

“College football fans, and Florida fans, deserve for us to go out and play whoever we can at the best of our ability no matter where they’re from,” McElwain said Tuesday. “I think it’s really good for college football that two different conferences are playing each other on opening day.  It’s something that I wanted to do.”

While fans love the anticipation of a big game to start the season rather than sitting in the hot sun watching a 52-3 beatdown of an FCS opponent in town for a paycheck, it fuels the players as well. That’s especially true for the Gators, being a new experience for them.

“It’s one of the biggest stadiums in football,” senior safety Marcell Harris said of the venue known as JerryWorld. “I can’t wait to step out on that field and see that atmosphere. Everyone says, everything’s bigger in Dallas, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

The bells and whistles of playing at the home of the Dallas Cowboys are obviously a draw for any player, but the 34-point beatdown at the hands of the Wolverines 18 months ago is also adding fuel to the Florida fire.

“We have to have a chip on our shoulder,” Harris said. “The last time we played Michigan, it didn’t come out so great.”

Will this be a one-off event for Florida? McElwain hopes the clash with Michigan is just the beginning for the Gators in neutral-site ventures.

“It’s something moving forward that we’re looking to do in the future,” McElwain said. “I just think it’s the way it should be. I don’t know, maybe I’m screwed up.”

Screwed up? Nah. He’s just jumping on the train to greener (the color of money) pastures conducted by Nick Saban and Alabama, who played in the first of these games in their current format nine years ago in Atlanta.

Florida currently has one future neutral-site non-conference game scheduled: 2019 in Orlando against former annual rival Miami (FL). Expect the Gators to attempt to be a part of one of these games in the early part of next decade as well. Coupled with Florida State as an annual foe, strength of schedule should never be a question for Florida in those years with a second big-name opponent outside of the SEC.

Welcome to the party, Florida. You’re a little late, but win or lose, there are still plenty of rewards to reap. Just play better than you did in Syracuse.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.