Long, long ago, Florida's programs and tickets used "The _____ Game" as titles. I guess that's good enough for our season preview. Neil's writing them, and they'll run once a week on Thursdays — unless the entire SB Nation network has server troubles.
2012 season: 7-5, 5-3 ACC
Coach: Al Golden, third season (13-11)
Last result vs. Florida: Florida 26, Miami 3 (2008)
Series record vs. Florida: 28-26
Game date: Saturday, September 6, 2013
Game location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami
Who Are You?
The Miami Hurricanes, fresh off of a truly dreadful scandal that has so far caused the program to lose the chance to play in bowl games in each of the past two years...
WE INTERRUPT THIS STANDARD PREVIEW TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL SECTION RESERVED FOR FOUR OF THE GATORS' TWELVE OPPONENTS.
Why Does This Rivalry Matter?
It doesn't require the brains of a rocket scientist to figure out. The Gators and the Hurricanes are two proud programs who inhabit the same state. Eight combined national titles between the two schools would provide the perfect backdrop for an in-state yearly rivalry, wouldn't it? Too bad Jeremy Foley doesn't think that way, but that's another story — and with all the athletic success Foley brings to UF, it's really hard to get angry with him for anything, even pulling apart this rivalry.
As much as I would love to see these teams play every year, they don't, and as far as anyone can tell, won't. It's quite unfortunate for Gators fans, who would love nothing more than to beat up on the 'Canes every year, and since 2006 (when Foley had a shot to add Miami as a regular opponent), that's probably what Florida would have done — only in 2011 would Florida not have been a double-digit favorite over Miami, though the 2010 Florida-Miami game would have been a toss-up on the field.
But the infrequency of the meetings in the present don't eradicate the memories of the past.
The roots for the animosity in the Florida-Miami rivalry can be pinpointed at the 1971 game, which produced the Florida Flop. The teams didn't really like each other before that day to begin with, which is probably why Florida head coach Doug Dickey had no problem doing what he was about to do. Late in the game, with the Gators up 45-8, Dickey's entire defense suddenly dropped to the ground, allowing Miami to score. The move enabled Florida's John Reaves to break Jim Plunkett's NCAA record for all-time passing yardage. To celebrate, the entire Gators team then took off towards the pool in the back of the Orange Bowl that hosted the Miami Dolphins' live mascot.
For younger Gators, think of the 2007 end zone dance by Georgia, but imagine there's a pool right behind the end zone. That's about how Miami felt about Dickey's team's display.
The Florida Flop propelled the Gators to a seven-game winning streak in the series, but more importantly, it set the stage for the type of misbehavior seen in most rivalries. In 1980, Howard Schnellenberger ordered a meaningless field goal at the end of the game; Urban Meyer added one of his own against Randy Shannon's Miami team in 2008. (One thing that might have helped make sure the Gators got the right guy? Will Muschamp also ordered one in 2011 ... against former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger's completely outclassed Florida Atlantic team.
Why Is This Year's Game So Important?
Perhaps the most devastating loss in recent Florida history was in 2003, when Florida led Miami 33-10 midway through the third quarter, only to watch former Gator Brock Berlin lead the 'Canes all the way back for a 38-33 victory. (That was my first clue that this Ron Zook experiment was in danger of failing.) Berlin's incredible comeback (and ensuing Gator Chomp) highlighted a six-game Miami winning streak in the series, but Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, and a rock-solid defense abruptly snapped that streak with a 26-3 chomping of the 'Canes in Gainesville in 2008.
Unfortunately for Miami, it looks like half of those wins during that streak aren't going to last. In 2011, convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro claimed that he had provided illegal benefits to dozens of players considering Miami from 2002 through 2010. The NCAA found 12 players on the 2011 team guilty of receiving impermissible benefits, but immediately reinstated four of them once they paid back the money they had received. The other eight were suspended for one, four, or six games, depending on how much money they had received. As a result of the entire scandal, Miami was hit with the "lack of institutional control" charge, which is typically the most severe infraction the NCAA can find.
Here's the thing: All 12 players were eventually reinstated once they repaid their restitution. The players from the 2002-2004 teams never did, and since they are long out of Miami, have no reason to ever do so. Even if they do, they never did while at Miami; therefore, they might well be ruled ineligible for the duration of their careers at Miami. Thus, while Miami beat Florida in 2002, 2003, and 2004, it was using several ineligible players, and it's as sure a bet as any that all three games are going to be vacated (if not forfeited to Florida), bringing the official all-time series record to 26-25 in favor of Florida.
By now, you can see where I'm going. Since Foley is unwilling to schedule Miami, and since his results are going to keep him in office for as long as he's healthy, this is their last meeting in the foreseeable future unless the two teams meet in a bowl game. A Florida victory in Sun Life Stadium in September would all but ensure the Gators possession of the series lead for keeps (though nothing is official until the NCAA comes down with its sanctions), and would put a nice bow on what was formerly one of the most heated rivalry games in college football. A loss, however, would mean that the all-time series is probably going to wind up tied, and filled with question marks.
Oh, and a loss would also cripple the Gators' entire season.
Incumbent Miami QB Stephen Morris leads the way for what should be an improved offense in 2013. With only one starter departing (running back Mike James), the 'Canes will definitely have an experienced group on offense: Miami returns 14 players who started at least one game in 2012. In terms of talent, this team isn't lacking, either. Morris threw for well over 3,000 yards last year, Duke Johnson just missed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau (and is garnering some Heisman hype from within his own program) and the tandem of Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott (who had a big spring game) could be dangerous in their second year with the exact same personnel. Of course, it all starts with the offensive line, and Miami's got the exact same line, featuring Seantrel Henderson, that gave up just 17 sacks last year. Like Toledo, Miami's offense is going to be one of the best in its conference. Unlike Toledo, Miami plays in a semi-respectable conference, so the Gators better be careful.
Miami Offensive Strategy
Of all the teams that must have enjoyed Teddy Bridgewater's performance against Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl, Miami had to have topped the list. Morris has to be salivating over what he saw Bridgewater do on the Sugar Bowl tape. However, Will Muschamp will not allow his team to get beaten twice in a row by a dual-threat QB (even though he only had 70 rushing yards last year, Morris does run a 4.5 40). Miami knows this, and will be spending lots of time preparing to beat Florida on the ground. Expect a lot of touches for Duke Johnson early and often, assuming it works for about three yards a carry.
At some point, Morris is going to try to spring free and work some Bridgewater-esque magic of his own, and it's likely going to come in the form of play-action, assuming Johnson has some success running the ball. That's going to become the key to the game for Florida: Detecting the play-action and responding to it immediately. Stephen Morris is a serious enough of a threat to beat the Gators all by himself if they're not watching him at all times.
Florida Defensive Strategy
If that sounds bad, Gators fans, here's why you shouldn't be hyperventilating. Muschamp still ran one of the top five defenses in the land in 2012, despite its inability to stop Bridgewater. If his unit could shut down Johnny Manziel and Aaron Murray, he can certainly feel comfortable pitting his defense against a team that isn't going to make half the big plays that either of the aforementioned QBs do on average. Morris is going to be Muschamp's X factor, and I agree with him. If the Gators can keep containment on the edges and blitz wide, Morris will have nowhere to go and be forced to throw under pressure. And in the three games in 2012 that saw him get constantly pressured, Morris was very inaccurate. Against UNC (12-for-26), Virginia Tech (13-for-28) and Notre Dame (18-for-35), his line had trouble picking up the corner and safety blitzes, and as a result, Miami struggled mightily to complete passes.
If the game does indeed come down to how well Miami can run the ball, don't be alarmed by the Hurricanes' confidence in their running game. Yes, Miami does return its entire offensive line, but that offensive line was pushed around by Notre Dame's front seven ... which was unceremoniously torched by Alabama's offense ... which was stymied by the same Texas A&M defense that Florida effectively moved the ball against all day. Once that transitive property of football has registered in your head, you'll see why Muschamp is perfectly happy to engage Miami in trench warfare. Miami will dare the Gators to stop the run, and Florida will accept the challenge gladly.
Miami Offensive Grade: A-
You can go back and forth on Miami's defense all day. The 'Canes have several starters returning, but they return from a unit that surrendered 30 points or more eight times, and 40 or more four times. This defense has to be improved, if only because it may not be possible to be worse as a unit at a high-profile football school like Miami. One key note about the Hurricanes' defense: While they do return most of their starters from the end of last year, they only return three players who started more than seven games last year, and they're all on the defensive line (Olsen Pierre, Shayon Green and Anthony Chickillo).
Miami's Defensive Strategy
The Hurricanes are in a tricky spot. They face a Florida team that's going to have a new identity in 2013, but in that team's second game. This means two things: Florida will almost certainly save some nasty surprises to spring on Miami, and the Gators will have worked out their opening game kinks. But until Miami sees differently, the 'Canes are going to set out to defend what they know the Gators will do, and that's run the ball straight up the middle on 60 percent of their plays like they're going to do every game.
But when it comes to the other 40 percent, Miami is going to be ready. They know what Jeff Driskel can do outside the pocket, and they know that several Gator wideouts, from Solomon Patton to Andre Debose to Quinton Dunbar, are going to be itching to have a breakout performance against a high-level opponent. Look for Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio to play around with the defensive looks for a drive or two, and see what works. He will definitely try to confuse Driskel, by disguising his coverages and blitz schemes, but in the passing situations, he'll probably stick with Cover 2 every time just to ensure that Driskel doesn't beat them over the top.
Florida's Offensive Strategy
If Miami is going to try to take away the deep ball,and the inside running game (not that it's likely they're going to be able to stop both at the same time, but...), Brent Pease is going to look to beat Miami over the middle, because that's what he knows Miami is going to be giving him. Look for lots of intermediate routes: Simple hitches, ins and outs from eight to 12 yards, and so on. Of course, there's going to be a lot of smash-mouth running, because that's just what Florida does. But on the first play that Pease wants to actually beat Miami, as opposed to just establishing the offense and getting them settled in, that's what he's going to call for.
Obviously, Florida should feel very comfortable in a battle in the trenches against Miami: The core of the line that returns abused LSU, Florida State, and even Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. But relative to the rest of the roster, the defensive line is Miami's strength, the way the offensive line is for Florida. One of Florida's strengths may very well be leagues better than Miami's lone defensive strength, but the surefire way to beat their defense is to pick on their weakness in the middle of the field. It's all made much easier if the running game is established, so that Driskel can use play action to devastate the defense, but all in all, Pease shouldn't worry much about Miami's defense.
Miami Defensive Grade: C+
Miami Overall Grade: B-
Matt Jones, Kelvin Taylor, and Mack Brown vs. the Miami front seven. If the Hurricanes can't win the battle in the one part of their defense that worked well in 2012, they're in trouble. If the 'Canes can't wrap up the Gators' running backs and miss tackles on smash runs that are only designed to gain four yards, they're really in trouble.
For the second year in a row, the Gators will take a road trip to a prestigious, on the rise school's home turf in their second game of the year. Florida took care of business in last year's test at Texas A&M, and must do so again in order to properly close the door on a dying rivalry and keep their BCS Championship Game dreams alive. Luckily for the Gators, this road trip will bring far more fans than the trek to A&M did, in part because the Miami area has almost as many Gators fans as Hurricanes fans. While Miami is a major step up from Toledo, the Gators should also step their own game up. I think it will be a close game, but after what I watched last year, I don't trust anybody in tight road games more than I do the Florida Gators. Miami hangs close for awhile, but Florida pulls away in the fourth.
Florida 31, Miami 20.