GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Like most college coaches, Florida’s Jim McElwain often reverts back to familiar refrains or mantras.
One of those is that every game is an opportunity, no matter the opponent.
On Saturday against North Texas, the No. 23-ranked Gators have an opportunity to build some momentum and show some consistency after a breakout 45-7 win over Kentucky last weekend.
Florida (2-0) is hosting a Mean Green team that finished 1-11 last year, prompting a coaching change and a bit of a start-over for the Conference USA program.
North Texas (1-1) made a strong hire in landing former North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, but the Mean Green aren’t at a level to match up with the Gators from a talent standpoint.
Regardless, McElwain’s message to his Florida players is to worry about themselves and putting together another complete performance.
With that said, here’s how the teams stack up on paper:
Florida: Redshirt-sophomore Luke Del Rio showed last week that he is capable of making big plays downfield, hitting Antonio Callaway in stride for a 78-yard touchdown strike. He completed 19-of-32 passes overall for 320 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception while taking a step forward from his debut performance. He’ll look to continue to grow in his first season as a starter.
North Texas: After starting Alabama graduate transfer Alec Morris in the season opener, the Mean Green turned to true freshman quarterback Mason Fine last week. He completed 11-of-22 passes for 108 yards and rushed 8 times for 46 yards. Listed at 5-foot-11 and just 170 pounds, Fine will likely try to get out of the pocket and use his legs to create more time to throw or simply to pick up any available yards on the ground.
Florida: The Gators still don’t have a lead running back through two games, sticking with their preseason plan for a committee approach at the position. Sophomore Jordan Scarlett leads the team overall with 113 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts. True freshman Lamical Perine broke out for 105 rushing yards and a 28-yard touchdown catch last week while seeing an extended role (and 17 carries) in the lopsided win over Kentucky. And junior Mark Thompson took a step forward last week as well with 15 carries for 60 yards and a TD.
North Texas: This is an area of strength for the Mean Green. Junior Jeffrey Wilson leads the way with 179 yards and 3 touchdowns through two games, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Willy Ivery, meanwhile, is averaging a robust 7.9 yards per carry after rushing for 103 yards and a score last week against FCS foe Bethune-Cookman.
Florida: This is an interesting spot for the Gators this week. Callaway, their sophomore star, will most likely be sidelined by a quad injury. He leads the team with 13 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns. That leaves junior Brandon Powell (11-116-2) as the top target, while junior C.J. Worton and true freshmen Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond are likely in for a larger workload. Still, Florida should have plenty of weapons for Del Rio. Especially when factoring in tight ends DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis.
North Texas: Terian Goree, a 6-foot-3 redshirt-sophomore, is the Mean Green’s top target with 12 catches for 90 yards through two games. They’ve spread the ball around pretty well, though, between he, redshirt-junior Willie Robinson (9-86) and senior Thaddeous Thompson (6-88-1). Overall, North Texas does not boast much of a potent passing attack.
Florida: One of the stories from last weekend was the dramatically improved play of the Gators’ offensive line. Del Rio raved that he wasn’t so much as touched by a defender after the opening series. Florida will try to build on that performance, but it will have to do so without starting sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan (out multiple weeks with an eye injury). Redshirt-freshman Richerd Desir-Jones is expected to start in his place, but the Gators will also try out a new pairing with sophomore Fred Johnson and true freshman Jawaan Taylor — both normally right tackles — playing together with one moving inside at times.
North Texas: The first-team offensive line had just 14 combined starts entering this season, with 12 of those coming from senior left guard Sam Rice (6-foot-4, 297 pounds). Sophomore left tackle Jordan Murray (6-9, 360), senior right guard Garrett Gunter (6-4, 293) and senior right tackle Trey Keenan (6-5, 272, a Texas Tech transfer) made their first starts a couple weeks ago while sophomore center Creighton Barr (6-3, 302) started two games a year ago. The unit yielded five sacks to SMU.
Florida: The Gators lead the SEC with nine sacks so far, and while not all of those have come from the defensive line, McElwain has given the unit credit for playing consistent and steady assignment football to set up those disruptive plays in the backfield. Redshirt-junior defensive end Jordan Sherit accounted for 2 sacks last week while senior end Bryan Cox Jr. and redshirt-junior tackle Caleb Brantley have not yet produced statistically as they’re capable.
North Texas: The Mean Green use three defensive linemen in their base alignment. Seniors Jareid Combs (4 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Malik Dilonga (2 tackles) are the starting ends while sophomore Roderick Young (4 tackles) mans the nose tackle spot.
Florida: As good as Florida’s cornerbacks are, the linebackers are seizing some of that spotlight this fall. Senior Jarrad Davis (12 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and redshirt-junior Alex Anzalone (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have been excellent through the first two games. Anzalone, in particular, has been a force.
North Texas: The Mean Green linebackers have been the team’s top defensive playmakers to this point. Senior middle linebacker Cortney Finney has 11 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack and a pass break-up. Junior college newcomer Joshua Wheeler has 10 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble, and senior Fred Scott has 11 tackles.
Florida: The Gators’ star cornerbacks lived up their billing last week as juniors Quincy Wilson and Jalen “Teez” Tabor each made dazzling interceptions against Kentucky. There may not be a better tandem of corners in the country. Meanwhile, redshirt-senior safety Marcus Maye also had a pick last week as the secondary totally shutdown the Wildcats’ passing attack, giving up 55 yards through the air (with most of those coming late).
North Texas: Junior free safety Kishawn McClain led the Mean Green last season with 110 tackles and was a preseason All-Conference USA selection. Senior strong safety James Gray, meanwhile, had 104 tackles last year, marking the first time North Texas has had two safeties eclipse 100 tackles in the same season. They are the leaders in the secondary. Sophomore Nate Brooks and senior Chad Davis are both returning starters at cornerback.
Florida: Rookie kicker Eddy Pineiro will be looking to bounce back after making just 1-of-3 field goals last week. He is 4-for-6 overall this season, though. Redshirt-junior punter Johnny Townsend is averaging an impressive 46.4 yards per punt. As for returns, the Gators will likely be without Callaway, so senior Chris Thompson and true freshman McArthur Burnett were working back there in practice this week.
North Texas: Junior kicker Trevor Moore is 2-for-2 on field goals so far, but he has not attempted a kick longer than 20 yards. He was 9-of-14 a year ago while missing all four of his attempts from 40 and beyond. Senior punter Eric Keena averages 41.5 yards per punt. The Mean Green have spread around their kick returns.
This is simply one of those games where Florida is expected to take care of business. Of course, the Gators were less than impressive in their season opener against a similarly overmatched Massachusetts team, but McElwain will be hoping his players can build on what they did a week ago against Kentucky and create some momentum heading into a huge SEC showdown at Tennessee next week.