GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The storied rivalry, the rich history of memorable clashes, the annual anticipation that riles up the fan bases on both sides are all components to later games on Florida’s schedule.
This week, well, at least football is back.
The Gators open their season Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as Massachusetts visits Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
This is the first-ever meeting between the programs, who are on polar ends of the college football landscape.
The Minutemen capitalized on their success at the FCS level to make the jump to the FBS in 2012, but since then the program has gone 8-40 while struggling with the transition.
UMass has a respected coach in Mark Whipple, who led the program to the 1998 FCS national championship. Afterward, he worked in the NFL and as offensive coordinator at Miami before returning to the Minutemen in 2014.
But there isn’t a position on the field where they hold a competitive advantage over Florida.
The Gators have plenty of their own questions to answer, and this first game should be mostly a chance to evaluate some of those areas and get ready for their SEC opener against Kentucky next week.
Here’s a look at how Florida and UMass stack up at each position:
Florida: Both teams are introducing first-time starters. For the Gators, fourth-year sophomore Luke Del Rio finally gets his shot after bouncing from Alabama to Oregon State to Florida, where he sat out last season and got a chance to develop command of the offense. He has attempted just 18 career passes — all in 2014 at Oregon State — but there is considerable optimism that he can help elevate Florida’s offense after the Gators’ dismal finish to the 2015 season.
UMass: Redshirt sophomore Ross Comis will also make his first collegiate start for the Minutemen. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns last season. That included a strong performance late in a lopsided loss at Notre Dame when he connected on all 8 of his passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. Read more on Comis here.
Florida: There is considerable intrigue to see how the Gators utilize their collection of running backs. Head coach Jim McElwain indicated that sophomore Jordan Scarlett and junior college newcomer Mark Thompson will be the lead backs this week. They were elevated ahead of sophomore Jordan Cronkrite, in part because Cronkrite missed practice time last week due to injury. However, Gators running backs coach Tim Skipper said that Cronkrite will not be limited Saturday.
So, it’s anybody’s guess how those carries get divided, especially when throwing promising true freshman Lamical Perine and redshirt senior Mark Herndon into the mix. Perine has forced his way into the running back committee after a strong fall camp, and he and Thompson will be making their much-anticipated Florida debuts. Everyone should have a little better sense for the Gators’ plans at the position after this game.
UMass: Massachusetts’ most dynamic offensive player is sophomore running back Marquis Young. He rushed for 960 yards and 7 touchdowns on 152 carries last season for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. That included a 240-yard output against Buffalo and 103 yards against Notre Dame.
Florida: This is where the gap in talent really starts to widen for the Gators. Sophomore Antonio Callaway returns as the team’s leading receiver after tallying 35 catches for 678 yards and 4 touchdowns as a rookie. He’ll be joined by speedy juniors Brandon Powell and Dre Massey. Powell played through a recurring foot injury last fall, but he thinks it is under control now. He’s expected to operate more on the outside than he did a year ago as Massey, a highly-touted junior college newcomer, works out of the slot. That trio figures to cause matchup problems for opponents all season. At tight end, the Gators will be without redshirt sophomore C’yontai Lewis (one-game suspension), and junior DeAndre Goolsby has been slowed by injury of late. Expect the Gators to give some extra opportunities to sophomore Camrin Knight and redshirt sophomore Moral Stephens.
UMass: The Minutemen lost their primary weapon in the passing game in Tajae Sharpe, who collected 111 catches for 1,319 yards last year. For that matter, they lost their top five pass catchers from a year ago. Shakur Nesmith is the top returning receiver, having tallied 15 catches for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2015. Fellow projected starters Bernard Davis and Jalen Williams are both fifth-year seniors who redshirted last year, but they do have prior experience. Redshirt junior tight end Adam Breneman (6-4, 250) is an intriguing addition as a transfer from Penn State, where he played in 14 games (12 of those coming in 2013).
Florida: The Gators definitely have questions here, mostly because of the struggles they had a year ago while giving up 46 sacks — the most in the country. But there’s plenty of reason for optimism up front. Junior left tackle David Sharpe (6-6, 357) and sophomore left guard Martez Ivey (6-5, 305) are expected to form a formidable combo on that side. Like Ivey, right guard Tyler Jordan (6-4, 309) and right tackle Fred Johnson (6-6, 311) both played as true freshmen a year ago and will look to take steps forward in their second seasons. Redshirt junior Cameron Dillard (6-4, 313) slots in at center.
UMass: The Minutemen have three experienced seniors up front in left tackle Elijah Wilkinson (6-5, 329), center Fabian Hoeller (6-3, 295) and right guard Michael Boland (6-6, 318). All three have started the last two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Jake Largay (6-5, 315) and redshirt freshman right tackle Jack Driscoll (6-5, 294) round out the line.
Florida: The coaches are excited about the talent they have along the defensive front. Redshirt junior Caleb Brantley could be a breakout star at defensive tackle after an encouraging 2015 season in which he registered 6.5 tackles for losses and 3 sacks. The Gators will hope he can replace a bulk of the production they lost in star Jonathan Bullard, now in the NFL. Bryant will pair with senior Joey Ivie inside, while promising sophomore CeCe Jefferson rotates into the mix. Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Bryan Cox Jr. (10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks in 2015) and redshirt junior Jordan Sherit will operate on the ends.
UMass: The Minutemen run a 3-4 and bring back two starters along their front in senior defensive tackle Peter Angeh (33 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks in 2015) and redshirt junior defensive end Sha-Ki Holines (33 tackles, 9 TFL, 1.5 sacks). Junior nose tackle Ali Ali-Musa is a junior college newcomer.
Florida: Senior Jarrad Davis returns as one of the faces of the Gators’ defense after finishing second on the team with 98 tackles a year ago. He also contributed 11 TFL, 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Florida knows what it is going to get from him. The key is what it gets from redshirt junior Alex Anzalone, who was limited to just two games last fall due to a shoulder injury. If he is the player everyone envisions, that should be quite a pairing. Senior Daniel McMillian will operate as the Gators’ third linebacker.
UMass: Redshirt junior middle linebacker Shane Huber is Massachusetts’ lone returning starter at the position. He was second on the team with 98 tackles in 2015. He’ll be joined this fall by junior Da’Sean Downey, junior college transfer Tedrick Lowery and redshirt-junior Steve Casali. That group figures to be busy Saturday night.
Florida: This figures to be one of the strengths of the team this fall with standout juniors Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson forming one of the top cornerback pairings in the SEC (and beyond) and fifth-year senior safety Marcus Maye back as well. For this week, Tabor will not be a factor as he serves a one-game team suspension. Junior Duke Dawson, who figures to work as the Gators’ nickelback this season, will get the start at corner in the opener. The biggest question in this group is what will Florida get out of the other safety spot. It’s a make-or-break kind of year for redshirt juniors Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, who should be see plenty of action.
UMass: The Minutemen are inexperienced at cornerback and roll out new starters at most spots in the defensive backfield. Expect sophomore corners James Allen and redshirt junior Jackson Porter to get heavily tested this week. Redshirt senior free safety Khary Bailey-Smith was a starter last year before a knee injury ended his season after two games. He did manage 21 tackles and an interception in those two games, though. Sophomore Lee Moses is in line to start at strong safety.
Florida: Again, a lot of excitement here. New kicker Eddy Pineiro gives the Gators hope for more consistency and production after the team went a woeful 7 for 17 on field goal attempts last fall. His touted prowess from long range could be a fun element for Florida as well. Meanwhile, redshirt junior Johnny Townsend is one of the best punters in the conference and brings stability to that spot. Callaway will again handle punt returns after taking two to the end zone last year. Massey and Powell are projected as the kick returners. Both are big-play threats anytime they touch the ball.
UMass: Sophomore Mike Caggiano takes over at kicker for the Minutemen. Redshirt junior Logan Laurent is a solid punter, averaging 42.2 yards on 63 punts last season. And Allen, the cornerback, will handle kick and punt returns. He had a 97-yard kickoff return for touchdown last year. UMass has a reputation for trying some trick plays on special teams against marquee opponents, so that could be in play as well.
Florida’s SEC opener against Kentucky comes in Week 2, so the Gators want to come out crisp in this one and build some early momentum. They’ll also want to use this opportunity to get playing time for a number of their younger players. If Florida doesn’t have this game well in control by halftime, then something has gone very wrong. Look for a lopsided Gators win and for the offense to score at least 40 points.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.