HOOVER, Ala. — Whether or not Florida coach Jim McElwain truly likes the reality of opening a pivotal season for his program against Big Ten behemoth Michigan, he at least sold it well Tuesday at SEC Media Days.
“I think it’s really good for college football that two different conferences are playing each other on opening day,” he said. “It’s something I agreed to, I wanted to do, it’s something moving forward that we’re looking to do in these neutral site games as well in the future. I just think it’s the way it should be.”
Well, he didn’t actually have much choice in this particular matter.
The Sept. 2 showdown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, was announced in late 2013 when McElwain was still in the middle of his tenure at Colorado State, before his breakthrough 10-win season with the Rams that he’d ultimately parlay into the Gators job.
But nonetheless …
“We’re the University for Florida,” McElwain said. “And college football fans, I think Gator fans in general, they deserve us to go out and play whoever we can to the best of our ability no matter where they’re from.”
Unlike the Gators’ usual opening opponents, the Wolverines are from a fellow Power 5 conference, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons and building momentum under third-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The clash with Michigan is the Gators’ most notable opener since starting with No. 10 Miami in 1987, with SEC games against Ole Miss (1989) and Kentucky (1992) and a non-conference matchup with Oklahoma State (1990) the only other season starters against Power 5 foes since.
With Florida set to debut yet another new starting quarterback — Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks — the matchup with the Wolverines expedites the urgency for the Gators to get their QB ready for the spotlight.
While there was no need to discuss previous recent openers against the likes of UMass, New Mexico State, Idaho, etc., so early in the summer, the matchup with Michigan was a recurring topic as McElwain and his players made the rounds at SEC Media Days.
The game not only figures to be a tone-setter for the 2017 Gators, but it also conjures up memories of the program’s 2015 finish when they lost 41-7 to the Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl.
“A butt whoopin’ for us, man,” cornerback Duke Dawson said in an interview with SEC Network’s Peter Burns on Tuesday. “Two years ago, they beat the brakes off us in the bowl game, so a lot of our guys have a chip on our shoulders. We have to come in with the right mindset and know we have to be focused and dialed into what we have to do to beat a great Michigan team.”
Safety Marcell Harris, another holdover from that 2015 team, said that process has been ongoing for a while already.
“Definitely a lot of motivation. I was on that team that lost to Michigan so I take it personally every day. We watch Michigan film every day,” he said.
That Sept. 2 opener is more than seven weeks away and the Gators don’t yet know (or aren’t ready to say) who will take the first snaps at quarterback in that game, but the magnitude of such a significant start to the season looms over everything Florida does between now and then.
And now that SEC Media Days has come and gone for the Gators, signaling the unofficial start of the preseason buildup, the hype will keep mounting.
“Attention to detail,” Harris said of the Gators’ responsibility in the meantime. “You can’t take any team that we play lightly because any team, they’re playing to beat you. At the same time, we pay attention to detail more than we ever paid. This is going to be one of our biggest seasons. Everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s right now focused.
“[The opener] is special to us and it’s special to me because the last time we played Michigan we didn’t win, so coming out here and playing these guys the first game is going to put a lot of fire under everybody’s belt.”