GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida safety Nick Washington still remembers playing the Michigan Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl two years ago.
It was coach Jim McElwain’s first season, and the Gators were hoping to end the year on a high note after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Instead, the Wolverines picked the Gators apart in every facet of the game. Final score: 41-7, Michigan.
“That was a tough loss,” Washington, a redshirt senior, said.
Fast forward to Sept. 2, and Florida will be facing off against Michigan once again, this time for the 2017 season opener in Arlington, Texas, instead of the season finale.
It’s the first time the Gators are facing a Power 5 opponent in an opener since 1992, and the first time they’ve opened the season away from The Swamp since 1987. It will also be Florida’s biggest test in keeping its 27-game season-opening win streak alive.
“That’s the first game of the season,” Washington said. “We’re in Jerry World [AT&T Stadium, home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys]. We’re excited about that game. You know, it’s Michigan. We need to come out with a victory.”
Since Florida isn’t facing a “cupcake” opponent to open the season, the Gators are putting an extra bit of pressure on themselves to perfect everything they can over the next four weeks. The players don’t want to get blown out in the biggest season opener of their career, nor do they want to set the wrong tone for the season.
McElwain has seen the energy and excitement level of his team rise throughout the offseason, knowing the season is real right off the bat.
“It’s an opportunity for them to go on national television in a great environment and find out who they are,” McElwain said. “I think that this is one of those games where you get to find out who you are, and yet you’ve also got time to recover. You also have time to learn from it and continue through the season.
“I just think it’s good for college football. I think the conferences playing each other, two storied programs meeting at a neutral site, I think that that’s the way it should be.”
It’s also a movement toward increasing non-conference scheduling that many of the top Power 5 teams have made since the creation of the College Football Playoff. In addition to the Michigan matchup, the Gators will open the 2019 season against in-state rival Miami, and they have their annual rivalry against Florida State to close out the regular season every year.
Alabama coach Nick Saban wants to take that notion even a step further. He proposed a plan on ESPN that Power 5 conference teams should only play against fellow Power 5 opponents.
McElwain echoed the sentiments of his mentor.
“I think it’s good. I do,” McElwain said. “I think it has merit, and I think it’s what people want. In doing that, possibly then expanding into that playoff and using the bowl system as part of that, you know, I think that there’s probably some merit to that, and yet nobody at the NCAA has called me or asked me my opinion. It’ll probably stay that way.”
For now, the focus is on Sept. 2 against Michigan.
“We try to treat every team the same, but obviously it being Michigan, everybody has their butts going,” Washington said. “The intensity has risen a little bit. Everyone has taken that little extra step to try to remember who we’re playing.”