Our seven-month-long national nightmare ends this week as the fight songs, tailgates and pageantry of college football returns Saturday.
For Florida Gators fans, all eyes will be zeroed in on Will Muschamp as his team comes into the season hoping to atone for a disappointing 2011 campaign with an opening-week victory over the Bowling Green Falcons.
The Falcons come into Saturday's contest coming off a 5-7 season and descend upon Gainesville Saturday as heavy underdogs. For Bowling Green to pull off an upset, it's going to take a massive performance from every one of the Falcons' key players.
For the Gators, this contest is all about coming away with a huge win and building confidence for the team going forward.
With that in mind, here's a preview of Saturday's matchup between Florida and Bowling Green, ripe with players to watch, key matchups and how to tune into the game.
When: Saturday, Sept. 1, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gainesville, Fla.
Listen: SiriusXM 199, WRUF-FM 103.7 (Gainesville)
Betting Line: Florida (-29), according to Bovada
Florida Injuries (via USA Today)
QB Jeff Driskel, Shoulder, Questionable
DE Ronald Powell, Knee, Out
WR Michael McNeely, Foot, Out
Bowling Green Injuries (via USA Today)
DT Hunter Maynard, Knee, Out
WR Bart Tanski, Shoulder, Out
BCS/Top 25 Implications
The Gators come into the opening-week contest ranked No. 23 in the AP poll as second-year head coach Will Muschamp looks to atone for his 7-6 record last season in Gainesville. With 18 starters returning from last season's disappointing squad, the Gators cannot fool around when matched up against less-talented teams if the 2012 squad wants to play in a major bowl game.
For Bowling Green, this season will simply be about trying to make a bowl game for the first time since 2009. If the Falcons come out strong Saturday and the team's confidence grows, there's no reason a MAC championship is out of the question this season.
What They're Saying
Speaking in his weekly press conference, Gators coach Muschamp went out of his way to profusely compliment the Bowling Green coaching staff.
The Falcons have an improving offense, led by quarterback Matt Schilz, and could pose as a tough matchup for a Florida defense that Muschamp says was far too inconsistent last season (via GatorZone):
I think Dave Clawson does an outstanding job offensively. His staff has been together four years, and when you have an experienced quarterback who has thrown for 3,000 yards in a good league, obviously that is going to present its challenges for you. They’ve got all their backs back from a year ago, and they only have one returning receiver, but again they’re an offensive team that will spread the field and create some matchup issues for you, and you’ve got to win outside. We have to win with pass rushing. We have a lot of things to prove defensively based on last year’s inconstant performances.
Falcons head coach Dave Clawson also seems excited about what the future could hold for his Bowling Green squad. After throwing out an extremely young lineup last season, the Falcons come back stronger and a ton more experienced this season.
Clawson expressed his excitement (via Gatorsports.com):
The numbers got right last year, but we were super young. There were times we had 10 freshmen on the field on defense. What we went through the last two years was a struggle, but we look like a Division I football team now.
I'm excited about this team.
Florida Player to Watch: RB Mike Gillislee
After being stuck behind other running backs on the depth chart for his entire career as a Gator, Gillislee will finally get his shot at the starting running-back spot this season.
Freshman Matt Jones and sophomore Mack Brown spent all camp trying to knock the career backup off his perch, but it seems Gillislee will be Muschamp's workhorse for 2012. Listed at 5'11" and 210 pounds, Gillislee is a powerful runner who shouldn't have any trouble taking on his vastly increased workload.
Coming into this season, he's possibly the Gators' most likely breakout star and will get his first opportunity to shine on Saturday.
Bowling Green Player to Watch: QB Matt Schilz
For Bowling Green to have any shot at keeping this game close, the Falcons will need an exemplary performance from their junior quarterback.
Schilz comes into 2012 off a vast improvement last season, throwing for 3,024 yards and 28 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. With another year under Schliz's belt, the Falcons should come out with pass-heavy attack while throwing in explosive running back Anthon Samuel to mix it up.
With the Gators defense returning 10 starters, it should be a much stronger and more consistent unit this season. Without a great performance from Schilz, this game could get ugly really quick.
Key Matchup: Florida QB Jeff Driskel vs. Florida QB Jacoby Brissett
The most intriguing contest on Saturday may be between not the two teams, but instead the two Florida quarterbacks.
That's because Muschamp, who has seemingly been unable to choose between his two talented signal-callers all camp, will rotate the quarterbacks and allow their play to dictate who becomes QB No. 1 (via the Orlando Sentinel).
A yet-to-be-determined quarterback will start Saturday's game but sit the entire second quarter so his counterpart can lead the first-team offense.
But the rotation won't stick past this week, according to offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
"That's my gut feeling," Pease said (via ESPN). "I don't know if it's sustainable from there. It depends how they play, I guess, and what they create."
With their jobs on the line, expect both sophomore quarterbacks to come out with their best performances on Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 42, Bowling Green 17
Simply put, the Gators are too strong for coach Clawson's squad to compete for the game's entirety. The Florida offense is too explosive and the defense could become suffocating if it has improved as much as advertised.
If the Falcons can cover the spread, at least they can come away with a small moral victory heading into the rest of their schedule.