Florida Gators vs. Toledo Rockets Complete Game Preview
For this season opener, No. 10 Florida hosts a Toledo team that has never—I mean, never—faced an SEC football opponent.
The Rockets' first stab at the conference in the hot, sticky Swamp certainly won't be a gentle welcome either.
The Gators capped last season's 11-2 showing with a stinging loss versus the Louisville Cardinals in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was a letdown that has been motivating UF players throughout this offseason.
Florida enters 2013-14 play with junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is expected to lead a more experienced offense after getting into his groove as the starter all last season. While Driskel returns to the QB spot, the Gators will not return seven of last year's starters from their No. 5 nationally ranked defense.
Toledo, a member of the Mid-American Conference, comes to Gainesville also bearing a loss from its last matchup after falling to Utah State, 41-15, in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Rockets finished 9-4.
Toledo is led by senior quarterback Terrance Owens, a veteran who has started a minimum of three games every year dating back to his first season at Toledo. The Rockets' offense is expected to be extremely sharp, as the team returns nine of its starters.
So who's going to "come out alive" from Week 1? Will Florida further its 23-game season-opening winning streak or will Toledo serve an upset in its first go at the SEC?
When: 12:21 p.m. ET
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Sirius Ch. 136, XM Ch. 201
Live Stream: ESPN3
Spread: Florida (-23.5)
Flordia Keys to Victory
1. Start fast
Eight of Florida's 11 wins last season were come-from-behind nabs, three of which were grasped in the fourth quarter. The Gators have shown they can bring it after halftime, but on Saturday, they can't waste any time—especially with an uptempo, veteran offense like Toledo's.
Well we’d like to play well in all four (quarters), if we can. But you know, again, I think that we’ve started talking to our guys more about starting fast, especially on the offensive side of the ball, create some positive opportunities for our football team. But that goes in all three phases. In the kicking game, being able to pin somebody back or get a big return and create some momentum for our football team, defensively create a turnover early in the game to create some momentum for our fans, our football team, it’s a team thing. Certainly we’ve emphasized it, maybe more so than we have in the past, and I know it was a huge point of emphasis offensively.
2. Target UT's young D-line
Looking at Toledo's depth chart at D-line, 100 percent of the starters will be clocking their first career starts, as Ryan Autullo of The Blade pointed out on Twitter Tuesday. Two sophomores, one freshman and one senior currently make up the beginning bunch for the Rockets. Given the Rockets' inexperienced group, the Gators must target Toledo's first-time starters (and their jitters) and use this weakness to play up their offensive strengths.
Three words, folks: home, team, advantage.
History is already on Florida's side with its 23-game winning streak to open a season and The Swamp is one of the harshest stadiums in college football. To top it off, the Rockets have never faced an SEC opponent. Florida needs to bully the new kid and play up all of the advantages that it can in its home opener. Getting into the Rockets' heads is certainly one of them.
Toldeo Keys to Victory
1. Flash veteran offense
The Rockets welcome back nine starters, including four offensive linemen, three wide receivers, their quarterback and their running back.
UT's offense is known as an uptempo group that gets off plenty of snaps. The Gators are missing seven starters from a year on defense, so the Rockets' offense is sure to be a difficult first test for a Florida crew looking to recover from heavy losses.
Will Muschamp talked about the strength of Toledo's offense in his press conference:
Well I think you start with the tempo. You know, they’re on the ball, they snap it quick, they get off a lot of snaps, they’re a team that wants to snap it about 80 times a game, but you know that’s a team stat from the standpoint of you have to maintain the ball offensively to be able to maintain possessions and keep them off the field; and then defensively you have to create some three and out situations, where you get off the field and put their defense back on the field. So they pose the issue number one, of tempo, and then I think they’re a very talented unit. I think [Bernard] Reedy is as good a slot receiver as we’ll face all season. Over a thousand yards back and runs the ball hard; I think they give you a lot of pass conflicts as far as what they do in the zone game and then the vertical throwing down the field. They get the ball thrown out quick in the spring game; I just think they are very effective in what they do.
2. Excel with strength on special teams
Toledo's depth chart shows a starting specialist group of experienced juniors and seniors—most notably the multi-talented Bernard Reedy. The senior posted four touchdown returns last year. Meanwhile, place-kicker Jeremiah Detmer hit on his last 17 straight field goals last season. Toledo needs to be able to lean on the consistency of its specialists come Saturday.
3. Keep the heat in mind
With late-summer noon games in the South, the heat is the silent killer. The Gators know how to play to the cruel Florida conditions while the Rockets obviously have less experience in doing so.
Toledo needs to consider the steamy weather and hot sun (both immensely amplified in The Swamp paired with an overwhelming crowd) as an opponent Saturday, too. The Rockets must conserve their energy as much as possible and learn how to cope with the heat if they want to succeed. The Rockets can do everything right offensively and defensively, but if they overheat, it'll ruin them.
Florida Players to Watch
Ronald Powell (LB, Redshirt Jr.)
Saturday will mark Powell's first game with the Gators since the 2012 spring game when he tore his ACL for a second time. It's been over a year since Powell has been able to play, as his teammates and coaches alike have been anticipating his return.
Prior to his injuries, Powell finished the 2011 season as UF's sack leader with a total of six. The 6'4, 224-pound buck is known for his physicality and it'll be interesting to see if he comes back ready to fight or more cautious because of his past.
Austin Hardin (K, Redshirt Fr.)
One of the big headlines during Florida's camp was the kicker battle between Hardin and senior walk-on Brad Phillips. The two are battling to replace current Miami Dolphins starting kicker Caleb Sturgis. Sturgis made a huge impact at UF with his 79.5 career field goal percentage, which ranks as the second-best mark in school history.
Hardin earned the start this weekend while Phillips' fight was slowed due to a groin injury. Hardin is a player to keep an eye on because the battle is not yet over between the two. In Monday's press conference, Will Muschamp said the position is something the staff will be evaluating throughout the season. This week is Hardin's week to show what he's got in a game situation.
You can find Florida's full depth chart here.
Toldeo Players to Watch
Zac Kerin (C, Sr.)
Kerin is a third-year starter and All-MAC lineman who has huge hype surrounding him going into this season. Kerin is on the watch lists for three national awards. He started all 13 games for the Rockets last season and is expected to go high in the NFL draft.
The Gators know what's coming with Kerin's talent, as he's one of the few players who Florida players actually pointed out as a threat during interviews with the media this week.
Bernard Reedy (WR, Sr.)
Reedy earned all-conference honors at three positions last season—wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner. He was named back-to-back MVP in Toledo's most recent bowl games and actually hails from St. Petersburg, Fla.
Will Muschamp said Reedy will be "as good a slot receiver as we'll face all season" in his Monday press conference.
You can find Toledo's full depth chart here.
What They Are Saying
Gators head coach Will Muschamp on Toledo:
Defensively, they returned four starters; a lot of movement up front, we have to be able to handle all of those sort of things, and they returned all their specialists. So this is a good football team we’re playing, our guys I know are excited to get back on the field today, and continue our prep for Toledo as we move in to Saturday.
Gators liinebacker Ronald Powell on how the Rockets' offense looks on film:
A lot better than we want them to be.
* Quotes from Florida's press conference on Monday.
The Gators are going to extend their season-opening winning streak to 24 games on Saturday.
No. 10 Florida will be too much for Toledo to handle, especially for a team that's never faced an SEC opponent before. While the Rockets' uptempo offense will be fun to watch, it won't be enough to overcome the Gators for an upset in the Swamp.
Prediction: Florida, 32-7