Gone are the days of watching the Sun Belt’s dominance over the college football landscape. Because in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, SEC football is back.
In Dan Mullen’s third year as coach, he will face an old rival from a past life in Ole Miss, as the No. 5 Gators will open their season more than 530 miles north of Gainesville in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I have five great memories and four terrible memories,” Mullen said of his time at Mississippi State, where he finished with a 5-4 record against the Rebels. He’s looking for a sixth “great” one, his first since leaving Starkville for Gainesville.
But a season-opening win won’t be handed to the Gators. Ole Miss received a facelift after hiring Lane Kiffin, his second stint in the SEC. But talent lies beyond the new regime on Mississippi’s side.
While Gators quarterback Kyle Trask entrenched himself as a starter following a season in which he threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns at a 67 percent completion rate, this is the first time he will open the season as Florida’s starting quarterback.
“I just go into this game like I went into any other game last season,” Trask said earlier this week. “That is, to prepare to the best of my ability and try to be victorious on Saturday.”
Trask and the offense will be poised to pick apart the Rebels’ defense, though they’ll be without sophomore right guard Ethan White, who is recovering from knee surgery. Last year, the Gators finished 16th nationally in passing offense (300.8 yards per game). And while the offensive line was Florida’s Achilles’ heel, this year’s unit hopes to be different. Running game coordinator John Hevesy said last week that the unit’s demise last season had to do with struggles adjusting, but the work spent in the offseason remedied their woes.
Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham says Kiffin’s receiving corps pose constant threats due to their size and speed. Whether Florida’s defensive backs can pass the test will remain unknown until tomorrow afternoon, just as the man under center for Kiffin’s inauguration.
When Mississippi released its depth charts Monday, a glaring “or” sat between Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee. The two quarterbacks play with opposing styles. Corral finished last season completing 105-of-178 passes for 1,362 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions and rushing for 135 yards plus a score. Plumlee attacked defenses on the ground, running for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns while throwing for 910 yards and four scores, completing 79-of-150 throws.
In regards to UF’s depth chart, senior defensive tackle Kyree Campbell and senior safety Brad Stewart were notable omissions from Mullen’s list. Campbell started all 13 games last season, and Florida has only four defensive tackles who are not freshmen.
Be it a waltz or a rumble at Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium, Florida will leave Mississippi knowing the first checkpoint of the 2020 season is out of the way. With it, comes a semblance of normalcy for Mullen and his team.
“I've never been this late in September we haven't played,” Mullen said.
Contact Christian Ortega at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @unofficialchris.