Meaty SEC for Florida after Michigan
HOOVER, Ala. — It shouldn’t take the Florida Gators long to find out if they can be contenders for a national championship this season.
Florida plays Big Ten powerhouse Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2 to start a brutal schedule.
The Gators already play eight SEC games and Florida State every season.
Why add Michigan? Florida Coach Jim McElwain said he was on board with the decision to schedule the Wolverines in a neutral site game.
“We’re the University of Florida and I think Gator fans deserve us to go out and play whoever we can to the best of our ability no matter where they’re from,” McElwain said at SEC media days. “I think it’s really good for college football that two different conferences are playing each other on opening day.
“It’s something that I agreed to. I wanted to do.”
“I just think it’s the way it should be. I don’t know. Maybe I’m screwed up, I guess.”
The Gators will look to avenge a 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016.
“Of course it’s going to grab your attention because it’s a team that beat us really bad in a bowl game,” Florida senior cornerback Duke Dawson said. “We’ve all got a chip on our shoulder about that, and we know what we have to do to beat a great team.”
Senior strong safety Marcell Harris said the Gators welcome the opportunity for a marquee nonconference opener, especially in the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“It’s going to be crazy playing there,” Harris said. “Everything is big in Texas, so we want to come out and play big as well.”
Florida has played well enough to win back-to-back SEC East titles and finish 10-4 in 2015 and 9-4 in 2016, but a lack of production on offense caught up to the Gators against Florida State and Alabama in both seasons.
The Gators ranked 111th nationally in total offense (334.0 yards per game) in 2015 when they lost to the Seminoles 27-2 and the Crimson Tide 29-15. They ranked 116th in total offense (344.0 yards) in 2016 when they lost to the Seminoles 31-13 and the Crimson Tide 54-16.
McElwain sounded confident his team is now ready to compete against elite opponents.
“Going into year three, I’m really excited not only about our team, but more so about our organization, and understanding what it takes and understanding that the small little details and sweating the small stuff is something that’s really important,” McElwain said. “I think we’ve done a pretty darn good job of understanding the why we’ve been successful at times and understanding the why we haven’t been successful.
“Learning from those things is something that you constantly grow with.”
McElwain said “time will tell” whether this becomes his best team at Florida.
“It’s a pretty darn good team,” he said. “I’m excited to see what they do this fall.”
Florida returns 17 starters, but a newcomer at quarterback may help elevate the team.
Fifth-year senior Malik Zaire — a graduate transfer from Notre Dame — joined the Gators in June and will compete for the starting job.
“I’m excited about having him in there,” McElwain said. “We’re now up to finally our number in the scholarship count that we want to be in the quarterback room.
“We’ve got some real options there, and that’s a good thing. He’s a guy that can light up the room with his smile. He’s excited to be there and excited to compete, and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens.”
Zaire was MVP of the 2014 Music City Bowl when he competed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and rushed 22 times for 96 yards and a touchdown in Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU.
In 2015 Zaire completed 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns to help the Fighting Irish open by beating Texas 38-3, but in the second game against Virginia he suffered
a season-ending ankle injury.
After Zaire wasn’t able to regain the starting job last season at Notre Dame, he made the decision to transfer to Florida.
“When you see everything on Instagram and Twitter it’s going to open your eyes with like, ‘ Dang, yeah, we need him as our quarterback,’” Dawson said of the buzz generated by Zaire’s transfer. “But you have to compete for the job. It’s not going to be handed to you at Florida.
“As soon as he got here Malik hit me up about watching film even though I’m a defensive player. He wanted to pick my brain.
“So me and Malik started getting a close relationship early from the first day he came in.”
Harris said he’s been impressed by Zaire in his short time with the Gators.
“You can tell he’s a leader,” Harris said. “He just needs to get the trust of the guys, get the timing down with his wide receivers, watch film.”
Zaire gives Florida five quarterbacks to go along with redshirt junior Luke Del Rio, who started six games last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder surgery against Arkansas; redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask; and freshman Jake Allen.
“It’s going to be a hard battle,” Florida junior offensive tackle Martez Ivey said of the quarterback competition. “It’s going to be tremendous to see how they react to it.
“When we find out who that starting guy is, he will do great. It doesn’t matter who it is, I feel comfortable with all of them back there.”
McElwain shot down a report he has decided on a starter.
“I don’t know how that came out,” he said. “Who knows?
“I know we will start a quarterback.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain might not have to wait long to find out how good the Gators will be this season since they’ll be facing Michigan in the season opener on Sept. 2.
Malik Zaire, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Notre Dame, will be one of five players in the mix to be Florida’s starting quarterback this season.