Miami's Duke Johnson rushed for 186 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 against FAU. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Florida and Miami haven’t played since 2008, and the Hurricanes are ranked in the Coaches' Poll for the first time since late in the 2010 season. It's no surprise that tickets for Saturday's game at Sun Life Stadium are hard to come by. Based on comments made this week by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, this rivalry might be put on hold for the foreseeable future if a neutral-site location can’t be agreed upon, so college football fans will have to savor this contest even a little bit more than usual.
Thankfully, both teams’ running games offer plenty to get excited about. On Miami's sideline, Duke Johnson -- who has rushed for 678 yards in his last five games dating back to last season -- joins quarterback Stephen Morris to spearhead an up-and-coming attack. Johnson is a throwback to The U teams of old, a powerful 5-foot-9 runner who can run a sub-4.5 40. He rushed for 186 yards and a score on just 19 carries against FAU in Week 1.
“Put simply, Johnson is a monster, Palm Beach Post reporter Matt Porter said. “He’s a blazer, but he has no problem getting his nose dirty between the tackles. His balance makes him incredibly hard to bring down. His ability to plant one foot and go is outstanding. He catches whatever is thrown his way. He can block, as he showed last week when he cut down two defenders on a reverse that went 63 yards for a touchdown. He’s added eight pounds in the offseason to handle a 20-carry workload. He’s a sophomore, by the way.”
On the other side, Florida found a hidden gem in Mack Brown last week, as the seldom-used junior looked spectacular starting in place of Matt Jones (illness) against Toledo. Brown ran for 112 yards and two scores. Still, Jones, who rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns backing up Mike Gillislee last season, is expected to receive the lion's share of the workload on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease told reporters Jones could get as many as 25 carries in his first game back.
Florida's rushing attack threw a bunch of looks at opponents last fall, using Gillislee, Jones and quarterback Jeff Driskel with success. The Gators vary their attack like a boxer, mixing blows and finding unique ways to get their playmakers the ball in space.
“We’re going to outlast our opponent,” center Jonotthon Harrison said. “The mentality is we need to run the ball with the urgency and the desire to finish our opponent. With that in mind, that helps fuels our offensive line unit as a whole. […] At times, you see us throw a couple jabs to set up the haymaker and ensure the haymaker will be successful. It can’t be just haymaker after haymaker. You won’t be successful.”
'Canes coach Al Golden and his staff spent a considerable amount over the offseason trying to improve defensively, and for good reason: Miami allowed an average of 30.5 points per game and finished 82nd nationally in rushing S&P rating in 2012. With a healthy Jones, Driskel and athlete Trey Burton to go along with the emergence of Brown and (to a lesser extent) Valdez Showers, the Gators will force Miami to defend plenty of different punches.
If the ‘Canes truly want to show they’re for real this year, this fight needs to be decided in the later rounds, not with a early knockout blow.
Show up, show out
Miami has dealt with attendance troubles over the past few seasons. A couple of down years, an ongoing NCAA investigation and an off-campus stadium have all contributed to the increase in empty seats. However, with a new season-ticket program and a marquee opponent in Florida coming into town, this game is different. The Hurricanes have sold out Sun Life Stadium for the first time since the 'Canes hosted Florida State in 2010.
“There’s no seats,” Golden said during the ACC teleconference on Wednesday. “There’s no seats left for anybody. We’ve added 2,000 seats to the stadium, and we’re running out of seats for former players, high school coaches, recruits and headed all the way down the line. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Florida and Miami were intense rivals. The two teams played each other every year from 1946-87, and they still compete for in-state recruits on an annual basis. While Florida-Florida State has seemingly become a bigger game, there’s still a history of bad blood between these two programs. Miami had won six games in a row before Florida’s 26-3 home victory in the most recent meeting.
“Schools from in-state will always have this rivalry,” Harrison said. “It shows who is the toughest team in the state and for bragging rights that year. It really means a lot. Even though we say we approach every game the same and our opponents are faceless, this game has that extra aspect of pride which helps drive us.”
Unfortunately, this might be the last time Florida ever plays at Miami, if AD Foley's comments are to be believed. The Gators can’t afford to give away an extra home game, and Miami might not agree to a neutral location since it would likely be flooded with Florida fans.
“I'm preparing for this to be the last non-bowl game between Florida and Miami for at least a decade and maybe more,” Alligator Army managing editor Andy Hutchins said, noting that a nine-game SEC league schedule would fully shut the door on potential future matchups. “This is a very good rivalry that has lamentably been choked off by its participants' needs to sustain their successes in different ways, and it will be missed.”
Budgets and conference affiliations aside, when a once-proud rivalry dies, it’s a shame. Hopefully the door won’t be shut and locked. It'd be great for the series to pop back up in one way or another.
According to sources
Florida coach Will Muschamp had some choice words for outlets who reported that defensive lineman Jay-nard Bostwick would be suspended for last weekend's opener against the Rockets. He called the reports “irresponsible” and asked the reporters to name their sources. When no one responded, Muschamp said, “Church mice in here.”
It’s never a bad thing when a coach stands up for his players. Kids want to know their head coach is behind them. And Muschamp certainly has a right to take reporters to task for anonymous reports gone wrong.
That said, Florida is ultimately the gatekeeper for information like suspension news, and when that news isn't reported in a timely manner, reporters are going to dig. If schools know their players aren't going to play, maybe it’s more fair to the players -- and reporters -- that coaches and athletic departments be a bit more up front instead of creating diversionary tactics and putting up smokescreens. Of course, that strays from the pregame secrecy that has become increasingly popular among staffs with roster decisions.
Florida true freshman Demarcus Robinson didn’t have a catch against FAU, but that doesn’t mean he won't have a big impact against the 'Canes on Saturday. Miami’s secondary is suspect -- it ranked 102th nationally in pass defense in '12 -- and Robinson should be on the field plenty. He had a good camp and was Rivals.com's fifth-ranked wide receiver prospect in the class 2013. It could only take one play for him to break free and announce his presence.
For Miami, defense is critical if it hopes to keep pace with the Gators. Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad is certainly not lacking in the confidence department. At media days, he told the Miami Herald:
“Some things I do and moves I make, you have probably never seen a guy make before. You probably don’t even see some of them in the NFL. Any move I see I put some swag on it.”
It’s going to take a lot more than swag to slow Florida’s running game, and the Hurricanes will need to pressure Driskel and pick up sacks. Still, as Porter pointed out, the team had five sacks in the season opener after tallying just 13 all of last year. Extra speed and bulk on the line should make a difference, especially in ACC play.
• Andy Hutchins, Alligator Army: “Will Muschamp's post-Florida State protestations aside, Florida isn't sexy. This 2013 team may be the closest thing yet to Muschamp's vision for his program, and as Steve Spurrier-era Florida fans, still the majority of the fan base, will tell you, that pales in comparison to the vision most have of Florida's dazzling offenses of yesteryear. And, to make matters worse, there are teams that do sort of have those offenses in the SEC -- Texas A&M, Georgia, even that South Carolina team still coached by Spurrier. Those are sexy.
Florida's product on the field is closest to what Alabama's is, but with less recent success and no dynasty talk, and second-closest to LSU's, with a coach less prone to desynchronize from the Earth's rotation. And why talk about a team that often seems bound and determined to bore before all those boring wins stack up? Few were talking about Alabama in 2009, when a flashier Florida team consumed all the oxygen in college football, and that worked out for the Tide.”
• Matt Porter, Palm Beach Post: “The crowd will be crazy. Miami, which had spotty attendance even when the program was on top of the college football world, is expecting its first sellout in three seasons and its largest crowd since 2004. It’s because Florida is in town for the first time since 2008 -- and most likely the last time ever, given the scheduling issues between the two schools -- but it’s also because this team has a real shot at winning the ACC Coastal.
There is a legitimate buzz here in year three under Golden, and fans believe he’s the guy to bring the program back. Recruits do, too; he’s been able land top-caliber recruiting classes despite the ongoing NCAA mess. Those four- and five-star kids have been in the program for a couple years now. It’s time to show what they can do.”
The extra point
Miami’s defense appears to have improved, but it’s still not quite of the caliber necessary to compete with a team as physical and methodical as the Gators. Florida’s offensive gameplan might be “boring,” but it’s effective; Miami could have a hard time keeping up with Muschamp's team.
A prediction? The 'Canes will land a few punches in this one, but it won’t be enough. The Gators take control in the second half and grind it out.