ORLANDO, Fla.—What if I told you that the 2019 college football season would begin with a team, from its own 28-yard line, faking a punt, converting it and scoring on the very next play? What if I told you that, in the first quarter of the first game of the season, the fire alarm at the stadium sounded twice, urging everyone to evacuate (no one did)? What if I told you that Urban Meyer, still on Ohio State’s payroll, was here in a suite sporting a Gators shirt? What if I told you the brand-new turnover chain was even better than the last two turnover chains? What if I told you that the late-game gaffes in Florida’s 24-20 win over Miami pushed Dan Mullen into his late 50s? “Last five minutes of the game,” says the Florida coach, “I aged 10 years.”
What if I told you that college football came back Saturday night? That it made its debut in one of the ugliest, sloppiest affairs you’ll see this year, a true circus of a game that through its hideous exterior was beautiful inside, because it was college football. And nothing beats college football, nothing, not even in this form, not even when the Gators and the Hurricanes combined for 23 penalties for 225 yards, five fumbles and a complete disaster of a final five minutes. What would you say if I told you all that was true? You’d watch anyway, stare like we all do at that car crash on the side of the interstate. You’d watch and you’d like it. We all would and we all did.
Florida-Miami 2019 will not be remembered as an expertly played battle between two storied college football programs, a pair of vicious in-state rivals beautifully slugging it out with brilliant game plans and excellent execution. And that’s OK, because it entertained us to the very end. Even when college football is bad, it’s still fun (this coming from a guy who found Auburn’s 3-2 win thrilling over Mississippi State in 2008). This day began with College GameDay favorite Lee Corso donning a Mickey Mouse hat in the middle of the Magic Kingdom, and it ended with the Gators, a touchdown favorite and preseason No. 8, nearly blowing the win here at Camping World Stadium in a game in which their flaws were severely exposed. “Wooo,” Mullen said, sliding into his chair to begin his postgame news conference, “that was exhausting. It seemed like we had to win the game four different times.”
What we saw Saturday was the Week 0 blues between two teams with remade offensive lines. Of the 10 O-linemen who took the first snap Saturday, as many as eight of them could be considered new starters. But that contributed to only some of the ugliness—pre-snap penalties, obvious holding fouls, the QBs running for their lives, the QBs making poor decisions, defenders missing dozens of tackles and, for crying out loud, a trainwreck of an ending. Clinging to a four-point lead, the Gators stopped a Miami fourth-down attempt only to hand possession back on the very next play with a Feleipe Franks interception. The real fun (or wreckage?) started then. Miami’s last-ditch drive spanned nearly the remaining four minutes of the game, included 10 plays and stretched 14 yards. If a four-minute, 10-play, 14-yard drive seems nearly impossible, it’s because it is. Miami tested the limits of ineptitude (and, honestly, so did the Gators). The drive included one play—one—of positive offensive yards, three sacks, four incompletions, three fumbles and four penalties. Two of the flags were Florida pass interference calls, one of them bailing Miami out on a fourth-and-34. There was a third flag thrown for pass interference in the end zone with less than 30 seconds left, but officials, after discussing the play, ruled it clean. As someone in the press box aptly put it, the refs were damn ready to go home and end this disaster. “Wild game to be a part of,” a smirking Mullen said. “Certainly reminded everybody that college football is back. Looks like we’re in for another exciting season.”
There wasn’t much smirking afterward from Manny Diaz, the first-year Miami coach and former pupil of Mullen at Mississippi State. His Hurricanes blew leads of 13-7 and 20-17, the former because of a pair of special teams blunders and the latter because of a blown coverage. Kicker Bubba Baxa—that is his real name—missed a 27-yard field goal with 10 minutes left. Then in a true game-changer of a play, return man Jeff Thomas muffed a punt, Florida’s Van Jefferson recovered and the Gators proceeded to drive 11 yards for the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter after the Canes retook the lead, a safety was out of position on a 65-yard pass from Franks to a streaking James Hammond to set up the eventual winning TD. The “New Miami,” Diaz’s offseason slogan for his squad, wasn’t all bad. There was a new running back (DeeJay Dallas is a stud), a new turnover chain (recognizing the south Florida area code, 305) and a new quarterback (Jarren Williams showed poise, elusiveness and accuracy). The real problem was a new offensive line (it gave up 10 sacks). That overshadowed the positives, but even Diaz admitted his crew showed it can “go toe-to-toe with a top-25 team.” Despite a collapsing O-line, Williams didn’t make any huge mistakes (unlike his older counterpart), had a sizzling first half (12-of-14 passing) and finished with 214 yards. “I think you can see why we picked him to be our guy,” Diaz says. And then there was Dallas, carving up the Gators for 95 yards on 12 carries. He broke two tackles on a 50-yard touchdown jaunt and broke three more on a 40-yard, acrobatic catch. Alas, there were too many blunders.
It’s not like it was rosy on the other sideline. Some of Florida’s best highlights were a frisky Mullen’s early-game gambles. He faked a punt at his own 28-yard line on his team’s first series in the first quarter of the first game of the season. He got it, went for it three more times and got them all. But the Gators looked nothing like a preseason top-10 team. That offseason improvement Franks and Mullen spent the summer raving about never really showed. The quarterback looked more like the Feleipe Franks we saw in the first 20 games of his career than the one we witnessed the last four. Against a defense with just four scholarship cornerbacks, the Gators lacked a consistent deep passing game, the same old problems plaguing a program that’s fallen into a decade of offensive futility. “There’s some teachable moments in there,” Mullen says on Franks, who was so emotional after the game that he punted a football into the stands. Some might say that was bad sportsmanship. Others might say that is college football. It’s fun. It’s crazy. It’s wild. It is college football, and it is back—my God, it is back.