Success of Florida-Miami Makes a Compelling Case for Future Week 0 Marquee Matchups

Sloppiness and all, the spotlight of the Gators' and Hurricanes' Week 0 opener showed that college football should seriously consider making a big early showdown an annual event.
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ORLANDO, Fla. — In a dark corridor amid the bowels of Camping World Stadium, Dan Mullen cracked a wide smile and chuckled at his own joke. Sure, his Florida Gators had just beaten rival Miami, 24–20, to open the 2019 season, but these specific postgame shenanigans were rooted in something other than the on-field result. For the first time in, he estimates, three decades, Mullen will get to enjoy Sept. 1. “It’ll be really crazy. I don’t know if I’ve ever not been doing football on Labor Day since I was 12-years old,” he told a small group of reporters. “Kind of interested to see what people do on Labor Day. It’s like a holiday, right?”

Yes, Dan, it is a holiday, and like any normal American summertime holiday, we people take a dip in the pool, swig beer and grill meats. The Week 0 matchup between the Hurricanes and the Gators resulted in several byproducts, and one of them is a rare third bye week, after the very first game of the season no less. Weird. This feels almost like the gap between the final NFL preseason game and the Week 1 opener—except of course this was no preseason game despite its sloppy appearance (there were 24 total penalties and five fumbles, one team allowed 10 sacks and another missed two dozen tackles). Some may attribute the blunders to such an early start to the season. Others will counter with a legitimate argument: Both teams were allotted a normal camp schedule of 25 practices because the NCAA granted a waiver so they could begin drills a week early.

Here in Orlando, before, during and after the game, the buzz from us media types was whether Week 0 was a phenomena or here to stay. This was originally billed as a one-time deal to celebrate the 150th year of college football, with ESPN successfully lobbying the NCAA and the two programs to shift the game from Aug. 31. Is it really a one-time thing? Do you eat one potato chip? Do you have a single beer?

Administrators here weren’t so sure that Week 0 would continue. Coaches here hope to see it extended. “I don’t know what the downside of it is,” says Miami’s Manny Diaz. An hour before kickoff Saturday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey briefly outlined some of those drawbacks, from summer school to lingering waiver requests and so on. He expressed concern over extending it to future years or expanding it to even more games. It needs further discussion, he said.

Week 0 isn’t necessarily brand new. For years, a handful of teams opened the season a week before others. An NCAA bylaw states that no program can play earlier than the Thursday before Labor Day, but the governing body grants an exception to those FBS teams that have a scheduled game at Hawaii, a prize for traveling halfway across the Pacific for a four-hour football game.

Even Diaz admits starting early has its consequences (for one, fans had to hurriedly adjust travel plans in the spring). The Hurricanes’ summer training was impacted, and now the season is a week longer, extra bye or not. Because of the 2019 calendar, teams already this season had two byes. “The thing that we'll both have to manage going forward is you've got an extra week in your season,” Diaz said. “So I think just managing us for the long haul, it's going to be a long season for these kids.” On the bright side, we all got college football five days earlier than normal. “I’ll be honest, I think people are dying for college football, and I think if you can get a big-time game like this for some people, I think it’s a heck of a deal,” Mullen says.

In Week 0 a year from now, standing alone for all to watch, could we see Florida State-West Virginia from Atlanta, Michigan at Washington in Husky Stadium or USF at Texas? Those are some of the best season-opening candidates. Their ADs would surely jump at the offer. Being one of two all-FBS games played Saturday, the exposure generated for Scott Stricklin’s athletic department was more magnified than it would have been a week later, jumbled with a mess of squads on the tradition season-opening weekend. “Florida-Miami was going to be special regardless,” he says, “it’s even more special now.”

Most of the sporting world had its eyes on Gators-Canes, until midway through the third quarter when they shifted to Indianapolis. If it wouldn’t have been for the news of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement—publicized during the Gators’ second-half comeback—Florida-Miami, no matter how poorly played, would have graced the main section of most sports outlet’s home or front pages. In fact, ESPN announced Sunday that Saturday’s game was its highest rated since November 2016.

Hawaii’s wild 45–38 win over Arizona capped Week 0 with some good old-fashioned island fun that went, like this one, to the final play. And now, after their team’s first game of the season, the Mullens—Dan, wife Megan and their two children—can enjoy Labor Day, popping a top from the poolside maybe. Bottoms up, Dan.