Florida football is officially back on Saturday.
The Gators are just two days away from debuting the 2021 version against the FAU Owls in the Swamp.
Undergoing significant turnover from last season from a player personnel standpoint, Florida will debut new starters at every position group other than running back.
As a result, the face-lifted squad will look to answer some of the offseason’s looming questions against a team they have historically dominated in their limited meetings.
Holding a 3-0 record against FAU all-time — last playing in 2015 — the Gators look to continue their stronghold on the in-state opponent with an inspired performance in front of a full stadium for the first time in over a year.
In preview, here are three key matchups to watch for on Saturday night:
Florida Gators Defense vs. N’Kosi Perry
The bounce-back starts against FAU quarterback N’Kosi Perry.
The Florida Gators defense’s defined goal for the 2021 season is to prove that the lackluster performances of last season were an anomaly.
Their first opportunity to prove that they have made the efforts to overcome their missteps comes against the Owls and their newly named starting QB.
Perry, who was labeled the starting quarterback on Monday by FAU head coach Willie Taggart, won the starting job after an offseason-long competition following his transfer from Miami.
Said to be the most reliable and efficient option the team had in their quarterback room, Perry gives the FAU offense valuable experience and dual-threat abilities, able to both run with and throw the football.
As a result, the Gators defense will be tested early and could make a resounding statement if they’re able to shut down the Owls offense.
Always looking to operate in an aggressive manner with Todd Grantham calling the defense, creating pressure on Perry early and often, while simultaneously keeping contain to ensure he doesn’t win on the ground, along with sticking to pass catchers in press-man coverage will be imperative.
Ultimately, limiting Perry limits the Owls offensive impact in Saturday’s contest, which also supplies the defense with confidence for the remainder of the season.
Florida’s Offensive Line vs. FAU’s Front Seven
The most concerning group for the Gators is the reconstructed offensive line.
Despite bringing back three of their five starting offensive linemen from last season, Florida’s relative inefficiency creates concern for the line being the team’s kryptonite.
With Richard Gouraige sliding to left tackle from left guard and redshirt sophomore Ethan White set to make his long-awaited debut at left guard for the Gators, the left side of the line is slated to be the strength of the unit this season.
However, the right side of the line with Stewart Reese at guard and Jean Delance at tackle is a different story.
Struggling in 2020, the tandem returns with expectations to take a significant jump to align with the new demands of the offense.
Unlike recent years, the Gators won’t have the luxury of hiding the line's weaknesses behind a quick passing game.
Instead, Florida’s shift from a pass-heavy to balanced attack to adhere to the skillset of starting quarterback Emory Jones will result in the offensive line playing a significant role in the team's success.
As a result, FAU will be a trial-and-error period to ensure maximum efficiency in run blocking and pass protection.
Ranking 24th in the NCAA last season in total defense, the Owls accounted for 25 sacks and allowed just 17 points per game, proving to be a formidable opponent for Florida’s unproven quintet of linemen.
Ultimately, all eyes will be on the offensive line and their ability to mesh as a unit against the defensive line that the Owls employ on Saturday night.
Dan Mullen vs Willie Taggart
Old foes meet again.
Formerly representing the two of the biggest programs in the state in Florida and Florida State, Dan Mullen and Taggart were connected at the hip following their respective arrivals in 2018.
In their meeting at the end of their first season, the Gators traveled to Tallahassee with a goal to end their five-year skid against their rival.
Exiting Doak Campbell Stadium with a dominant 41-14 victory, the Gators' offense found a groove in the passing game despite their relative inconsistency in that department throughout the season to hand the Noles their first losing season since 1976.
Proving to be the lone coaching duel — as Taggart was relieved of his coaching duties at FSU prior to the Seminoles trek to Gainesville in 2019 — Mullen and Taggart are set to meet yet again with serious implications for each.
While Taggart seeks revenge for the bludgeoning at the hands of the Gators in 2018, Mullen looks to continue employing a high-powered offensive attack — even after the redesign of the offense — while the defense gains their footing against a less talented FAU team.