Game time: 7:30 p.m. ET; Sept. 4, 2021
Venue: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, FL
Where to watch: SEC Network
Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks
DraftKings: Florida -23.5; O/U 52.5; Moneylines: Florida -2200, FAU +1100
BetMGM: Florida -23.5; O/U 52; ML: Florida -3333
Caesars: Florida -23.5; O/U 52; ML: Florida -2800, FAU +1200
FAU: 5-4 (lost Montgomery Bowl to Memphis)
Florida: 8-4 (lost Cotton Bowl to Oklahoma)
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Florida Atlantic - Florida preview and analysis
There’s something off about the Florida Gators.
You want to believe in them, but the moment you do, it all comes crashing down.
Case in point: Last season. An amazing 8-1 start, highlighted by blowout wins over No. 5 Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas put the Gators into national championship contention. Then consecutive one-score losses to LSU and No. 1 Alabama put Florida down from maybe a College Football Playoff berth to a meeting with Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma went on to win 55-20. What a fun season for Florida. What a way to waste an amazing season from quarterback Kyle Trask in his final year.
If that’s the only blemish on Florida coach Dan Mullen’s run to this point, that’s not bad. But the No. 13-ranked Gators enter a new year with, once again, high expectations as they open their season Saturday against the Florida Atlantic Owls in this Sunshine State matchup.
Mullen, the former coach for Mississippi State, is 29-9 through three years since coming to Gainesville. Three years, three New Year’s Six bowl appearances for the Gators with wins in the Peach and Orange in Years 1 and 2.
Now in Year 4, the SEC is more crowded than ever, but the Gators are still primed to be one of the top threats to the Crimson Tide or Bulldogs. That part is ultimately up to junior QB Emory Jones, now the starter with Trask in the NFL.
This will be Jones’ first career start after biding his time the past three seasons, throwing seven touchdowns to one interception. He saw time in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma as Florida was getting blown out, going 8-for-16 for 86 yards.
If Jones is going to be the guy, he needs a confident complement of talent around him, and it’s hard to think of that with Florida. Trask was the whole Florida offense; he threw for 4,283 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes, all while only throwing eight interceptions. Dameon Pierce returns for his senior season after totaling 503 yards and four touchdowns. Florida totaled for 1,575 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground; two of them came from Jones, who also averaged 6.8 yards per carry in special option packages. At least Jones helps in the rushing element.
Florida will also need someone to be the go-to receiver, now that tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Kadarius Toney Trevon Grimes are in the NFL. Jacob Copeland is Florida’s top returning target; he had 435 yards and three touchdowns last season.
The Gators will take on an FAU team that is certainly not short on veteran leadership. The Owls bring back 10 starters on both sides of the ball after making the Montgomery Bowl last season, losing to the Memphis Tigers. Two wins in the Boca Raton Bowl will give a program confidence now that they’re looking for their third Conference USA title in four seasons.
The good news for FAU is their defense should be better than last season, given it was the reason why they made the postseason under coach Willie Taggart entering his second season, replacing Lane Kiffin. The defense was spectacular, allowing only 17.4 points per game, 10th best in the country. The defensive side allowed 21 points or more only twice; the last two games of the season to the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, and Memphis Tigers in the bowl game. Honestly, not bad for the Conference USA.
Help could be on the way with the running game, now that the addition of former USF running back Johnny Ford is in the mix. The sophomore running back had 285 rushing yards and three touchdowns on only 55 carries with the Bulls.
The bad news was that offense did not help. The Owls scored more than 30 points twice, and one of them was a loss to Southern Miss in the season finale. FAU is hoping that quarterback transfers N’Kosi Perry (Miami Hurricanes) and Michael Johnson (Penn State Nittany Lions) can be that spark offensively. Perry is expected to start against the Gators.
If that FAU defense plays even half of what it did last season, the Owls should hang around enough to cover. The talent on the Gators might just be a tad much for Florida Atlantic to overcome, but I’m excited to see how the Owls look in conference play. Florida wins 38-24
Florida Atlantic is 1-4 as an underdog the past three seasons despite being 16-7 in its last 23.
As a home favorite, the Gators are 16-2 in their last 18 straight up. Florida is 7-2 against the spread in its last nine.
Statistical leaders from 2020
Passing: Nick Tronti -- 905 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: James Charles -- 429 yards, 4 TD
Receiving: TJ Chase -- 334 yards, 2 TD
Defense: Leighton McCarthy -- 9 sacks
Passing: Kyle Trask -- 4,283 yards, 43 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Dameon Pierce -- 503 yards, 4 TD
Receiving: Kadarius Toney -- 984 yards, 10 TD
Defense: Ventrell Miller -- 86 tackles, 3.5 sacks
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