Idaho (0-0) at Florida (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (88,548) -- Gainesville, Florida. Television: ESPN U. Home Record: Idaho 0-0, Florida 0-0. Away Record: Idaho 0-0, Florida 0-0. Neutral Record: Idaho 0-0, Florida 0-0. Conference Record: Idaho 0-0, Florida 0-0. Series Record: First-ever meeting.
GAME NOTES: The Florida Gators hope to put the memory of a disastrous 2013 campaign in the rearview mirror, as they open up the new 2014 season with a bout versus the Idaho Vandals at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night.
Last season was a transition year for Idaho. Under first-year head coach Paul Petrino, they became an FBS Independent after the Western Athletic Conference disbanded, and the ensuing season was anything but pretty, as they finished with a lowly 1-11 record for the second consecutive year. Its league shuffling ends in 2014, as its now situated in the geographically-mismatched Sun Belt Conference, joining New Mexico State, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State as newcomers to the league.
The 2013 campaign started off rather smoothly for the Gators with wins in four of their first five contests. From there however, the squad sputtered out of control with losses in each of its last seven games, with the low point coming on Nov. 23 when it fell at home to Georgia Southern, 26-20, in its first-ever loss to an FCS team.
Florida wrapped up the season just 4-8, including 3-5 in the SEC. It was the worst showing since going winless in 1979, and it was also the first time it failed to qualify for a bowl game since 1990, snapping one of the nation's longest bowl streaks at 22.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Few teams in the nation were worse offensively last season than Idaho, as it put up only 18.2 ppg (115th in the country) and 369.1 ypg. While plenty of adjustments still need to be made in order to improve, the unit will benefit from the return of seven starters, including four along the offensive line.
Chad Chalich was far from impressive during his seven games before going down for the season with an injury, passing for 1,224 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, but his completion percentage (.614) was much better than his replacements Taylor Davis (.462) and Josh McCain (.481). Redshirt freshman Matt Linehan is also expected to see snaps under center this season.
Dezmon Epps' accomplishments at receiver last season were especially impressive given his team's poor play and opposing defenses keying in on him. He corralled 79 passes for 980 yards and four scores and figures to be in for a similar campaign as a senior. Deon Watson (24 receptions, 279 yards, TD) also brings some experience out wide.
James Baker (593 yards, six TDs) has moved on, but his 4.1 ypc won't be too hard to replace. Expect Jerrel Brown (216 yards) and Richard Montgomery (196 yards, two TDs) to get plenty of opportunities to break out.
As poorly as the offense performed, the main reason for the Vandals' struggles in 2013 was due to the atrocious play of the defense, as the unit ranked dead- last in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing an eye-popping 46.8 ppg.
Hopefully a nice mix of experienced players (six returning starters) and fresh blood will call for an improvement this time around. Top tackler Marc Millan will anchor the unit once again after collecting 91 tackles, 11.0 TFL and four sacks while starting all 12 games. Eric Tuipulotu (54 tackles, INT), Maxx Forde (63 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks), Bradley Njoku (89 tackles, INT) and Jayshawn Jordan (77 tackles, INT) also return.
Undoubtedly Florida's biggest problem a season ago was its inability to generate consistent offense, as it ranked last in the SEC in both scoring (18.8 ppg) and yardage (316.7 ypg). In response to the poor showing, the university fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and brought in fresh blood in Kurt Roper, who held the same position last season with the upstart Duke Blue Devils.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel was one of the many season-ending casualties in 2013, but even before suffering a broken fibula in September, he wasn't impressive. He completed a high percentage of passes (.689), but only threw for 477 yards in three games with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Kelvin Taylor (111 carries, 508 yards, four TDs) is back after emerging as the starting running back late last season. Mack Brown (543 yards, four TDs) and Matt Jones (339 yards, two TDs) round out an experienced backfield.
Quinton Dunbar is the only seasoned receiver returning. He piled up 548 yards a year ago on 40 receptions but failed to score a touchdown.
The silver lining for the Gators last season was their play on defense, which remained top-notch despite their poor record in allowing just 21.1 ppg and 314.2 ypg, and the production on that side of the ball is expected to remain high as the team returns nine players with starting experience.
One of the unit's most exciting playmakers is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr, who racked up 50 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a sophomore, and he is poised to take the next step in becoming one of the most disruptive forces in the SEC.
The linebacking position is strong with Michael Taylor (62 tackles, three fumble recoveries) and Antonio Morrison (56 tackles) returning as the top tacklers from 2013. Neiron Ball (25 tackles) filled in nicely for injured players last year and will get his chance to be a full-time starter.
In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III (38 tackles, three INTs) and Brian Poole (32 tackles, two INTs) are strong cover corners, and safety Jabari Gorman (48 tackles, INT) brings veteran leadership as well.
Florida's 2013 campaign was derailed by an unfortunate string of crippling injuries, and with some better luck this season it should be right back in the thick of things in the SEC Eastern Division. Taking on the lowly Vandals at home will be a nice confidence booster for the Gators to kick off their season with.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 42, Idaho 9Game Date and Time
Saturday, August 30, 7 p.m. (ET)