GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — After two weeks of dealing with hurricanes — first Miami and then Dorian — No. 11 Florida should get a break in its home opener.
The Gators (1-0) host Tennessee-Martin (1-0) on Saturday, their first of two games against teams from the Football Championship Subdivision in September. It’s expected to be the final year Florida plays two lower-division teams in the same season as athletic director Scott Stricklin wants to schedule 10 Power 5 opponents annually.
“There’s not a lot of people always jumping up and down to play us,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said.
The Gators are paying UT Martin $500,000 to make the trip, and should make easy work of the Skyhawks. UT Martin is 1-26 against Football Bowl Subdivision members, including 0-9 against the Southeastern Conference.
The Skyhawks have been outscored by nearly 40 points a game against SEC teams. But coach Jason Simpson said his guys grow from payday games by playing in huge stadiums and dealing with hostile environments.
“It’s an uphill battle, no doubt,” Simpson said. “But over the years I have learned that on our good teams, in games like this, especially early in the season, if you play well, you stay in the game, you continue to fight. That’s easy to benefit from.”
Florida opened with a sloppy win against the rival Hurricanes in Orlando two weeks ago. The Gators averaged 1.8 yards a carry and had four turnovers, 100 yards in penalties and nearly two dozen missed tackles in a 24-20 victory. They overcame those issues thanks mostly to 10 sacks, four fourth-down conversions — including an early fake punt — and two pass plays totaling 131 yards.
Still, Mullen hopes to see better execution Saturday.
“If you look at certain things in Game 1, we did play to our standard,” Mullen said. “And other things, we didn’t play to our standard. … Was it as clean as we want it to be? No. Did we make some critical errors with penalties, turnovers, red-zone scoring, missed tackles? Some of that wasn’t to our standard, so are we cleaning those things up?
“That’s been the biggest focus to me.”
The Gators took several days off during their bye week and spent time waiting and worrying about Hurricane Dorian, which destroyed parts of the Bahamas and then crawled up Florida’s East Coast.
They also watched plenty of football, including seeing several fellow SEC East teams struggle. South Carolina blew a fourth-quarter lead against North Carolina. Missouri lost at Wyoming. And Tennessee delivered the bigger shocker, a 38-30 setback at home to lower-division Georgia State.
“You can’t take anyone lightly,” Florida receiver Josh Hammond said. “Bunch of teams got upset in Week 1. Definitely take the approach that every team is going to come in and try to win the football game. No one plans to lose. We still game plan as if it is the No. 1 team in the country.”
Here are some other things to know about Florida’s home opener:
Florida’s double-digit sacks against Miami were the most by an SEC team since 2008 (Mississippi). UT Martin coach Jason Simpson insists the Gators won’t repeat the feat.
“They won’t get 10 against us because we’ll just hand it off for about the last 40 plays of the game,” Simpson said. “We won’t tie that record. We’ll just keep handing it off on those third downs.”
The Skyhawks have 14 players and one assistant coach from the Sunshine State, and all of them will make the trip. For defensive line coach Clint McMillan, it will be a homecoming of sorts. McMillan spent five years at Florida (2003-07) and was a special teams contributor on the 2006 national championship team. The Orlando-area native started 13 games at defensive tackle as a senior in 2007.
“I’m sure it’ll be a fun homecoming for him,” Mullen said. “Coming back, it’ll be a different feeling.”
Florida will honor its most famous cheerleader before the game. George Edmondson Jr., better known as Mr. Two Bits while riling up crowds at Florida home games for 60 years, died in early July at age 97. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren will lead the renowned cheer prior to kickoff.