When the sun starts to set on the late summer evening of Aug. 30 in Gainesville, Fla., the Vandal football team, will enter the toughest environment it will see in the 2014 season. It will be hot and humid, the crowd of 88,000-plus will be deafening and the opponent, University of Florida, will be motivated.
It will be a clash between schools that are virtually polar opposites. A program rich in tradition with three national championships, eight conference titles and three Heisman Trophy winners versus a program struggling to stay relevant in its own community. A team that recruits some of the best high school talent in the country versus a team of players often overlooked by their own hometown school.
Whether it’s the budget of athletic departments, size of stadiums or the cities in which the schools are located, the differences can be seen in almost every aspect of the two programs.
The Vandals are clearly underdogs, but don’t think Idaho head coach Paul Petrino is using that mentality to motivate his team.
“You can only say the underdog stuff so much,” Petrino said. “The most important thing for us is to get better every single day, all through fall camp, all summer and go in there and compete our tails off. We need to be tough, hit hard and let the cards fall where they may.”
Florida will look to bounce back this season after it finished 2013 with the disappointing record of 4-8. Entering his fourth season, Florida head coach Will Muschamp has compiled a record of 22-16. In the past, that has been below the standard for the athletic department, who fired Ron Zook back in 2004 after he went 23-14 in three seasons at Florida.
With a defense that only surrendered an average of 21.1 points per game last season, which ranked 15th in the nation, the problem for Florida has been on the other side of the ball.
The offense was anemic last season and even finished with numbers worse than the Vandals. The Gators ranked near the bottom of most offensive categories, notably 110th in passing yards, 89th in rushing yards and 114th in points.
Help is on the way, though. Along with Jeff Driskel returning from a broken leg, which sidelined him the final nine games last season, Muschamp hired new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper during the offseason.
Roper, formally the offensive coordinator at Duke, brings his unique, up-tempo spread attack to Florida. The new scheme will be a change of pace from the pro-style, ground-and-pound offense Muschamp tried to implement in his first three years.
“Coach Muschamp has been a great defensive coach everywhere he’s been,” Petrino said. “They’ve got a new offensive coordinator and a new o-line coach, so they’re going to be a very good team.”
A player who could flourish in Roper’s new scheme is wide receiver Quinton Dunbar. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior from Miami was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but like most of Florida’s highly touted offensive weapons, Dunbar has struggled to put up big numbers throughout his career, with 1,147 yards on 90 receptions with six touchdowns. Florida hasn’t had a receiver eclipse 600 yards since Riley Cooper in 2009.
While the offense has struggled, the defense has dominated, and linebacker Dante Fowler is a big reason why. Despite being listed as a linebacker, the SEC blog on ESPN.com ranks Fowler as the conference’s best defensive end. It says Fowler plays the “buck” position, which is part defensive end and part outside linebacker. The 6-foot-3, 266-pound junior is versatile enough that he’s great against the run, but also a dynamic pass-rusher.
“They’re very talented,” Petrino said. “I mean anytime you go play in the swamp, you’re going to play a bunch of four- and five-star players. So we’ve just got to … go in there and just expect to play our very best.”
The Vandals list seven players on its roster who hail from Florida. You can bet they will return home with a chip on their shoulders.
Korbin McDonald can be reached at email@example.com