The first, and only, meeting between Utah and Florida in football happened 45 years ago.
That day, on Nov. 19, 1977, the Gators defeated the Utes in their homecoming game 38-29. Utah finished the season with a 3-8 record.
When the two programs collide again on Sept. 3 at “The Swamp” in Gainesville, it will be televised by ESPN and the Utes should be ranked in the national polls.
No doubt, times have changed.
“It’s evident when you put the tape on, this team’s got height, length, speed. They’re tough. They play with effort. They’ve got a reputation and a brand that they play to. So, we’ve got a ton of respect for Utah. — Florida coach Billy Napier on the Utes
And Utah is looking forward to this kind of test to kick off the season. The Utes are the defending Pac-12 champions and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State last New Year’s Day.
“We ended last season with Ohio State and we’re starting this season with Florida,” said offensive tackle Braeden Daniels. “Physicality will be really big for us. Physicality works everywhere and that’s something that we’re going to have to do.”
It’s one of the reasons Daniels chose Utah — to play in big games like this.
Daniels has been to the state of Florida on vacation, but has never visited Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka “The Swamp.”
“It’s going to be really exciting,” he said.
Of course, this season opener will be a homecoming for Ute linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who spent the previous three seasons with the Gators before transferring to Utah.
“It brings emotion because those are the guys you grew up with and you had more workouts with those guys. Those are some of my closest friends. But at the end of the day, I want to destroy them,” he said. “When I step on the field, they know how I am. You’re my enemy now.
“At the end of the day, all that stuff that we’ve been through, all those times we were together, that goes out the window. I’m trying to do my job and I know it’s going to be the same on their end. It will come down to who prepares the best and who’s ready.”
The showdown between the Gators and Utes will mark the debut of new Florida head coach Billy Napier. In 2021, the Gators posted a 6-7 record and dismissed coach Dan Mullen.
“Any time you can open the season with a formidable opponent that you know your entire organization, staff and players respect, I think that’s a huge positive,” Napier told On3.com in May. “We got tremendous respect for Utah. Very familiar with their blueprint. They’ve had tremendous success. They’ve been one of the most consistent contenders in the Pac-12. Probably had one of their best teams in a long time last year.”
Napier is impressed with Utah’s talent.
“It’s evident when you put the tape on, this team’s got height, length, speed,” he said. “They’re tough. They play with effort. They’ve got a reputation and a brand that they play to. So, we’ve got a ton of respect for Utah.
“In the meantime, we’re trying to get better today. We’ve got a lot of work to do in preparation for the opener. But I do think that it’s a positive that it’s a formidable opponent, one that we all can agree deserves respect. They play really good football out there.”
Florida will play at Utah in 2023, as part of a home-and-home series that was announced in in 2019.
Though the two programs have met only once, there are a few connections between them.
Urban Meyer was the head coach of the Utes from 2003-04 and the Gators from 2005-10. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Mullen were part of Meyer’s staff in Salt Lake City. Former Ute quarterback Brian Johnson spent time on Mullen’s staff at Florida before moving on to his current position with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Utah’s games against Florida in 2022 and 2023 essentially replaces BYU on its nonconference schedule.
“We play nine conference games, which is more than some conferences. You’ve got to figure all those are going to be battles,” athletic director Mark Harlan told the Deseret News. “We play BYU but some years we might take a year or two off. In general, I would like to see another premier opponent when we can that matches up and makes sense to complement that overall philosophy.”
The Cougars ended their nine-game losing streak to the Utes last September.
“(BYU athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) has stated, and I have too, that if we’re talking about football scheduling, we want to stay close to communicating with each other and our staffs when there’s an opportunity that comes to either program,” Harlan said. “That was the case with the Florida series.”
A win at “The Swamp” to start off the 2022 season could be a huge springboard for Utah.
Former Ute quarterback Scott Mitchell likes that Utah is opening the campaign in a marquee matchup in SEC country.
“I like it, too, in that Utah usually starts slow. There’s this energy and realization that we’ve got to come out of the gates swinging early,” he said. “We’ve got to have our guys in line. We’ve got to have them firing on all cylinders. We can’t be trying to figure things out in our nonconference games. Who’s our offensive line? Who are our linebackers? What does our secondary look like? That’s got to be in place and dialed in for that first game.”