Miami linebacker Shaquille Quarterman walked into his local supermarket on a Tuesday over the summer to pick up some taco seasoning. As he glanced through the shelves, a lifelong Hurricanes fan walked up to him.
He told Quarterman he was a season-ticket holder, with instant recall about every game he had attended, listing off Santana Moss, Devin Hester and other players he had watched make memorable plays. Then the conversation turned to the season opener against the No. 8 Gators (7 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN), and the renewal of the first in-state rivalry in Florida.
Though the teams play only rarely now, Hurricanes fans are clear in their dislike for the Gators, who ended the annual series in 1987 for scheduling reasons. The fan looked at Quarterman and told him point-blank: You have to win this game.
“He didn’t give me an option,” Quarterman said with a big smile.
You can bet the feeling is mutual on the other side in the teams’ first meeting since 2013. But more than picking up in-state bragging rights — until they both play Florida State later in the season — there are much bigger stakes on the line when they kick off in Orlando on Saturday night to open the 150th season of college football.
For Florida, the game is about proving preseason expectations are very much for real. For Miami, the game is about proving Manny Diaz has his program headed in the right direction. For both, championship implications cannot be ignored, even if we are talking about Week 0.
“This makes guys want to prepare a little bit harder,” Florida receiver Josh Hammond said. “We’ve been through Coach [Dan] Mullen’s system. We know what to expect. We’re coming off a top-10 season, a New Year’s Six bowl win. All offseason, all camp, we’ve grinded and had that mentality that we can be one of the better teams in the country to go compete for a playoff spot if we want it.”
Teams have proved they can survive a loss and still play for and win championships. But what happens in the opener against a major nonconference opponent can also have a large impact on a team from a momentum, confidence and emotional standpoint.
Let’s rewind a year. Miami was in the same spot as Florida is now: coming off a surprising 10-3 season, ranked in the preseason top 10, opening against LSU in Arlington, Texas. Miami was the favorite, but the Hurricanes were never in the game and lost 33-17. The flaws we all saw on offense continued to show themselves throughout the season, and the Hurricanes simply could not recover, going 7-6. Head coach Mark Richt resigned after the season.
Let’s rewind two years. Florida went into its opener against Michigan in Arlington with a preseason top-25 ranking, coming off an appearance in the SEC championship game and what appeared to be a momentum-turning bowl victory over Iowa. But the Gators were also noncompetitive and lost 33-17.
They finished 4-7 and Jim McElwain was fired midseason.
Let’s also use their mutual rival, Florida State, as an example. Two years ago, the Seminoles went into their opener against Alabama in Atlanta as the favorite to win the ACC and a popular choice to make the College Football Playoff. They lost the game and quarterback Deondre Francois, and needed a rescheduled game against Louisiana-Monroe to keep their bowl streak alive. Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M before the season ended.
The trend as it relates to schools in Florida is not a great one. But the experience last season might be instructive for Diaz, who was Miami’s defensive coordinator at the time. Diaz knows all the issues that plagued the Hurricanes both on the field and in the locker room, and has used this offseason to try to get his players to be more focused and accountable.
“It’s going to be a highly emotional night,” Diaz said. “Both teams will be supremely motivated to play against each other. Who can keep their competitive will through adversity? Because it’s going to be a night with all kinds of adversity, for both sides. And that’s why it’s about finding the right mix of guys that don’t blink in that setting. We have to find out who are the guys that will fight their way off the ropes. Both teams are going to land some blows. When you get put on the ropes, you have to fight your way out of it.”
Miami did not do a good job of that last season, and Florida did not do a good job of that early in 2018, either. Many even wrote off the Gators after a rare loss to Kentucky in September. But Florida slowly learned how to win, even though there were bumps along the way, including a poor performance in a loss to Missouri.
By the time the Gators engineered a comeback to beat South Carolina, the confidence seemed to bloom. Florida scored 40 or more points in its final three games, including big victories over Florida State and Michigan, two teams that had their number in recent seasons.
“We know where we were last season. We know we have guys to possibly win it all,” Florida linebacker David Reese II said. “We’re as talented as anybody in the country. It’s the challenge of, can we work hard day in and day out every day?”
Anyone who tunes in Saturday night will get to see for themselves. They will also get to see a high-stakes game, and a rivalry renewed and reintroduced to a new generation.
“I just don’t too much like them,” Quarterman said. “That’s how a rivalry works for me. The alumni come and whenever I get a chance to speak to them, they say, ‘What’s your record since you’ve been here?’ They’re talking about Florida State, and in the off chance you play Florida. Did you win or did you lose? That’s where it’s at with me.”