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SALT LAKE CITY — In case you haven’t heard, Utah has a big game against an SEC opponent to open the season.
Yes, it also surprises us, but Utah will open its season against Florida on Saturday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at The Swamp — a hostile environment where humidity would be a major threat to the Utes. chances of getting a win, at least if you believe the hordes of Gators fans who cling to that belief.
It is true that The Swamp is a difficult place.
About 90,000 clingy, hot fans (due to the aforementioned humidity) are packed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium hoping to be a factor in Florida disrupting the No. 7 team’s mojo to start the season. Add to that this is Billy Napier’s first season as head coach, and the game is a must-see attraction.
The game in SEC country is a scheduled Utah in 2019 and was circled on Jan. 2 — just hours after the Rose Bowl ended.
And while the game has different implications and meaning than the Rose Bowl, it is no less important to Utah’s overall success and trajectory heading into the 2022 season. If Utah defeats Florida, the win will go a long way to validating the team’s preseason standings and validating its status as a college football playoff contender.
A loss, while not entirely detrimental, would bolster the mainstream idea that the Pac-12 is an inferior Power Fiver conference (and continue the conference’s almost seasonal outsider look at playoff action). Utah’s goals for the season — a second Pac-12 championship — would still be intact, but the narrative surrounding the team would certainly take a hit.
The implications of this matchup are for fans and the media to worry about and talk about in preparation for the game. But for players and coaches, it’s simply the start of another season, albeit with a little more excitement and anticipation. It’s not every day that Utah travels east or to SEC country for a season opener; in fact, this is the first time since 1984 that Utah has visited an SEC site.
“I’m just excited because it’s just very different from last year, and last year was my first time starting an opener,” defensive end Van Fillinger said. “I kind of had an idea of what it was like to go to Weber State, so it was totally different – a totally different type of energy to come into that game. So in Florida, I’m really excited. It’s going to be really fun.
“I know it’s going to be strong; the energy is going to be there. I’m excited to go play there.”
Starting quarterback Cam Rising said the game “makes it feel like Christmas is coming early.” It’s the first time football has returned, and “that’s all we’re looking forward to,” he added.
The season opener just hits differently.
Engage in a tough on-road battle in a hostile environment and that makes that excitement all the more palpable.
“I can’t wait to be in Gainesville,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for our football team. Florida is a really talented team, they have a lot of really good, fast, athletic players. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. We’re going to have to do our best to go down and try to get the win.”
In the end, players warn, this is just another game of football. It’s certainly a game of importance, but the lessons learned by Utah in the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl have helped the current team understand how to handle the emotions coming into the game against a team with a loaded past. .
“Yeah, season opener, but it’s a lot like the Rose Bowl in terms of anticipation and excitement,” coach Freddie Whittingham said. “This is an opportunity to go into SEC country and play one of the eternal powers of the SEC.
“We keep talking about how it’s harder to stay on top than to be, and so we take on this mentality that it’s a new team, a new season, and we want to prove ourselves in the first game.”
That’s not to say Utah won’t be perfect or that mistakes won’t happen on Saturday, but it’s about limiting expectations, nerves and excitement to keep emotions in check so that all off-season practices engage and become second nature in a hostile and unfamiliar environment. environment.
“I mean, obviously, I’m human — everybody’s human,” Fillinger said. “Everyone is going to be a bit nervous, everyone is going to feel emotions. But when I play football I really try to be emotionless, like I’m really trying to take everything out of it and just play the Game.
“I mean, it’s just people hitting each other with pads, making sure your hand placement is better than theirs, making sure you’re in a strong position, like it’s that easy than that. And if you don’t make it more complex or less simple than it is, then it’s a lot easier to take it that way.”
That’s why Utah’s coaching staff has done everything possible to replicate as much as possible the experience the team will have when they take to the field Saturday night. None of this will be a true replica – and for many it will be nothing close – to what’s in store, but it’s about training players to disengage from emotions and play the game of football.
“It’s going to be rowdy for sure,” Rising said. “They’re going to be there in full force and we’re just ready and preparing for it.”