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*Someone’s* aggressive defense is going to decide Florida-Miami in Week 0

Either Florida’s aggressive safeties or Miami’s experienced front could take over in Orlando.

USA TODAY Sports

The Gators and Hurricanes’ season opener in Orlando will likely be billed as the battle for Florida, although you could argue that the state’s best team is from Orlando itself and won’t be involved. Dan Mullen’s UF went 10-3 in his first year, winning a New Year’s bowl and generating a lot of momentum. Miami will start Year 1 under Manny Diaz, whom the Canes recalled from Temple to replace the retiring Mark Richt after a disappointing 7-6 season.

In addition to the recruiting stakes in Florida, the Gators have additional hopes of competing for the SEC East. Diaz has hit the ground running in Miami with a bunch of high-profile transfers and could rebound quickly in the vulnerable ACC Coastal.

With Florida State floundering, ESPN might as well make a Florida heavyweight champion belt and hand it to the winner. That’s what a victory will do for someone’s perception. Here are some games to watch unfold within the first big game of the 2019 season.

Miami’s offense and Florida’s defense are designed to beat each other. The Gators’ safeties might decide who wins that matchup.

Florida and Miami have a long rivalry, but these coaching staffs have quite a bit of history together too. Diaz was Mullen’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2015. While he was there, he faced an Arkansas offense coordinated by Enos, who lost the game but won the exchange against Diaz in a 51-50 MSU victory over the Razorbacks. After taking over at Miami, Diaz went and secured Enos from Alabama to run the Miami offense.

Enos’ Arkansas offenses were renowned for their run/pass balance, tying their run and pass games close together with play-action, and even doing so via lead draw looks:

Then, as Alabama QB coach, Enos helped oversee a more RPO-based offense with Tua Tagovailo. The Tide married the run and pass games out of the shotgun.

In Miami’s spring game, prospective starter Tate Martell showed some comfort with both styles, executing some rollouts and misdirection handoffs from under center while also completing an 80-yard scoring strike on an RPO from the gun:

There, he’s hitting Buffalo grad transfer K.J. Osborn, who caught 53 balls for 892 yards in 2018 and now is poised to be a primary target for the Canes’ RPO/PAP (play-action pass) attack. Martell is also enjoying protection from Butler grad transfer Tommy Kennedy, whom the Canes brought in to shore up pass protection on a young line.

Enos’s system is hard to stop because of the way he mixes in the lead draw and some old-school, smash-mouth run schemes as a way to attack teams with play-action concepts. Those sorts of run/pass conflicts are tricky enough, but college defenses don’t see them as much as they used to with all of the attached motions and actions that Enos utilizes.

The Gator might better off than some others on Miami’s schedule. Todd Grantham’s defense returns six DBs who have started at least five games, as well as DE Jabari Zuniga (second-leading pass-rusher) and MLB David Reese (second-leading tackler).

The Gators like to play with two-deep coverage when they can and rely on their speed on the back end to force opponents to maintain drives, often playing the safeties flat-footed at the snap while they read for run or pass.

That sets up a battle where the game might come down to how well the Florida safeties pick up on run or pass cues and are able to close the exact windows Enos’ system is designed to open up for his QBs.

The Gators’ biggest danger area: What happens when a rebuilt offensive line goes up against a strong, experienced D in Week 1?

Miami has been starting the same three linebackers for the last three seasons, and all are now seniors. While the Canes will be rebuilding their line somewhat and finding a few new starters in the secondary, the trio of Zach McCloud, Shaquille Quarterman, and Michael Pinckney gives the the most experienced linebacker corps in the country.

The Canes run an aggressive front and brought in Jaelan Phillips (UCLA), Chigozie Nnoruka (UCLA), and Trevon Hill (Virginia Tech) to buttress the line, while Bubba Bolden (USC_ will join the secondary at safety. All but Phillips will be able to take the field immediately, giving Miami an infusion of extra athleticism across the defense.

The question of whether Florida can contend with Miami’s pressures and speed up front is the same question that will likely define how the Gators fare in the SEC. Feleipe Franks benefitted immensely from Mullen’s new spread and showed off some running ability in the new scheme. He’ll also have RB Lamical Perine and top target Van Jefferson back.

But the 2018 Gators were built around the run game and led by an OL with a four-year starter at LT in Martez Ivey and another multi-year starter and then NFL Draft pick at RT in Jawaan Taylor (besides a few other returning starters). In 2019, they’ll be starting over with a pair of returning starters inside and new tackles on either edge.

It’s hard to win on passing downs against the Miami pass rush, which includes a variety of pressure packages and blitzes besides the talented members of their starting DL.

For instance, this blitz that yielded a strip-sack and launched a Miami comeback against Florida State last year:

That’s a dime package with nickel Romeo Finley and safety Sheldrick Redwine down in the box and unexpectedly overloading the edge opposite a slide protection. The Canes excel at playing the passing-down games of manipulating and anticipating protection calls to go where the blocking is weakest. Miami was No. 1 nationally in sack rate in 2018 and returns all those blitzing linebackers, so this is a stiff test for the rebuilt Gators OL.

It comes back to the run game, where Florida made its bones in 2018. Mullen drew up formations and schemes to allow the Gators to face lighter boxes, and they had a solid variety of power and zone schemes for overpowering whoever remained near the trenches. Here they are picking up a Georgia blitz and shoving the Bulldogs off the ball:

Only one of the Gators O-linemen on the field for that play will take the field for Florida against Miami: senior Nick Buchanan, who held things down at center. Buchanan was solid in 2018 and will now be counted on to direct the fresh recruits to his right and left — against one of the best and most experienced pass rushes in the country.

Both of these teams will look to put together a lot on offense in hopes of making runs in their respective divisions. The Miami turnover chain and experienced Florida secondary both loom large over this game. Whichever manages to make its presence felt loudest will end the game holding that state title belt.