Too soon? Miami-Florida slog shows why Week Zero is a bad idea

Florida Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter (17) pressures Miami Hurricanes quarterback Jarren Williams (15) during the second half at Camping World Stadium. (USAT)
Florida Gators defensive lineman Zachary Carter (17) pressures Miami Hurricanes quarterback Jarren Williams (15) during the second half at Camping World Stadium. (USAT)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The score of the game that was played 150 years ago to start this whole college football thing was Rutgers 6, Princeton 4. It was the start of something big, but probably not an instant classic.

Despite advancements over time, the contest that kicked off this 150th anniversary season Saturday night likely wasn’t a whole lot better than the original of 1869. Florida beat Miami 24-20 here in a that game damn near set the sport back to the Reconstruction. This was a profoundly absurd muckfest that built to a dizzying crescendo of errors in the final minutes, becoming a battle of who would malfunction last.

That dishonor went to the Hurricanes, who couldn’t capitalize on the 57 chances the Gators gave them in the fourth quarter. The only real positive was that at least it was close and competitive and somewhat dramatic into the final minute.

But all things considered, this Week Zero idea needs to go.

It probably won’t, because college football’s greed knows no bounds. The sport’s leaders will stretch the truth to accommodate its needs, whether it’s calling a 10-team conference the Big 12 or a 14-team conference the Big Ten or calling the first week of football games Week Zero. So expect more of these prematurely played fiascos.

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There is more money to be made by stretching the calendar ever further. TV abhors a programming vacuum and this filled a glaring one.

Before kickoff, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey gave his tentative approval for the concept: “Labor Day weekend works [as the opening of the season], but if there’s interest across the spectrum to start with a Week Zero we should look at it.”

After watching this game, let’s not. In the pantheon of Great Zeros We Have Known, there is Jim Otto and Coke Zero and Gilbert Arenas. Week Zero does not make the list.

Florida, with more experience in more key areas, was not ready to play on Aug. 24. Miami, with a new quarterback and a new head coach, was not ready to play on Aug. 24. The result was a game with 225 yards of penalties and five turnovers that were wholly unforced by the defenses. They were giveaways, not takeaways.

In the final five minutes alone, there were seven penalty flags thrown. The first was declined and the last was waved off. In between there was a taunting penalty against Miami after what could have been a game-turning interception, then a chop block against Miami, then the last in an endless series of delay-of-game flags against Miami — and then Florida nullified all that incompetence by committing defensive pass interference on a fourth-and-34 play and on a third-and-12. A third and final Florida PI flag was picked up “after further consultation,” to the displeasure of the Hurricanes fans.

Miami Hurricanes running back DeeJay Dallas (13) breaks a tackle against the Florida Gators during the second half at Camping World Stadium. (USAT)
Miami Hurricanes running back DeeJay Dallas (13) breaks a tackle against the Florida Gators during the second half at Camping World Stadium. (USAT)

Miami’s final drive flailed along torturously through 10 plays and four minutes for a net of 14 yards before mercifully expiring.

“Every second was probably like a thousand minutes or days,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “I don't know. The last five minutes of the game I think I aged like 10 years.”

If the Hurricanes had done the smart thing and kicked a field goal to make it 24-23 earlier in the fourth quarter, they would have been in position to kick for the win after the second of those PI debacles by the Gators. But they didn’t, so they weren’t, so they had to keep dropping back and chucking and the Florida pass rush overwhelmed freshman quarterback Jarren Williams yet again, sacking him for the 10th and final time and effectively ending the game.

That allowed the exhausted but triumphant Florida fans to exit Camping World Stadium into the sweaty night roaring their signature chant, “It’s Great! To be! A Florida Gator!”

Except it’s really not that great to be a Florida Gator today. They entered Saturday No. 8 in America and exited Saturday looking overrated.

Florida’s offense had two big plays — a 60-yard catch and run by Kadarius Toney in the first quarter and a 65-yard streak from Feleipe Franks to Josh Hammond in the fourth. The Gators’ other 52 plays netted 181 yards, a meager 3.5 yards per snap. They did not have a running play longer than 15 yards all night, and finished with just 52 yards on the ground — their fewest in a game since a season-opening loss to Michigan in 2017.

Florida’s four turnovers was the most by a Mullen-coached team since the 2017 Egg Bowl, when he was the coach at Mississippi State. While it’s a distinct positive to win a game in which your team is minus-3 in turnover margin, having four unforced giveaways with a veteran quarterback and veteran skill players has to be a concern.

“I feel like we were fully prepared,” Franks said afterward. “Obviously things don't go sometimes the way that we expect them to go. … But things happen throughout the course of the game that you don't plan, and that's what adversity is. It's all about just trying to persevere through those kinds of things and that's what we did tonight and just got a great team win.”

All wins are great wins, in the final analysis. But I don’t think Georgia was watching this game and feeling concern about the Gators.

For Miami, new coach Manny Diaz can at least feel good about his somewhat surprising decision to start redshirt freshman Williams at quarterback over Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. Williams was chased relentlessly all night by the Florida pass rush — sometimes due to him holding the ball too long — but showed his moxie in completing 19 of 29 passes for 214 yards, with one touchdown and no turnovers.

“I think you can see why we picked him to be our guy,” Diaz said.

Miami needs its young offensive line to mature alongside its young quarterback rather quickly. After an open date next weekend, the Hurricanes have a road ACC game next, at North Carolina. After problems all night getting plays off in time, a true road atmosphere will provide another test in that department.

Yet even in defeat, Miami might walk away from this Week Zero folderol feeling a little better than Florida. The expectations were higher for the Gators than for the Hurricanes, though you couldn’t convince Diaz of that afterward.

“I thought our guys played with a lot of courage,” he said. “I think they played with a lot of effort. But it doesn't matter because we lost the game. We did not come here to play with courage and effort. We came here to win the game and it's not OK at the University of Miami ever to lose to the University of Florida.”

It’s not OK to open the college football season on Aug. 24, either. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again — but it probably will.

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