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Florida seeks second straight season-opening win over No. 14 Utah

Florida at No. 14 Utah, Thursday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Line: Utah by 6 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Series record: Florida 2-0.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Reigning two-time Pac-12 champion Utah harbors dreams of making a run to the College Football Playoff in its final season in the conference. The Utes are also seeking revenge against a Florida team that edged them 29-26 a year ago. Meanwhile, the Gators are trying to take a step forward after winning six games in Billy Napier’s debut season. Florida finished last season on a three-game slide and only won one true road game a year ago.

KEY MATCHUP

Establishing the run will be critical for the Gators in their quest to upset a ranked Utah team for a second consecutive season. Florida averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season, finishing with the best team rushing average since 2009 and the fourth highest in program history. The Utes won’t make it easy to run the ball. Utah held seven opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards in 2022 and finished second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Florida: QB Graham Mertz brings much needed experience to run the Gator offense. Mertz, a Wisconsin transfer, made 32 starts in 34 career games with the Badgers. He tallied 5,405 yards and 38 touchdowns over three seasons while completing 60% of his passes.

Utah: With uncertainty at quarterback, RB Ja’Quinden Jackson will be counted on to keep the Utes’ offense steady. Jackson was a breakout star in Utah’s backfield last year after a mid-season switch from quarterback. He averaged 84.6 rushing yards and scored seven touchdowns over the final five games of the 2022 season.

FACTS & FIGURES

Utah has won 14 straight home games and is 25-1 in its last 26 in Salt Lake City. … Florida has scored in 436 consecutive games dating to 1988 – an NCAA record. … The Utes led the Pac-12 in third down conversion defense last season, allowing opponents to convert on 31.5% of third-down attempts. … The Gators are opening the season with a true road game against a non-conference opponent for the first time since 1987. … Cam Rising has won 18 games in 25 starts at Utah, tied for fifth all-time among quarterbacks in program history. … Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne were one of 15 RB duos in the FBS to rush for more than 700 yards apiece last season.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll