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Florida has one eyewitness to relay what the Gators are getting into as their season opener at No. 14 Utah approaches Thursday.

Two years ago, wide receiver Ricky Pearsall was with Arizona State rolling into the human chainsaw known as Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time.

"We were up 21-7 at halftime," Pearsall recalled. "I don't know what happened. They had a different energy."

That's one way to put it. Here's another: The Utes scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to dispatch the Sun Devils, 35-21. That should surprise no one.

Utah hosts Florida on Thursday night in a rematch dripping with revenge inside the living, breathing entity that is the Utes' home.

Utah has become (what-used-to-be) the Pac-12's dominant program playing in four of the last five Pac-12 Championship Games, winning the last two and advancing to consecutive Rose Bowls. A huge homefield advance has something to do with that. The Utes have won 14 straight at home -- the fourth-longest active streak nationally -- and 25 of the last 26.

Rice-Eccles is an underrated, overloud pit that needs a proper SEC introduction. No SEC team has ever played there. Florida hasn't been this far West for a regular-season game since 1983.

"You can be taught everything and still can't replicate that setting," Gators cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. said. "It has been discussed. I have never been there, so I don't know what it's like, how I need to prepare. Down in Florida, there is nothing like that."

Florida-Utah is one of the highlights of a middling Week 1 schedule because it is a rematch. The Gators were able to rally late last year in The Swamp to win 29-26. In that game, Anthony Richardson scored the game-winning touchdown with 85 seconds left. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising threw an interception in the Florida end zone with 17 seconds left.

Billy Napier became the first Florida coach to beat a ranked opponent in his debut game.

In many ways, things were never the same for either program through the end of 2022. Utah rebounded to win the Pac-12. Florida slumped to its third sub-.500 season since 2017.

That's a snapshot of a school on the brink of becoming a perennial power against a traditional SEC power seeking to rejoin the national conversation.

We're at this moment because Napier debuted with that disappointing 6-7 season. Since then, he has lost a No. 4 overall draft choice at quarterback (Richardson), three assistants within a 48-hour period in February and a bevy of transfers with two notable surprises departing along the offensive line.

"Not to mention just the basic things about, 'Hey, we got a place that needs to be torn down and built back up,'" Napier said.

Florida is not used to rebuilds. It remains to be seen whether fans will tolerate one for an extended period of time, but the 2023 season is going to be a difficult one with the Gators in that mode while facing one of the nation's toughest schedules. Napier has not stagnated, though. His 2024 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 3 nationally, per 247Sports.

Napier worked quickly to replace those coaches. In a dizzying blur, defensive coordinator Patrick Toney and tight ends coach William Peagler both left for the Arizona Cardinals. The next day, wide receivers coach Keary Colbert went to the Denver Broncos.

All three were obvious promotions. Napier went for a familiar face in getting 30-year-old Austin Armstrong as his new defensive coordinator. Armstrong had been with Napier at Louisiana as a graduate assistant beginning in 2017. He had been hired as Alabama's linebackers coach just a month before Florida called, this after holding the coordinator job for two years at Southern Miss. The legendary -- at least at Florida -- Billy Gonzales rejoined the program as WR coach, and Russ Callaway was promoted from within as TE coach.

"Obviously, some guys were confused as to why it was happening," said center Kingsley Eguakun, who is questionable for the Utah game with a lower-body injury. "There was a little bit of an unknown to it. … The vibe was a little weird. Everybody was like, 'Dang, why are all these coaches leaving?' It didn't change the mindset. It didn't change the work at the end of the day.

"Those coaches can't win games for us. The players on the team have to win games."

Florida will have to run the ball and play defense to thrive. New QB Graham Mertz (Wisconsin transfer) is no Richardson. His results have been mixed as a drop back signal caller who was sacked 23 times last season and has thrown 26 interceptions in his career. That out of a Wisconsin offense that ran the ball almost 60% of the time.

Plenty will be asked of running backs junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne, one of the nation's most underrated duos who combined for 1,560 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns in 2022. This season, the Gators are attempting to find them in the passing game, too.

"This is like acquiring a free agent with multiple years [experience] as a starter," Napier said of Mertz. "I think you almost get a renewed lease on life. You're experienced. You've got a chip on your shoulder."

The defense will be more aggressive under Armstrong. Senior defensive end Princely Umanmielen is possibly Florida's best pro prospect. Marshall did not allow a touchdowns on 336 coverage snaps last season.

An SEC comparison to the hostile setting awaiting Florida might be a certain cowbell-ringing outpost in Starkville, Mississippi. Both Mississippi State (Davis Wade Stadium) and Utah have similar capacities and rabid student sections.  

A mixed stew of Gators, then, will be greeted Thursday night with all levels of rancor. Will they be a factor in the SEC East? Are they better (or at least capable enough) at quarterback? Will the running game and defense carry them? Are there enough experienced transfers to help them exceed the projected win total of 5.5?

"Those [transfers] coming in are coming from different experiences," Pearsall said. "They're all very motivated. We can feed off that. We need them as bad as they need us."