The backstory of how this Utah-Florida football series came to be

Utes and Gators will face each other Saturday night in a game scheduled for ESPN.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2011, file photo, fans watch an NCAA college football game between Tennessee and Florida in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field in Gainesville, Fla. Florida is renaming its football field after former coach Steve Spurrier. The university's board of trustees approved the change Thursday, June 9,2016, making it Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

University of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was always planning to play a Pac-12 team this weekend.

Just not Utah.

When the Utes and Gators square off on Saturday night in Gainesville, it will represent the front end of a home-and-home agreement. An unorthodox scheduling marriage in that the Utes almost never travel that far east and the Gators almost never travel that far west, Utah-Florida came together after Stricklin initially tried to schedule a different Pac-12 program.

So how did this game — perhaps the most important opener in Utah football history — come to be?

In short: two buddies, an interested head coach and an assist from BYU.

The Florida athletic director did not name the Pac-12 program he originally had his sights on, but recalled running into issues that often pop up in scheduling a game: trying to find a common open date, trying to move other games to accommodate each other, having to talk to their respective head coaches, etc.

At one point during that process, Stricklin reached out to an old friend, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan, who was previously the AD at the University of South Florida. The two had become friends, even working on a 2-for-1 football series between their two schools, which was finalized six months after Harlan left for Utah.

Upon arrival at Utah in 2018, Harlan sought to beef up his football program’s non-conference schedule. Home-and-homes with Arkansas (2026, 2029), LSU (2031, 2032), and Wisconsin (2028, 2033) have been signed on his watch. Stricklin, too, had been trying to amplify Florida’s scheduling since he came aboard in 2016. Aside from Utah, home-and-home agreements with Texas, North Carolina State, Colorado, Arizona State, and Cal have been put on the books during Stricklin’s tenure.

In September of 2019, Utah and Florida jointly announced a home-and-home series. The Utes were going to The Swamp on Sept. 3, and the Gators visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium on either Aug, 31 or Sept. 2, 2023

“It was just really clean and easy, none of the complications this other series was presenting, and I actually had to call this other AD and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this deal with Utah,’” Stricklin said. “Sometimes scheduling certain series is complicated and it takes a while. This was a case where it really fell into place quickly and seamlessly.”

Added Harlan: “I think it was a situation when I got here that I believed we needed to look at opportunities to schedule nationally. I had come from Florida as the AD at the University of South Florida, I had become really good friends with Scott Stricklin, and we had been discussing the possibility because he had been thinking the same thing, wanting to bring the Gators west. They have a lot of alums in the west.”

The historical significance of the series has not been lost on fans.

Florida has not played a true road non-conference game outside the state of Florida since Steve Spurrier trekked to Syracuse early in the 1991 season. Utah has not played an SEC team since its vaunted 2008 squad smashed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to complete a 13-0 season. The Utes have not played a true road game at an SEC school since falling at Tennessee in 1984.

Within the excitement of the initial announcement, and even the excitement this month as the game approaches, it is important to remember that this doesn’t happen without BYU’s help or, more specifically, a positive working relationship between Harlan and Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe.

The Utes and Cougars had games scheduled in 2022 and 2023, but agreed to a two-year break, then added four more games between them from 2025-28. As things stand now, Utah and BYU will play in 2024, 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028 and 2030. The 2030 game is a makeup of the 2020 game, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As BYU prepares to enter the Big 12, and therefore must make a slew of scheduling decisions in going from a 12-game independent schedule to playing three non-conference games annually, there is abundant optimism that Utah will not become a scheduling casualty this decade, or into the next one.

“I sat down with Coach Whittingham and wanted to see if he was interested in a game like Florida, and he certainly was,” Harlan said. “We just needed to find space and work with Tom Holmoe, as we always agreed to do. If there was an opportunity for him, if there was an opportunity for us to look at that, and Tom was great.

“As always, if BYU needs any assistance in their scheduling, we’re here as well, but to date, we plan on continuing the series in two years and we have not heard from BYU about anything they’ve needed to do with us as it relates to formulating the Big 12 schedule.”

College football scheduling is often done so many years in advance, in some cases a decade-plus in advance, that a matchup scheduled three, five, 10 years down the road may look radically different than it does now.

Just look at Utah-Florida.

When this series was agreed to, the Gators were nine months removed from winning the Peach Bowl and finishing ranked No. 7 under first-year head coach Dan Mullen. His 2019 team then finished 11-2, won the Orange Bowl, and finished ranked No. 6. Meanwhile, Utah went to the Pac-12 championship game for the first time in 2018, was headed there again in 2019, not to mention towards the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, but had not yet broken through for a Pac-12 title.

Speed ahead to now. Mullen was fired last season after a 5-6 start, with Saturday set to be new head coach Billy Napier’s debut. Utah is coming off its first Pac-12 championship, and a subsequent trip to the Rose Bowl. If Utah is not already viewed as a legitimate CFP crasher as it enters the season ranked No. 7, that will change with a win.

The Utes, not the Gators, are the unanimous betting favorite for a game that has already been announced as a sellout.

“It kind of speaks to the craziness of how we schedule college football, where we’re doing it so far out because you don’t really know,” Stricklin said. “You think you know, you hope, but you don’t really know. We’re coming off a disappointing season, we’ve changed staffs, but there’s still going to be a great deal of excitement. That’s not a circumstance anyone would have predicted, what we went through last year, or would have hoped for, but there is still tremendous excitement because we made the decision to schedule a really good program, one that would be of interest to people to come watch the game.”

Added Whittingham: “Every game obviously is important, but when you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida with their history, a tradition, in a place like The Swamp, that’s a challenge for our guys. It’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene whenever we get opportunities like that. ...

“We have to make the most of it. If you want to gain respect, gain national attention, you have to come out and win some of those games. Hopefully, we can go down there and play like we’re capable of.”

No matter what happens at The Swamp, next season’s Utah-Florida game will be a big deal.

The Utes have never hosted an SEC program. The Gators, who will be playing a true road non-conference outside the state of Florida for the first time in 32 years, will open their season 2,200 miles away from Gainesville.

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