Florida opens the season Saturday night in The Swamp against Florida Atlantic (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). The game will mark the beginning of the Emory Jones era at quarterback for the Gators and Dan Mullen’s fourth season as the head man in Gainesville. The game will also mark Florida’s first home opener against an in-state foe since 2011, when they also faced Florida Atlantic.

FAU is an interesting opponent for other reasons as well. The last time FAU visited The Swamp was 2015, when they pushed a Florida team that had captured the SEC East the week prior to overtime before falling 26-20. Florida fans will certainly expect to avoid overtime Saturday evening. The game will be Willie Taggart’s first trip to Gainesville as a head coach. Taggart’s tenure as Florida State’s head coach ended abruptly during his second season, and as fate would have it, that meant he never had the chance to coach the Seminoles in The Swamp. He’ll now get the chance — but as the head man for the Owls after replacing Lane Kiffin at FAU prior to the 2020 season.

Those storylines all feature prominently as Florida and FAU fans ready for this matchup, but here are 3 things SDS will be watching when the Gators meet the Owls Saturday night.

Florida committing to running the football

The Gators’ run game issues in 2019 and 2020 are well-documented. After finishing as a top 15 rushing offense in Mullen’s first season, the Gators have placed in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing offense, yards per attempt and rushing success rate in the past 2 seasons.

There’s a bit of context required because Florida was the SEC’s most efficient passing offense in 2019 and 2020 and the nation’s most prolific passing offense in 2020. With a Heisman finalist in Kyle Trask at quarterback and an assortment of NFL Draft picks at wide receiver and tight end, the Gators didn’t really prioritize the run game schematically over the past 2 seasons. That said, the success rate number is concerning, especially considering Florida has had talent at running back. For example, Lamical Perine was one of the SEC’s most talented running backs, but his senior season was limited by an offensive line that struggled to gain much of a push in the run game.

With Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and the bulk of Florida’s other prized pass-catchers gone to the NFL, the Gators will need the run game more in 2021. Emory Jones will help — as a sophomore, Jones finished 1st among eligible quarterbacks in rushing success rate on quarterback runs. But Florida will need to get a push in the more traditional facets of the run game as well, especially if they hope to effectively utilize one of the nation’s best and most diverse running back rooms.

Florida’s journey to becoming an efficient, high-octane rushing offense begins Saturday night, and as tempting as it will be for Mullen to let his new quarterback air it out for the fans, a commitment to establishing the power run game is a more important long-term goal.

The Owls are also a solid test for Florida’s new offensive line. Defensive tackle Evan Anderson and run-stuffing linebacker Chase Lasater are NFL-type talents and 2 of 10 returning starters on what figures to be one of the best Group of 5 defenses in the country in 2021. The Owls are fast and experienced and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is very familiar with Mullen’s scheme. This is an intriguing first test for the Gators as a result.

Florida’s front seven getting nasty

One reason SDS is bullish on Florida’s defense in 2021 is the return of outstanding talent up front. Senior Zachary Carter is a versatile, physical player who can move around and present matchup problems inside and outside. The coaching staff raved about Brenton Cox’s offseason, and the former 5-star recruit gives the Gators a difference-maker at the Buck spot, a requirement if Todd Grantham’s scheme is to be successful. Florida has terrific depth on the edge as well, with blue-chippers like Khris Bogle and senior leaders like Jeremiah Moon just waiting their turn.

The Gators always seem to have options on the edge, but it’s the improvements inside that are exciting for Florida fans. Penn State transfer Antonio Valentino brings 40 games of B1G experience to Gainesville and should give Florida the type of gap-stuffing leverage they lacked up front a season ago. Daquan Newkirk, a transfer from Auburn, should also help if healthy. Finally, 5-star Gervon Dexter had a monster camp and appears ready for a sophomore season breakout. If that happens, Florida’s edge rushers will see fewer double teams, allowing the Florida front the opportunity to make plays 1-on-1.

The back end of the front seven also figures to improve. Middle linebacker Ventrell Miller is the bellcow and a top-3 round NFL draft prospect, but it’s the pieces surrounding him that intrigue us. Mohamoud Diabate is fast, added muscle again in the offseason and plays instinctually — he seems poised for a massive junior campaign. Ty’Ron Hopper, one of the top 5 linebacker recruits in the country only 3 years ago, has developed physically and should make an impact in 2021 as well. The Gators have recruited well at linebacker and, if Florida improves in the middle of the defensive line, should play better this year too as they’ll face less blocking resistance on the second level.

The first test comes Saturday night and the Gators should be excited to flex their muscles in front of a sold-out Swamp.

Where do the explosive plays come from?

Florida ranked 2nd in the SEC (behind Alabama) in 2020 in offensive plays gaining 15 yards or more, which we’ll define as “explosive plays.” Some publications prefer the 20-yard metric for this statistic — the Gators ranked 2nd in the SEC (Alabama) in that category as well. But using 15 yards or more, the Gators have lost over 80% of their “explosive play” production from a season ago. The bulk of those plays came from the arm of Trask to Toney and Pitts, all of whom have moved on. With all those fireworks gone, it’s fair to wonder where the explosive plays will come from in 2021.

We’ve discussed a commitment to the run game, and that’s as good a place as any to begin. Florida’s run game produced very little in the way of explosives, but each of the players who generated some (Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, Emory Jones, Nay’Quan Wright) returns in 2021. The Gators also believe former 5-star recruit Lorenzo Lingard is finally healthy, and another 5-star transfer, Demarkcus Bowman, showed flashes in camp of why he was so highly coveted as a recruit. Bowman is a big-play threat anytime he finds a crease and gets in space, and I’d expect Florida’s staff to try to find ways to isolate him 1-on-1 in the run and pass game.

In the pass game, Florida fans and analysts alike think this might be Jacob Copeland’s time. The crown jewel of Mullen’s transitional recruiting class, Copeland has impressed the staff with a relentless work ethic and commitment to route-running that is a step up from his prior offseason efforts. Missing a spring practice hurt Copeland in 2020 and he’s made up for it this offseason.

He’s big, physical and has great speed and should be the next Gators receiver to take a big leap under Mullen. But who will join him as a big-time passing game threat? Former 5-star Justin Shorter is a terrific route runner but isn’t really a vertical threat, at least to date. Trent Whittemore might be Florida’s best route runner and is the guy you look for on 3rd-and-7, but he lacks the top end speed to stretch defenses. Perhaps sophomore Xzavier Henderson meets the bill? Another big-time recruiting win for Mullen, Henderson has elite speed and excellent hands, but he needs to progress as a route runner and in battling bump coverages, where he struggled as a freshman a season ago. If he makes progress in those areas, perhaps he becomes a reliable explosive playmaker.

There are options. Florida finds out some answers — finally — on Saturday night.