Graham Mertz quipped he decided on a sixth season of college football so he could make 1 more appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show. 

Florida’s starting quarterback went on the SEC Network host’s show Wednesday afternoon to discuss the Gators as they prepare for a crucial new season under coach Billy Napier. Florida has suffered through 3 consecutive losing seasons and putting an end to that slide in 2024 would mean Napier’s program took a massive step forward.

The Gators will face what many believe will be the hardest schedule in the country. Strength-of-schedule metrics aren’t available yet, but Florida could be looking at an all-timer when it’s all said and done.

Florida will face each of the other 3 top in-state programs — season-opener vs. Miami on Aug. 31, UCF on Oct. 5, at Florida State on Nov. 30. The Gators have road SEC games against Tennessee and Texas.

In the month of November, they play 5 straight weeks against Georgia, Texas, LSU, Ole Miss, and Florida State. In Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ rankings for 2024, those teams rank No. 1, No. 4, No. 10, No. 8, and No. 12, respectively.

Napier finds himself in a make-or-break year; the program hasn’t seen 4 consecutive losing seasons since 1935-38.

But his team’s on-field leader is pushing confidence ahead of the campaign.

“This is why you come to the SEC, this is why you play at Florida, for these matchups,” Mertz said. “You want to play at the highest level against the greatest competition. We know what’s ahead of us, we see it every day when we walk in the locker room, and that excites us. We feel the urgency every day when we come in here, knowing we’ve got to work, especially in this league.

“It all comes down to execution and what you do in the offseason. For us, we know what people are saying but what happens in these walls, we know what we’re striving for and we know it takes consistency and attention to detail every day. We’re excited. We see that and we see it as opportunity.”

The value of a sixth-year quarterback can’t be understated. Mertz was a blue-chip recruit as a high schooler. He sat his first year at Wisconsin before taking over as the team’s starter for 3 years. He played in 11 more games last fall before an injury.

Mertz enters the new year with 45 career appearances, 43 career starts, and more than 1,100 career pass attempts. That kind of experience is invaluable for a team. Mertz was also better last fall than he ever was in Madison, posting a career-low interception rate as a starter (just 3 in 358 attempts) alongside a career-best completion rate (72.9%) and per-pass clip (8.1 yards).

But he and the Gators still face their share of detractors. Mertz was seventh among SEC passers with a pedestrian 68.5 QBR. And Florida was average on offense, posting 6.1 yards per play. The defense was a disaster.

Florida is a long, long, longshot to win the national title (+30000) and a bet for Florida to win fewer than 5.5 games is currently priced at -194 (implied odds of 66%).

“Nowadays, everybody always says prove the haters wrong. The theme for this team is prove each other right,” Mertz said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We all want to win. Everybody in this building wants to win. So, for us, we know what people are saying but we’re here to prove each other right and we’re here to strive together to go win.”