BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
When Arkansas arrives in The Swamp for its Saturday 11 a.m. game at Florida, the Razorbacks will find a sellout crowd honoring service members and the Gators in black uniforms for the first time in school history.
They’ll also find a head coach in Billy Napier that thinks Florida (5-3, 3-2) should respect Arkansas (2-6, 0-5) despite the Razorbacks being on a six-game losing streak.
It will be Arkansas’ first game since a 7-3 home loss to Mississippi State, which was followed by the firing of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the elevation of wide receiver Kenny Guiton to that role and a bye week for head coach Sam Pittman’s beleaguered squad.
“I do think Arkansas, although their record doesn’t reflect it, they’ve been in every football game,” Napier said “This is a team that’s lost a lot of close games. I do think they’ve played really good defense for the most part.
“I know offensively they’ve made a change. I know Sam Pittman personally, and I have a ton of respect for him as a coach and a man. I do think they’re a lot closer than their record indicates. This will be a challenge.”
Napier was asked about the Gators preparation for the change to Guiton, the former Arkansas wide receivers coach and Ohio State quarterback who was on the same staff with previous Razorback OC Kendal Briles.
“… I think it’s a big part of the story this week relative to the prep,” Napier said. “They made a change in the off-season. Obviously Kendal made a move to go to TCU. They brought Dan in. That was a wholesale change.
“Coach Guiton will be calling it this week. He has experience with Kendal in the past. Certainly played quarterback at Ohio State. What flavor do we get? I think ultimately with an open date I think that magnifies that a little bit.
“Coach Pittman is an offensive line coach. His teams are tough. Certainly I think there will be an element of that. He’ll have some imprint on the offense. I do think that’s an element of the game.”
Florida will come in off a 43-20 loss to No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville. The Gators jumped to a 7-0 lead, but then gave up 26 unanswered points before halftime.
“I do think that some of the things that happened in the game are very fixable,” Napier said. “I think ultimately when we look at that with the players, I think they feel the same way. As a staff, I know there are things we can do from a concepts standpoint that can help the players in all three parts of our team.
“Good day with the players yesterday. I have confidence in our group relative to their attitude and their approach. I think the key thing for us here is what matters most today.
“I think regardless of what’s happened in the past, I do think that this is a group, every single detail, really challenging all parts of the organization to do their best work. We need to be operating at our best, firing on all cylinders. We need to lead our people. We need to impact our people and get consumed with preparing for this game.”
Florida is having a Saluting Those Who Serve day with fans being asked to wear black in what is expected to be a fourth consecutive home sellout this season.
“We’re excited about playing in front of a sold-out crowd,” Napier said. “I do think this week, for me, it’s important for a lot of reasons. We’re doing something really unique relative to the saluting those who serve theme of the week. We’re going to honor all of our military members, our veterans, local first responders included in that group.
“We’re going to wear black uniforms for the first time in school history. I know everybody is excited about the uniform. I do think it’s important, I don’t want to lose sight of the intent here relative to what we’re trying to do.
“Really want to create awareness and show gratitude and appreciation for these people who chose a life of service, and ultimately put their life at risk to protect some of these freedoms that I believe sometimes we ultimately take for granted.”
The uniforms will have one of a quintet of core values displayed.
“Each player on the team’s jersey will display one of the five core values on the back of the nameplate,” Napier said. “We worked with the military branches and the state and here locally, allowed them to select the core value that they wanted to use. Those five core values are: honor, courage, commitment, excellence and integrity. You’ll see that this week when we play.
“We’re also going to carry out the prisoner of war, missing in action flag of the tunnel this week. I do think it’s important that we never forget those prisoners of war, thier sacrifice, certainly those missing in action.”
Florida will also use the week to meet with some veterans.
“Also I want to point out that our civil engagement piece with the players today, at 2:45 today we’re going over to the Veterans Affair Medical Center here, Randall Malcolm Center, in Gainesville, spend some time with some veterans with our players.
“We’re hopeful that that experience, along with a number of speakers that we’ll have at practice, we’re going to have someone from different branches of our military talk to the team. We started that last night with the team.”
Napier is happy to be playing in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, affectionally known as The Swamp.
“It’s a special place to play,” Napier said. “We’re sold out Saturday. This is going to be a really unique event. It’s going to be a historic event. I think ultimately the team thrives off that energy, no matter what anybody says. I think there’s an element of that that you don’t get at a neutral site or on the road.
“We’ve benefited from it. They make it more challenging for the opponent. Certainly you get the benefit of not having to travel, right?”
A win would make Florida bowl eligible.
“Ultimately I don’t necessarily think we’re thinking about that as much as we’re thinking about we got to get consumed with the things that can affect the outcome Saturday,” Napier said. “There is benefit to bowl games, there’s no question about that. I do think with the team that we have in particular, that could be beneficial.”