Billy Napier has Florida prepared, confident for daunting opener

Matt Pendleton/USA TODAY NETWORK
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Napier says his wife was “burning me up” over the weekend with questions about Florida’s most daunting season opener in school history.

Napier, thankfully, had all the answers. His players probably would have, too.

The first-year Florida coach has mapped out every aspect of the team’s routine heading into his debut against seventh-ranked Utah. Walkthrough at the hotel? Check. Pregame meal? Check. Bus ride to the stadium? Check. Gator Walk among fans? On-field warmups? Celebratory entrance into the Swamp? Check, check, check.

The detail-oriented Napier, who makes his team wear matching white socks for every practice, has planned, plotted and perfected every minute of each day.

“I think preparation is the key to confidence,” Napier said.

If so, the Gators should be feeling like 10-point favorites by now.

It remains to be seen how much of a difference all those discussions and dress rehearsals will make when underdog Florida takes the field against the defending Pac-12 champions, who ended last season with a loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

Florida, meanwhile, finished 6-7 after firing coach Dan Mullen following an overtime loss at Missouri in November.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin hired Napier days later, tasking him with leading the Gators back to prominence after 13 years without a Southeastern Conference or national championship.

One of Napier’s first tasks, as cliché as it sounds, was to instill more discipline in a program that clearly lacked it in recent years. The Gators lost at home to reeling LSU in 2020 because cornerback Marco Wilson tossed an opponent’s shoe following a third-down stop, and they ranked 13th in the SEC and 122nd in the country last year in penalties.

“He came in and structured everything,” tight end Dante Zanders said.

Napier took the same approach for game day.

“He wants to make sure everything is prepared so that when it comes down to the game, there’s no excuses to where: `Oh, I didn’t know I needed to be here. I forgot this. I left this at home. Or, oh, I forgot that we had meetings at this time,”‘ Zanders said.

The Gators have every reason to be amped up for Utah, a 2 1/2-point favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Florida has lost 10 of its last 16 games, and few outsiders would put the once-proud program in any category other than rebuilding mode; Napier’s team was picked to finish fourth in the SEC’s Eastern Division.

“We have a chip on our shoulder this year,” punter Jeremy Crawshaw said. “We want to prove ourselves. We’re coming for everything. . We knew we didn’t play up to our standard last year, but we’ve come hungry every time, every practice, every lift session, every film session. We’re hungry, and we’re talking about it.”

Florida’s opener has been talked about for months. It marks the first in a series of high-profile games Stricklin has scheduled in recent years, a list that includes North Carolina State, Cal, Colorado, Arizona State, Texas and Notre Dame.

The game is sold out, and more than 10,000 Utah fans are expected to be in Gainesville – maybe even in the Swamp – as the Utes begin defense of their conference title with their highest preseason ranking ever.

Napier, meanwhile, is trying to avoid history. Florida owns the nation’s longest active winning streak in home openers at 32.

The Gators last dropped a home opener in 1989, when Mississippi won 24-19 at Florida Field. Steve Spurrier replaced Galen Hall the following year.

And no first-year Florida coach has lost his debut since Charley Pell in 1979. Hall, Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Mullen won their debuts by an average score of 46-10.

Of course, none of those guys opened against a ranked team. Florida has played just two ranked teams to start seasons – No. 7 Houston in 1969 and No. 15 Miami in 1982 – and won both.

Napier welcomed the challenge and called it a “carrot” for his team. Nonetheless, he admittedly has felt better about openers before. After all, he was at Louisiana-Lafayette the last four years, and the routine there had become more engrained with every season.

Napier expects to have jitters, maybe even butterflies and goosebumps, as he jogs into the packed Swamp for his first real game. No number of mock-ups – or questions from his wife – would help him avoid those.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be beyond that,” he said. “I think, as a competitor, football in particular, you work the entire year and you only get so many opportunities to compete.

“I think what I’ve learned over time is the important part is that how do you get to a place where you are well prepared and you have confidence.”

Minnesota football players’ discrimination lawsuit dismissed

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine former University of Minnesota football players who were accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that roiled the school’s football program.

The lawsuit against the school claimed that the players faced emotional distress and financial damage after being falsely accused of being sex offenders. The players, who were identified in the lawsuit as John Does, sought unspecified damages for willful and malicious discrimination.

A woman alleged up to a dozen football players raped her or watched and cheered at an off-campus party in 2016. None of the players were ever charged.

The university found that 10 football players committed sexual misconduct. Five of them were expelled or suspended for violating student conduct codes, and the others were cleared on appeal.

In their lawsuit, the players alleged that the woman initiated the sexual encounters with players and an underage recruit.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the former players did not prove any of their claims, including allegations of bias by university investigators or pressure from Athletic Director Mark Coyle and former President Eric Kaler, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

David Madgett, an attorney for the players, said Tuesday that they are considering an appeal but have to determine if it makes sense financially and in terms of letting the former players get on with their lives. He said it was disappointing that the outcome was determined by the judge’s version of events and not decided by a jury.

“It’s disappointing to see disputes decided in this way,” Madgett said. “That’s the way things are decided more and more these days. … It’s disappointing you don’t get your day in court.”

When the allegations became public in 2016, players threatened to boycott the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. But after a graphic report of the investigation was released, the players agreed to play in the game.

University of Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said the school appreciated the judge’s decision affirming the actions taken in the case. He said the university would continue its work focusing on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention and response.

Frank dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, but an appeals court reinstated part of it in 2021 and returned it to Frank.

The players, all of whom are Black, also initially claimed racial discrimination, but that claim was previously dismissed.

The only remaining claim alleged Title IX gender discrimination. The former players noted that they never faced criminal charges, but Frank’s ruling said that “is certainly not evidence of a judicial adjudication or that plaintiffs ‘were proven innocent.'”

The men also claimed that an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action used “manipulative tactics” with them in interviews and that their accuser helped draft the report. The players also alleged that “prior failed investigations motivated” the the school to punish them.

Frank said all the claims were unsupported by the evidence and “no reasonable jury could find that the University disciplined plaintiffs on the basis of sex.”

Michigan State player who swung helmet gets probation

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Michigan State football player who swung his helmet at a Michigan player in a stadium tunnel expressed regret Tuesday and said he’s “just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue” on the field.

Khary Crump, a defensive back, was sentenced to probation. He was one of seven Michigan State players charged in a skirmish that followed a loss at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 29.

Crump was the only Spartan facing a felony, but that charge was dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.

“Unfortunately, an exchange of words (took place), I felt attacked and unfortunately I did what I did,” Crump said of the tunnel altercation involving Michigan’s Gemon Green. “I’m not proud of that. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Crump was suspended by coach Mel Tucker. In addition, the Big Ten has suspended him for eight games in 2023.

“I had difficulties trying to stomach my actions … on that fateful day, but it happened. I can’t take it back,” Crump told MLive.com after the court hearing. “Honestly, I’m just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue in the future — on the football field, of course.”

At least four other players charged with misdemeanors Will Likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions. The cases against two others are pending.