In what one might call a de facto state championship, Florida and UCF will battle it out in St. Petersburg in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl on Thursday. Since the early parts of the season, the two teams have headed in different directions.
At one point, Florida was 3-1 and ranked in the top 10 after taking now No. 1 Alabama to the wire. The Gators proceeded to lose five of seven games before topping rival Florida State in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible. Amidst the turmoil, head coach Dan Mullen was fired.
Florida comes in with a record of 6-6 while UCF is 8-4. After a disappointing 3-3 start, which included a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel, the Knights closed the regular season by winning five of six. UCF has never defeated a Power 5 team from the Sunshine State. Florida has won the only prior two matchups with the last being a 42-0 shutout in 2006.
Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl: Florida (6-6) vs. UCF (8-4)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Florida -6.5
When Florida Has the Ball
In an odd turn of events, quarterback Emory Jones will play his last game for Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl before hitting the transfer portal. His decision to stick around was crucial considering Anthony Richardson was ruled out due to injury. Jones was intercepted three times against Florida State in the regular-season finale and has been overall inconsistent this year. The two quarterbacks were a big reason why Florida was one of the nation's best rushing teams this season.
The Gators also have a pair of serviceable backs in Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. Running the ball will likely be the recipe for success for Florida against UCF. Leading receiver Jacob Copeland has entered the transfer portal and will not play in St. Petersburg. Tight end Kemore Gamble is a tough cover for opposing defenses.
The biggest reason for UCF's late-season turnaround was the play of its defense. Over its final six victories this season, the Knights never allowed more than 17 points in any game. After a slow start to the season, UCF finished near the top of the AAC in both scoring and total defense. Linebacker Tatum Bethune is the anchor for the UCF defense. This season, he recorded a team-high 101 tackles and two interceptions.
As the season went on, Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant made his presence felt in the middle of the UCF defensive line. He led the team with six sacks and ranked third in the AAC. In the secondary, Quadric Bullard and Davonte Brown each had solid seasons for the Knights. Over the last several years, UCF has been one of the better teams in the country when it comes to taking the ball away.
When UCF Has the Ball
Traditionally known for its high-powered offense, UCF took a significant step back once Gabriel went down. Mikey Keene has been serviceable for the Knights at quarterback. Injuries to running back Isaiah Bowser and wide receiver Jaylon Robinson have not helped matters either. In their absence, however, others have emerged. Johnny Richardson came on strong out of the backfield, rushing for 693 yards and three touchdowns on almost seven yards per carry.
Ryan O'Keefe was the quintessential possession receiver for UCF, tallying 77 catches for a team-high 727 yards. In the red zone, Brandon Johnson is the player to watch. The 6-foot-2 Tennessee transfer caught just 38 passes this season, but 11 went for touchdowns. That was good for second in the AAC and 11th nationally. Overall, UCF ranked just seventh in its conference in total offense, but fourth in scoring.
After a strong start, Florida struggled down the stretch defensively. The Gators will also be shorthanded for the Gasparilla Bowl as leading sack man Zachary Carter has opted out. To generate pressure, Florida will rely heavily on Brenton Cox Jr. Cox finished with 7.5 sacks this season and had a monster game against Florida State to close the regular season.
Leading tackler Mohamoud Diabate has elected to transfer and won't be with Florida for the Gasparilla Bowl. If there is good news, it appears that standout cornerback Kaiir Elam and safety Rashad Torrence will be ready to go against UCF. Florida could use those reinforcements, as the Gators ranked seventh in the SEC in total defense and just 11th in scoring defense.
At full strength and with complete focus, Florida is a much more talented football team. With transfers and opt-outs, however, and the transition the program is going through, motivation and focus will be real questions for Florida. The Gators rose to the occasion and became bowl eligible against FSU under interim head coach Greg Knox. Last season, however, that was not the case in the 55-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. For UCF, this game means much more. The Knights could make a real statement by beating the Gators for the first time and potentially finish ranked.
Prediction: UCF 21, Florida 20
Podcast: Early Signing Day, Coaching News, QB Transfers, and Early Bowl Previews
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.