Gators, Cavaliers meet for just the second time
Florida enters this game with just two losses, which came by a total of 21 points to LSU and Georgia, the two teams that played for the SEC title. After losing to Georgia on Nov. 2, the Gators finished the year on a three-game winning streak which included wins over Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Florida State.
Unlike Florida, who is a top-10 team, Virginia comes into this game barely ranked at No. 24. The Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal title but was thrashed by Clemson 62-17 in the conference championship game. Virginia got the Orange Bowl invite because Clemson earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Cavaliers still have a shot at their first 10-win season since 1989.
This will be just the second meeting between the two schools. Florida won the first, 55-10 way back in 1959. Additionally, the Gators are 3-0 in the Orange Bowl while Virginia is making its first appearance.
Capital One Orange Bowl: Florida (10-2) vs. Virginia (9-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
Spread: Florida -14.5
When Florida Has the Ball
When the Gators lost Feleipe Franks in the win over Kentucky in September, many wrote the team off as they had just lost their starting quarterback for the season. Not only did Kyle Trask keep Florida afloat all season, but he also was an improvement from Franks, who at times had the propensity to turn the ball over at inopportune times.
In 11 games, Trask has thrown for 2,636 yards and 24 touchdowns with just six interceptions. With Franks set to transfer, Trask has cemented himself as the Gators’ starting quarterback heading into the 2020 season.
Florida also has a very good supporting cast surrounding Trask with five players who have recorded 32 or more receptions. The leading pass catcher has been Kyle Pitts with 51 receptions for 610 yards and five touchdowns. Van Jefferson has a team-high six touchdown catches among his 43 total grabs for 528 yards.
Looking to limit the damage the Gators’ offense does is a Virginia defense led by the linebacker trio of Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden, and Zane Zandier. Mack was named third-team All-ACC while Snowden and Zandier received honorable mention recognition. All three finished among the team’s top four tacklers during the regular season (led by Zandier’s 95 stops) while combining for 30 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks (Mack was sixth in the ACC with 7.5).
One of the keys for Virginia’s defense will be to contain Florida’s passing attack. Clemson torched the Cavaliers for 408 yards and four touchdowns through the air alone in the ACC Championship Game.
When Virginia Has the Ball
While it is easy to say Virginia hasn't played a defense like Florida's all season, the same can be said about the Gators playing against a dual-threat quarterback like Bryce Perkins.
Perkins is the ACC’s leader in total offense (304.6 ypg). He has thrown for 3,215 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, to go along with 745 yards and another 11 scores on the ground. The second-team All-ACC quarterback was one of the few bright spots against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, as Perkins threw for 266 yards and ran for 58 more. He was responsible for both of the Cavaliers’ touchdowns (both passing) and led the team in rushing as well.
On defense, Florida has been particularly adept at getting to the quarterback. The Gators are fifth in the nation and first in the SEC with 46 sacks. Perkins is not an easy guy to bring down considering his sizes and athleticism, but Virginia gave up 38 sacks in 13 games to rank near the bottom of the ACC (11th). The key for Florida is to keep Perkins in the pocket and not let him get out and make something happen with his legs.
The Cavaliers need to keep an eye on Jonathan Greenard, who led the SEC in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (14.5) in the regular season. Any semblance of a running game Virginia can establish outside of Perkins will help keep the Gators’ pass rushers at bay.
Both Florida and Virginia tilt towards being pass-centric offenses due to an inability to run the ball consistently. The biggest difference is the Cavaliers’ leading rusher is quarterback Bryce Perkins. For Virginia to have any success on offense, it starts with Perkins and his ability to make things happen with his arm or legs.
This Orange Bowl will likely come down to the two defenses. On paper, the Gators have a sizeable advantage. They are top 10 in the country at less than 300 yards per game allowed. Virginia is solid in its own right but not as stingy as Florida. The Cavaliers are giving up close to 360 yards per game.
Virginia needs to get off to a fast start. Should the Cavaliers fall behind early that plays right into the Gators’ hands as they will be able to pin their ears back and get after Perkins with their pass rush.
Virginia has the skill position players to make this a contest. But Florida is the more talented team and should come away with the victory in Hard Rock Stadium.
Prediction: Florida 37, Virginia 17
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.