Gasparilla Bowl Preview: Florida, UCF clash

Gasparilla Bowl

The 2021 Gasparilla Bowl features a matchup full of storylines. The Florida Gators and UCF Knights do battle in an intriguing in-state battle that sold out very quickly. For Florida, they enter after a disappointing 6-6 season in the SEC. The Gators won just three games against Power-5 competition, leading to the firing of head coach Dan Mullen. After three straight appearances in New Year’s Six bowl appearances, the Gators are relegated to the Gasparilla Bowl. However, with a win over rival Florida State in the regular-season finale, Florida could end their season with consecutive in-state rivalry victories.

Meanwhile, UCF struggled through some inconsistency but won five of their final six to finish 8-4. Like the Gators, the Knights won their rivalry weekend clash – against South Florida – and look to cap it off with a satisfying bowl win. UCF makes a fifth appearance in the Gasparilla Bowl. They are 2-2 in their previous appearances, beating Marshall 48-25 in 2019.  

Gasparilla Bowl Preview: When Florida Has The ball

For the Gators, things flow through quarterback Emory Jones. Jones replaced second-round draft pick Kyle Trask and performed decently but not great. He threw for 19 touchdowns but also 13 interceptions. He also led the Gators with 696 rushing yards. Four other Florida Gators have at least 300 rushing yards; Dameon Pierce found the end zone 15 times on the season. Jacob Copeland was the biggest threat in the receiving department with 607 yards, but he entered the transfer portal and will not play in the Gasparilla Bowl. Justin Shorter (38 catches, 496 yards) is the next best option for the Gators and should see plenty of targets in this contest. 

Linebacker Big Kat Bryant leads a confusing UCF defensive unit. The Knights got lit up by a few opponents. Cincinnati slapped 56 points on the Knights, SMU notched 55, Louisville scored 42 and the lackluster Navy offense wrangled UCF for 34. UCF lost all four of those and gave up 31 in a win versus Boise State. However, in seven other games, the Knights surrendered just 12 points per contest. 

It’s one of two extremes with UCF; they gave up 17 or less in seven games and 31+ in the other five. So what version of the Knights show up versus the Gators in the Gasparilla Bowl? Bryant had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks – both team-leading marks. He’ll need to be the sparkplug against Florida. With a dual-threat in Emory Jones, Bryant is going to be called on, along with the rest of the linebackers to stop the run and make the Gators be one-dimensional. 

Gasparilla Bowl Preview: When UCF Has The ball

UCF suffered a tough loss early in the season when quarterback Dillon Gabriel suffered a broken clavicle. However, Mikey Keene filled in well enough, throwing 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2021. However, without Gabriel, UCF leaned on the run a little more than planned. Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson responded, combining for 1,242 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. When Keene takes to the air, he frequently targets Ryan O’Keefe, who doubled up everyone on the roster with 77 catches. O’Keefe hauled in six touchdowns while Brandon Johnson racked up 11. 

Florida is missing one major defensive piece. Defensive end Zachary Carter led the team in both tackles for loss and sacks but opted out of the Gasparilla Bowl. Linebacker Brenton Cox posted similar numbers for the Gators and will be key in this matchup. Safety Rashad Torrence notched three interceptions to lead the team. Florida’s defense was atrocious through the tail-end of the season, but the Gators bounced back. The defense stiffened in late-season matchups with Missouri and Florida State. Can they end the season with a third consecutive strong effort against the Knights? 

UCF Key To Victory: The Run Game

Florida got decimated by the run game in the majority of their losses. UCF is operating with a backup quarterback that can’t put this game on his shoulders. Bowser and Richardson should each get 10-12 carries and they need to be productive. If they minimize the pressure on Keene and gash the Gators on the ground, the Knights have a path to victory in the Gasparilla Bowl. 

Florida Key To Victory: The Defensive Line

Florida’s offense has been broken for some time at this point. They didn’t exceed 24 points against an FBS opponent after October 16. To beat UCF, they need their defense to step up again. With no Carter, they need to find a way to get pressure and stuff the Knights on the ground. If they force UCF away from their strengths, they can keep this a low-scoring game. The Gators are not built to win a shootout, especially against a high-performing UCF defense.