The Florida Gators are in a bowl game this year — barely.
Florida (6-6) will play in-state rival UCF (8-4) in the Gasparilla Bowl on Thursday in Tampa.
“This game is good for the state,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said. “With the game being sold out quickly, that speaks for itself.”
As for the Gators, they were so disappointing this year that coach Dan Mullen was fired on Nov. 21. Things unraveled quickly for Mullen, who went 10-3 in his first year with the Gators in 2018 and 11-2 in 2019.
Last year, the Gators were 8-1 and ranked sixth in the nation in early December. After that, Mullen went 5-9 before getting dismissed.
Billy Napier, hired from Louisiana, is the Gators’ new head coach, although Florida will be coached on Thursday by the remnants of the previous staff.
“You’re going to figure out quickly that I’m a football junkie,” Napier said. “I’m well aware of the history here.”
That history includes a 2-0 all-time record against UCF, beating the Knights 42-0 in 2006 and 58-27 in 1999. Both games were on Gators soil in Gainesville.
The current Gators squad has some issues, though. Defensive end Zachary Carter, who led the team with eight sacks, declared for the NFL Draft and will skip the bowl game. He was a team leader and Florida’s most physical player.
Quarterback Anthony Richardson, a Gators fan favorite, will not play due to a knee injury. Quarterback Emory Jones will play, but he has announced he will enter the transfer portal after the game.
For UCF to beat Florida for the first time, the Knights likely will need big games from quarterback Mikey Keene, running back Isaiah Bowser and wide receiver Jaylon Robinson.
Keene, a true freshman, took over after former starter Dillon Gabriel broke his collarbone on Sept. 17 in a 42-35 loss to Louisville.
Since then, the Knights have gone 6-3, and Keene has completed 63.6 percent of his passes. He has 16 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and he has played so well that Gabriel transferred to UCLA.
Bowser has rushed for 548 yards, a 4.4-yard average and a team-high seven touchdowns, but he has been limited to seven games due to injuries.
Robinson has played just six games, posting 18 catches for a team-high 17.9-yard average.
“Everyone has been practicing,” Malzahn said in reference to injuries. “We’re expecting our full team.”
Other key Knights are running back Johnny Richardson (693 rushing yards, 6.9 per carry) and wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe (77 receptions for 727 yards and six TDs).
Malzahn said preparing for the Gators is difficult due to Florida’s coaching situation. Running backs coach/special teams coordinator Greg Knox will run the Gators on an interim basis, but what that means in regards to schemes could be difficult to decipher.
“We will do our best trying to predict who is going to coach,” Malzahn said, “but we know they have excellent players.”
Jones leads Florida in rushing (696 yards, 5.2 average). He has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 2,563 yards and 19 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
Dameon Pierce leads Florida with 12 rushing TDs, and Jacob Copeland leads the Gators in receptions (39), average per catch (15.6 yards) and receiving yards (607). His four TD catches are tied for the team lead.
–Field Level Media