Florida travels to Arlington, Texas for a Cotton Bowl matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners. Interestingly enough, this is the first ever appearance for the Gators in one of the longest-running bowl games in history. The fact that Florida remained 7th in the CFP standings after losing 3 games shows a ton of respect from the committee and gives Florida a chance at finishing a trying season with a win against a big-name opponent.
Despite this being one of the few big games outside of the Playoffs, this is starting to feel more like an exhibition. Florida has been gutted by opt-outs, injuries, and Covid:
Kyle Pitts (opt-out)
Kedarius Toney (opt-out)
Trevon Grimes (opt-out)
Jacob Copeland (Covid)
Kyree Campbell (opt-out)
Ventrell Miller (injury)
Marco Wilson (opt-out)
Shawn Davis (injury)
That’s a loss of over 75% of receiving receptions, yards, and touchdowns, the best run defenders at DL and LB, a 4-year starting CB, and the most experienced safety. Other than that – “all is well”…as Kevin Bacon’s character in ‘Animal House’ stated during the parade chaos. LMAO.
What a shame after such an entertaining season, but that’s what happens when your defense blows a Playoff spot in the current era of college football where the Playoffs have such a disproportionate weight. It looks like Kyle Trask will suit up and start, but how long he plays is a significant question. There are some talented younger receivers like Justin Shorter and Xzavier Handerson to try and take up some of the slack, but it will be almost impossible to approach that amount of talent loss and production. Unless the Gators somehow discover a running game to provide some balance, backup TEs Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer, along with all of the running backs, will be called upon to step up and give Trask and/or Emory Jones all of the help they can. If the passing game struggles, I expect Jones to get more snaps than many expect, both to help with the running game and also to get some experience prior to taking over as the starting QB in 2021.
Oklahoma actually played decent defense for the first time in at least 5 years – nothing spectacular, but compared to the sieve they were previously, definitely improved. Their secondary came up with 13 interceptions during the year, led by CBs Tre Brown and Tre Norwood. Fortunately for Florida, Brown has chosen to opt-out of the game, which hopefully lessens the impact of losing all of the main receiving contributors. The Sooner front seven is led by LBs Brian Asamoah, DaShaun White and Nick Bonitto, along with sack leader DE Isaiah Thomas. They racked up 36 sacks in 9 games, so once again the Gator O-line will be challenged to keep Trask and Jones relatively clean, especially having to find less experienced targets when passing.
After enjoying a crazy run of elite QB play (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts), this is not a vintage Lincoln Riley offense. The Sooners are still potent with freshman Spencer Rattler and skill players RB Rhamondre Stevenson and WRs Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, but average more than 2 touchdowns less per game and don’t run plays at the breakneck speed they did under their previous Heisman winners. Their O-line is also a step down from previous units, as the running game isn’t as strong and Rattler has to scramble often to extend plays. Given how poorly Florida’s defense has played all season, maybe none of that matters, but one can hope. With Campbell out, freshman Gervon Dexter will get a lot of snaps at DT. The loss of Wilson may not be as significant, as he has struggled mightily all season. Young CBs Jaydon HIll and Tre’Vez Johnson will get their opportunity to make an early push for starting status in 2021. Trey Dean seems to have locked down a starting spot at safety, and Brad Stewart is coming off of perhaps his best game as a Gator against Alabama. If…if the young secondary can make Rattler go through his progressions, the Gator pass rushers, led by Brenton Cox, Chris Bogle,and Zack Carter, should be able to disrupt the pocket and get some sacks.
I expect Oklahoma to have a decided advantage in the number of fans allowed to attend the game. The state of Texas has very relaxed Covid protocol rules regarding attendance limitations, and it’s a short trip for OU fans to simply drive down to Jerry World vs. a very long drive or a riskier plane trip from around the country for Gator fans. The Florida fan base has to be shaken as well after seeing the offense gutted like a fish and a handful of defenders that actually made some plays this season out as well. I’m not sure what frame of mind the Gator players will be in. Have they checked out after losing to Alabama? Will the absence of so many star players simply be too much to overcome in so short a time? Will guys that do play and have a chance to be in the NFL Draft be more concerned about staying healthy instead of playing with all-out physical effort? The coaching staff has a major challenge ahead – can they motivate a suddenly much younger and inexperienced team?
Both Florida and Oklahoma have solid special teams. Sooner placekicker Gabe Brkic has had an almost identical season to the Gators’ Evan McPherson. One big impact is Florida losing Toney as a kick returner – that is a major blow.
After the grind of a Covid season that included so many stops and starts going back to the spring, along with playing 11 straight SEC games, it will be a huge task in gearing up for a game with no title implications. I hope the Gators can end the season with a win after the players endured so much in 2020. It’s going to be a tough ask – even if Trask plays (and plays well), there may be too much to overcome. Oklahoma has a young team that has improved after a 1-2 start, is playing much closer to home, and is familiar with the venue. Sadly, this game is starting to feel like the opposite of the Florida v. Michigan Peach Bowl of 2 years ago
Prediction: Oklahoma 34 Florida 31