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While college football’s bowl season kicked off this past Friday, not all of the games that take place before the Christmas holiday get the most national attention. However, that won’t stop 2021’s Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl from breaking attendance records by selling out Raymond James Stadium to host the UCF Knights (8-4) and the Florida Gators (6-6) on December 23rd at 7 pm EST.
These two programs have been circling one another to meet since UCF’s former athletic director Danny White and UF Scott Strickland were going back and forth in the media a few seasons ago. Now it seems that Thursday will mark the first outing for these teams in 15 years. However, both teams used different paths to get here.
It came down to beating Florida State in the final regular season game under interim head coach Greg Knox after Dan Mullen’s firing to become bowl eligible for the Gators.
In fairness, they had a difficult schedule in the Southeastern Conference that featured a close outing with No. 1 ranked Alabama and a blowout loss to No. 3 ranked Georgia. With this in mind, it makes sense why UCF head coach Gus Malzahn declared that Florida is “better than their record”.
While the Knights were the first school in the state of Florida to earn bowl eligibility, they did so while suffering injuries throughout the year all over their depth chart. This included their starting quarterback, Dillon Gabriel, top wide receiver Jaylon Robinson, starting running back Isaiah Bowser, center Matt Lee, their best tackling linebacker Tatum Bethune,and their most dominant defensive tackle Kalia Davis – and that’s without mentioning others including coach Malzahn himself who will be in a walking boot during the Gasparilla Bowl.
But since their last football game was played on November 26th, the Knights will likely find themselves the healthiest they have been since going into the second game of the season at Louisville.
That’s not to say that Florida won’t have its own issues going into the Gasparilla Bowl. With Mullen’s firing (his replacement next year will be former Louisiana head coach Billy Napier), Knox will be coaching with a lame-duck staff.
Ironically, Knox’s only other head coaching experience was winning the 2017 Tax Slayer Bowl where he was also serving as Mississippi State’s interim head coach in place of a departed Mullen at that time.
As player availability goes, the only player known to be missing whose season hasn’t already been cut short by injury or transfer is Gators’ quarterback Anthony Richardson. While one could argue quarterback transfers are an issue for both programs overall, it won’t matter in the Gasparilla.
Emory Jones has stated he will play for Florida before entering the portal and UCF’s Dillon Gabriel hasn’t taken a snap in a game since September, so UCF’s Mikey Keene will still be under center as has been routine since then.
Jones has not only had 2,562 yards on 67% completion with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but he also leads his team in rushing yards with 696 yards and four rushing touchdowns on 133 carries.
Meanwhile, UCF’s offense will attempt to set up success in the air for Keene by running Bowser, whose return is the best news for the Knights in the game. In the seven games he played in, Bowser was good for 549 yards and seven touchdowns.
The key to the game is who will do a better job of controlling the opponent’s rushing attack, the Gators defense led by lineman Zachary Clark and linebacker Brenton Cox or the Knights front seven featuring edge rusher “Big Kat” Bryant and Betune.
At the end of the day, whoever wins this game not only earns state bragging rights but will make a huge impact on their program’s reputation for recruiting.