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If you are a Florida fan and made it through the entire regular season with all your hair, I commend you for your perseverance. In what turned out to be a tumultuous season for the Florida Gators football program, they actually have an opportunity to end the year on a high note. No, it’s not the Sugar Bowl or a semifinal game, but tonight’s game against UCF should matter for these players, because I promise you it does for UCF.
The Gators are a seven-point favorite, according to FanDuel.
The bad losses started to pile up for Florida after losing to Kentucky, which set off a myriad of performances that ended up costing Dan Mullen his job. Now, the losses to Missouri and South Carolina weren’t the pivotal reason that Scott Stricklin decided to find a new head coach, but they attributed to the final decision. The recruiting was a factor, the overall state of the program going forward was questioned, which gave Stricklin enough doubt to pull the trigger. But, as the Gators take the field tonight behind interim head coach Greg Knox, they should be motivated to finish off this season with a win. For Knox, it’s all about taking advantage of the extra opportunity.
“It would mean a great deal for this team,” Knox said. “To finish strong is what we’ve always talked about. Finishing strong. And, again, we go back to the Florida State game. That was a big deal for us to finish our schedule for the year with the final game against them strong in a rivalry game. And, so, I thought they did that well, and, again, now you get one extra game with the bowl game by beating Florida State. So, it’s still about finishing strong and just capping this whole thing off.”
But, the Gators haven’t used the full allotment of practices allowed during bowl preparation and will be without QB Anthony Richardson (knee injury) and DT Zachary Carter, who opted out of the game. Emory Jones decided to enter the portal, but has stuck around for the bowl game. The Gators have also had other players either start preparing for the NFL Draft or have entered the portal. We also can’t forget that this team is in the middle of a coaching transition, as Billy Napier has put together a staff and is meeting with current players, while the interim staff is trying to finish the job. When you mix this together, it could go sideways for the Gators tonight if they aren’t focused.
On the opposite side, UCF enters this game not needing much motivation, as Gus Malzahn looks to have his team ready to play a potential new in-state rival. If you remember, the two teams signed a contract to start a three-game series that will begin in the next two years. When the series begins, the 2024 matchup in Gainesville will be the fourth meeting all time between the two teams. So, when the Gasparilla Bowl had this game fall into their lap, it was quick to sell out, which will bring a raucous crowd tonight. The Golden Knights finished the regular season 8-4, which isn’t what Malzahn was hoping for in his first year at the helm. But for Knox, he’s very familiar with Malzahn and knows he will have his team ready for a fight.
“They are a very impressive team,” Knox said. “Again, I’ve known Gus [Malzahn] a while. They’re well-coached, well-disciplined, and they do a great job as far as what he’s doing offensively and defensively. Matter of fact, his defensive coordinator, Travis [Williams], played for me when I coached at Auburn, so I know these guys very well. And, again, I think they do a great job, and I’m looking forward to having our guys get out there and play against them.”
The Gators should have ample opportunities to get after the quarterback, as UCF hasn’t done the best job at protecting QB Mikey Keene. The freshman has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,586 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He uses the uptempo offense to his advantage and has made strides during the second half of the season to control the high speed offense. For Knox, it will be all about containing the quarterback and not letting him create explosive plays with his legs.
“He’s been able to manage games,” Knox said. “He’s really good. He’s good out of the pocket. He can move his feet. He can run the ball.”
If the Gators play defense against UCF like they did versus Missouri or even South Carolina, it could be a very long night. Malzahn is going to play fast, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given how we’ve all seen his offenses over the years. But, the Gators will already be shorthanded on defense, so gasping for air in the second quarter won’t be ideal, obviously.
Putting game plans aside, this matchup should bring out the best in both teams, especially being separated by only a few hours. This should be a chippy game and it should be a fight till the end. But “should” is the key word tonight, because we don’t know which Florida team will show up.
Let’s just hope it’s a good game, for the sake of bowl season.