Final thoughts (and a prediction) for Florida-UCF
It’s too bad.
It’s too bad that Florida and UCF are playing in a postseason game having already suffered a combined 10 losses and 1 coaching change. It would’ve been fascinating to see this matchup pretty much at any point in the previous 3 years or in the next 3 years. Instead, we’re seeing the Sunshine State battle with some suboptimal circumstances.
It’s not every day that you get a bowl game with a quarterback who has already announced his intention to transfer. That’s the case for Emory Jones. And UCF, meanwhile, watched its starting quarterback, Dillon Gabriel, get hurt and enter the transfer portal (he’s off to UCLA).
But let’s treat this game for what it is. We’ll get Florida and UCF playing football instead of just fighting on Twitter. That’s a win in my book.
Here are my final thoughts on the matchup with a prediction:
1. Gus Malzahn’s SEC reunion
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the Florida-UCF matchup is the fact that for the first time since he got paid $23 million not to coach at Auburn, Malzahn gets his shot at SEC revenge.
Then again, should Malzahn really feel vengeful? Probably not. The guy got 23 million reasons to fade off into the sunset after 8 years on The Plains. Instead, he decided to skip the year-long golf tour and take over one of the top Group of 5 (for now) programs in the country.
How much does that matter to Malzahn? And will we see him with a little bit of extra juice on the sidelines? We’ll see. What seems likely is that Malzahn will have a little something extra dialed up. Maybe he won’t go full 2018 Music City Bowl on everyone, but a little trickery would make sense.
This is the first time in Malzahn’s career as a head coach that he’ll face an SEC team as a non-SEC coach. Will he tap into the same sort of mindset that 2017 UCF had against his Auburn squad? He could have all sorts of momentum by doing just that to close Year 1 in Orlando.
2. So … can Dameon Pierce get 15-20 carries, please?
So remember when Dan Mullen said that he didn’t control the backfield rotation and that Greg Knox did? Well, it’s ironic. You see, Pierce is PFF’s highest-graded back in the country. How long did it take for him to get double-digit carries in a game this season, you ask? Twelve. Meaning, once Mullen was fired and Knox took over as the interim coach, Pierce finally got double-digit carries.
Funny how that happens.
Dameon Pierce: One badass mother f***** pic.twitter.com/8W1M42GMPn
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) November 27, 2021
If Pierce doesn’t get a significant workload in this one, well, I’ll be stunned. He has been Florida’s most reliable offensive player, and it’s not really that close. Now the Gators are without leading receiver Jacob Copeland. Add to that the fact that Emory Jones is getting the start at quarterback (more on that in a minute) and yeah, one would think that getting the ball to the highest-graded back in America would make a lot of sense. But that’s for Knox to decide, not me.
If I’m Knox, I see what it actually looks like to get Pierce the ball between 15-20 times. Sorry, but I’m not worried about an even split between Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright. No disrespect to Davis and Wright, but Pierce has been the more dynamic threat.
For an offense that lacked spark plays once Anthony Richardson cooled off, one would think that Pierce is in line for a long overdue bump in volume.
3. Emory Jones vs. the turnover-happy UCF defense
What’s the opposite of a “something’s gotta give” matchup? I don’t know. But this is it. UCF is No. 30 in the country in turnovers forced while only 7 Power 5 teams have turned the ball over more than Florida. On top of that, only 2 FBS quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than Jones (13).
That’s, um, not ideal for Florida.
It also doesn’t help that the last time Jones took the field, he threw 3 interceptions in a wild win against Florida State. To say that there’s not much optimism would be an understatement.
We know that Jones is essentially treating this game like a job interview. He reportedly plans to enter the transfer portal. Perhaps he can deliver a statement performance to close the year and get a longer list of teams that will vie for his services. If Jones comes out like a man on a mission, well, Gators fans would gladly applaud him for that.
It’s interesting because while Jones’ decision-making on the field has been fairly criticized, he has handled this frustrating year as well as you could’ve asked. He always says the right thing (unlike his former coach). Whether that’s building up Richardson or owning his mistakes, Jones is providing the blueprint for how all high-profile quarterbacks should handle things when they don’t go their way.
Win or lose, Jones deserves to be appreciated for that.
4. Florida’s leader in tackles, sacks and receiving are all out … yikes
On top of not having Richardson, AKA their most talented quarterback, Zachary Carter, Mohamoud Diabate and the aforementioned Copeland are all out. It’s usually not a winning formula to be without your leader in tackles, sacks and receiving. Maybe that changes in this new era of the transfer portal and opt-outs.
It was inevitable that Florida was gonna get hit with roster depletion if it got to a bowl game. Anybody with a 6-6 team with a coaching change would experience that, especially one with NFL talent like Florida.
But let’s look on the bright side. At least Kaiir Elam is playing. You could make the case that when healthy, he’s Florida’s best player. He’s certainly Florida’s best draft prospect. Can Elam have a performance to boost his draft stock lined up opposite of the lightning quick Ryan O’Keefe, who played all over the place in Malzahn’s offense (261 snaps in the slot vs. 383 snaps split out wide). He’s sort of UCF’s version of Wan’Dale Robinson.
If Florida is going to contain UCF, it’ll have to be because Elam confirmed his status as a Round 1 prospect. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t look like he’ll have a whole lot of help.
5. The Billy Napier talent evaluation process begins, which should provide a little extra motivation
If you’re a young Florida player in this game, this is a prime opportunity. Show your new coach that you can step into a role and execute against quality competition. This new regime might opt for a clean slate, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be watching and evaluating.
Napier made talent evaluation a major priority so far. Lord knows we’ll see those shots of Napier mid-game. He’ll probably do the ESPN interview where they cut to shots of him talking about the future quarterback battle and what his vision of the program is. I wouldn’t expect anything enlightening to come from that.
But that’s partially why this shouldn’t be a “they lacked motivation” game for Florida. Then again, that’s what was said last year in the Cotton Bowl when opt-outs left a depleted Florida roster in rough shape. But perhaps with the looming new regime, this game takes on a different feel.
And a prediction … UCF 31, Florida 27
Don’t get it twisted. Knowing what he went through this season, I’d love to see Jones have a huge sendoff performance. That would be one of those bittersweet moments of bowl season.
But I can’t help but think that turnovers will again be the story of the game. Jones has had issues avoiding those mistakes all year. It doesn’t really matter who the competition is, either. He threw 6 interceptions when Florida was on the opponent’s 39-yard line or closer. Those are the killers.
This game will be the full Jones experience. He’ll break a couple of huge runs and we’ll see him drop a deep ball in a bucket on the left sideline. But those are usually part of a roller-coaster day.
A back-and-forth thriller ends with Jones throwing an interception on a potential go-ahead drive late and Malzahn closes out Year 1 in Orlando with a win against his former conference.
Florida falls and UCF Twitter sets the internet ablaze.