Florida football: 3 matchups that will define the Orange Bowl
The presents have been unwrapped and another Merry Christmas is in the rearview mirror, but don’t dismay. It’s bowl season, and for SEC football fans, the passing of another Christmas means the most wonderful time of the year is only just beginning.
Dan Mullen and the Gators arrived in South Florida on Thursday to begin final game preparations, and they can expect a hefty contingent of Gators fans to be on hand at Hard Rock Stadium on Monday night for the Orange Bowl itself.
Florida’s opponent, a 9-4 Virginia team out of the ACC, might not move the needle in terms of generating extra interest, but the chance to play in the Orange Bowl for only the fourth time in program history certainly does. A prestigious bowl appearance, coupled with the chance to close the decade with an 11-win season in only Mullen’s second year in Gainesville, make this a big game for the Gators.
Virginia will be inspired to play well. Like Florida, it will have seniors largely responsible for turning the program around under a new head coach. Unlike Florida, Virginia’s program isn’t used to this type of game. That can be a good thing in bowl games, where the most enthusiastic team often plays the best football. Look no further than a happy-to-be-there Florida’s Peach Bowl rout of a Michigan team that just missed the College Football Playoff last season for evidence of that rule. Virginia will be playing for national respect and only the program’s second 10-win season in history.
Then again, the Gators should be motivated, too. Eleven-win seasons don’t happen often, even at blueblood programs like the University of Florida (5 ever in more than 100 years). Chances to showcase your program’s ascendancy on national television in the most fertile recruiting area of your home state are also rare. Plus, there’s the matter of sending the Gators’ program-changing group of seniors out the right way, as well.
All told, that means that on paper at least, the Orange Bowl shapes up to be a battle between highly motivated teams each trying to put a winning bow on a special season.
Here are 3 key matchups that will define how the game plays out on the field.
Which elite pass rush wins the day?
This game features 2 of the nation’s most formidable pass rushes.
The Gators’ excellence up front is well-documented, and Florida could benefit from the return of preseason All-American DE Jabari Zuniga, who played sparingly as a senior due to injury but who Mullen claims will be ready to play (no promises, because we’ve heard it before).
Even without Zuniga, Florida boasts All-SEC DE/LB Jonathan Greenard, one of the nation’s most fearsome pass rushers and the largest snub in college football from the AP All-America team. Greenard led the SEC in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (14.5), and he should feast on a UVA offensive line that struggled with protection most of the season, even with a mobile quarterback.
The Gators contained Auburn’s Bo Nix, and they did a great job of containing the edge generally against the Tigers this season.
Struck me as important play on rewatch, highlights UF discipline. Auburn mixed its personnel and formation pre-snap here (not shown). Speedy Anthony Schwartz can't get anything on outside because UF defenders (Greenard, Wilson, Houston) all do jobs. Next play was Davis' pick. pic.twitter.com/CX7Y9EMZkj
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) October 6, 2019
QB Bryce Perkins’ ability to improvise and run really is the Virginia run game, so if Florida can hold the edge and keep Perkins in the pocket, the numbers say Florida is in good shape. Florida ranks 10th nationally in defensive havoc rate, 4th in sack percentage (10.91), 4th in team sacks (46) and 3rd in the SEC in team tackles for loss (behind Georgia and Auburn).
Florida will easily be the best DL Virginia has faced — but the Cavs aren’t too shabby up front, either.
Virginia ranks 15th nationally in defensive havoc rate, 9th nationally in sack percentage (9.62) and 7th nationally in team sacks (45).
The Cavs don’t just get to the quarterback on traditional passing downs, either. They do it consistently, regardless of down and distance. Virginia ranks 7th nationally on “standard down” sacks, which means they win one-on-ones up front plenty; they don’t just bring effective pressures that get home.
The Cavaliers’ best defensive linemen this season were Aaron Faumui (8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and Eli Hanback (8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Hanback’s ability to command double teams inside helped free things up for a steely group of linebackers, led by Jordan Mack, an All-ACC performer who defines the program’s turnaround under Bronco Mendenhall.
Mack is the best football player on the team, the team captain who will make his 47th start in the Orange Bowl. He has made 289 tackles in his career and saved the best for last as a senior, collecting a team-high 7.5 sacks and forcing 2 fumbles.
Florida’s inability to run the football is well-documented. The Gators probably won’t have much success on the ground Monday night.
Whether they have continued success in the air will depend on how well they handle UVA up front.
UVA receivers — especially game-changer Joe Reed — vs. a thin UF secondary
For the 2nd consecutive season, Florida appears to be very fortunate in terms of having the bulk of its NFL draft prospects elect to play the bowl game.
The lone exception is cornerback CJ Henderson, who will skip the Orange Bowl — and the chance to play one final collegiate game in his hometown — to begin preparing for the NFL Combine. Henderson is almost unanimously regarded as a 1st-round draft pick by NFL scouts and mock drafts, and his decision is financially smart and understandable, but it does leave the Gators thin in the secondary.
Virginia is a solid passing offense, led not only by do-everything quarterback Perkins but by an excellent group of wide receivers that featured 3 players with 60 or more receptions. The Cavs aren’t the most efficient passing offense (79th nationally and 43.8 percent success rate), but they do have explosive players and a host of options on the perimeter for Perkins to work with.
The best of these is Joe Reed, who missed the ACC Championship with an injury but will return for the Orange Bowl.
Reed gets most of his attention as a kick returner, where he was named a first-team All-American, and for good reason:
"Joe Reed is dangerous and Joe Reed is GONE"
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 10, 2018
But he’s a darn good receiver, too. Reed led the team in receptions with 70 and is also a big-time playmaker in the return game. Reed has good size at 6-1, 215, and he led the Cavs in “contested” catches with 9, a testament to his ability to fight for the ball in tight coverage.
Bryce Perkins in one of the most underrated QB's in the country, in my opinion. Get used to seeing these bombs to Joe Reed this season. Reed caught 8 balls for 217 yards and 5 touchdowns in Virginia's final three regular season games. Should have a huge 2019. #UVA #ACC pic.twitter.com/6JE6kjQJ5Q
— Ryan Clifford (@RyanClifford) August 11, 2019
Reed is also an excellent route runner, particularly on the boundary.
According to Pro Football Focus, Reed led the nation with 17 receptions on out routes and ranked 2nd nationally, behind only LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, in receptions made outside the hashmarks. Reed also led the country in yards gained after the catch (179) on the out route, a Henderson coverage specialty.
Reed, along with his cohorts Terrell Jana and Hasise Dubois (who may be the best NFL prospect of the group), will test the Gators secondary, which will be forced to play heavy reps with Kaiir Elam on the boundary and Trey Dean or Marco Wilson slotted in at nickel.
With the Gators’ defense also keying on preventing Perkins (745 yards rushing) from beating it with his legs, Florida’s defensive backs will need to turn in an outstanding effort to prevent the Cavs’ offense from finding success.
The performance of Florida’s senior receivers in their last game
There’s a very realistic scenario in which this game plays out like this: UVA’s wide receivers win a few one-on-one battles and Florida’s pass rush, while furious, doesn’t completely overwhelm Virginia or dominate the game due to Perkins’ mobility. That gives UVA a chance in the second half, and the Gators’ inability to run the ball, coupled with UVA’s ability to get some pressure on Kyle Trask, keeps things interesting.
If that’s what happens, who makes the biggest difference for Florida?
The guess here is that Florida’s brilliant quartet of senior wide receivers makes the difference.
Virginia’s secondary is banged up, and even with a strong pass rush and excellent linebacker play, it couldn’t keep up with the only comparable receiver unit it played all season when it took on Clemson last month. Trevor Lawrence had a field day, throwing for 302 yards and 4 touchdowns, with his primary weapons, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, open most of the evening.
No one will confuse Trask with Lawrence anytime soon, but even if UVA gets pressure, Trask ranked 3rd in the SEC (behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa) in throws under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, so he can and will make some throws.
If Virginia gets minimal pressure and Trask has time to throw, it’s hard to see how Virginia can cover Florida’s lethal combination of Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Joshua Hammond, all playing their final collegiate game, and 1st-team All-SEC tight end Kyle Pitts, for 4 quarters.
If Florida wins, it will do so largely based on the mismatch of that group of Frisbee-catching dogs against a banged-up Virginia secondary, with the story we write Tuesday largely being about the Gators’ senior quartet leaving 1 final signature performance behind as part of its already secure, important legacy.