Florida vs. Virginia: 5 bold predictions for the Orange Bowl
Florida will make its 4th Capital One Orange Bowl appearance Monday night when it takes on No. 24 Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium in Fort Lauderdale (8 p.m., ESPN).
The game marks Florida’s 2nd consecutive New Year’s 6 appearances under Dan Mullen, and while last year’s Peach Bowl rout of Michigan certainly gave the program a jolt of momentum to close Mullen’s first year in Gainesville, this game is arguably as big or bigger.
A win would give Florida an 11-win season for only the 6th time in school history. To get to 11 wins playing in the storied Orange Bowl in South Florida, an area that is the program’s most important and fertile recruiting region, would be even more special.
“It’s really cool to be here, especially when Florida kids are growing up, you look at the Orange Bowl game and think, ‘Hey, this is right here in my back yard and now I am getting the opportunity to play in it,'” Mullen said Thursday. “It’s a pretty unique deal. Not just for the players, but for all the Gators in South Florida, too. We haven’t played in a lot of Orange Bowls, and I think that’s really exciting for our players and fans.”
• 3 matchups that will define the Orange Bowl
A 9-win Virginia team might not move the media needle nationally, but on film, it has Florida’s respect.
“They have a great quarterback (Bryce Perkins),” Florida safety Donovan Stiner said Thursday. “He can wing it and he runs the ball a lot, even more than their running backs, so that is a big key we’re looking at. We need to stay disciplined in our rush lanes and things like that.”
Florida is a 14-point favorite, but Virginia will be highly motivated, playing for only the 2nd 10-win season in the prestigious school’s football history. Like Florida, Virginia has an outstanding front 7 and pass rush and a tremendous group of wide receivers, which makes this a fascinating matchup of strength on strength, at least on paper.
Here are 5 bold predictions for how the game will play out.
1. 300 yards passing from Kyle Trask
Virginia’s secondary has been banged up much of the season, and as a result, the Cavaliers enter the Orange Bowl ranked 76th in team pass efficiency defense.
In Virginia’s 9 wins, it has mostly been solid and opportunistic on the back end, using its fierce pass rush to generate pressure and force turnovers. How pronounced is the difference?
Virginia has intercepted 11 passes in its 9 wins and allowed more than 250 yards passing in only 3 of those contests. The Cavs have also limited opposing quarterbacks to a stingy completion percentage of 53 percent. In UVA’s 4 losses, it has generated 0 interceptions and allowed opponents to complete 65.2 percent of their passes. In other words, when the Hoos have lost games, it has been a leaky secondary that has been a primary culprit.
The other bad news for Virginia?
Trask will be the 2nd-best quarterback from an efficiency standpoint they’ve played all season, and only the 3rd quarterback in the top 30 nationally in pass efficiency rating.
The other two? Trevor Lawrence of Clemson (7th nationally) and Sam Howell of North Carolina (13th).
The collective numbers for Howell and Lawrence vs. Virginia are frightening if you are a Cavaliers fan readying for Trask: 31-of-51, 655 yards, 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Yikes.
While I do think Virginia will generate some pressure on Trask, the Florida quarterback has been on an absolute tear down the stretch. The thinking here is that he has another huge day at the office, surpassing 300 yards for the 4th time this season.
2. 300 all-purpose yards from Perkins
Trask isn’t the only quarterback who enters the Orange Bowl on fire.
The Orange Bowl features a pair of red-hot QBs on both sides.
Bryce Perkins' last five games:
– 4-1 record
– 376 total yards per game
– 15 total TDs
– 3 INTs
Kyle Trask's last five games:
– 4-1 record
– 289 total yards per game
– 16 total TDs
– 3 INTs
— Bennett Conlin (@BennettConlin) December 27, 2019
Perkins has been Virginia’s talisman all year, exceeding 300 all-purpose yards on 6 occasions. The Cavs are 4-2 when he accomplishes that, losing only to No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship and then-No. 10 Notre Dame.
Playing the best pass rush he’ll see all season, Perkins will need to be marvelous to win, but he’s more than capable of changing a game with both his arm and his legs, as we saw against Florida State earlier this year on one of the season’s most memorable plays.
Folks, this is how you dehydrate a defense.
Bryce Perkins’ magic on this 2-point play makes it 31-24 UVA over Florida State pic.twitter.com/0NDM9MBN2u
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 15, 2019
Moments like that for the All-ACC senior are why he has keyed Bronco Mendenhall’s turnaround in Charlottesvile, and he’ll make his fair share of plays in his final collegiate game, especially against a Gators secondary that will be missing its best cover guy in CJ Henderson (No. 1 in the SEC in completion percentage against, per Stats Solutions) and has struggled defending the boundary at times (57th in pass defense outside the hashmarks, per Stats Solutions).
3. A huge game from (gulps) Jabari Zuniga
Jon Greenard had the huge season, leading the SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss. But way back in talking season, it was Jabari Zuniga who received the bulk of the attention, and for good reason. The consensus preseason All-SEC and All-America selection entered his senior year with 15.5 sacks, and many felt he’d challenge the school record for sacks in a season, long held by All-American Alex Brown.
Instead, Zuniga played sparingly after suffering a high ankle sprain early in the Kentucky game. He gutted it out for a half against LSU and Georgia, respectively, but was a scratch in all of Florida’s other games, limiting the ceiling for what turned out to be a very good, but not great, Gators defense.
Mullen said Thursday that Zuniga is healthy for the first time since Kentucky week and has a chance to make his mark on the Orange Bowl.
“It’s a huge game for him to go out there and perform,” Mullen said. “He missed the majority of the season with an ankle sprain, which is unfortunate. But now he has the opportunity to go out on a big stage and make a statement against a great opponent. It could help his NFL future a lot.”
Left unblocked Florida DE Jabari Zuniga is able to show off his burst to get the TFL #NFLDraft #Gators pic.twitter.com/ox9K1nUYsu
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) May 30, 2019
It certainly could, and Florida has seen defensive linemen use the bowl as a platform to a high draft pick before. Most recently, Dante Fowler Jr. used a dominant Birmingham Bowl (3.5 sacks) performance (against a Lincoln Riley East Carolina offense) to work his way into the top 5 of the NFL Draft. No one expects Zuniga to go that high, but with a burst like the one above, he could easily find his way into the first 3 rounds by putting a strong Orange Bowl on film ahead of the NFL Combine.
4. 3 TDs from Florida’s senior quartet of wide receivers
Expect a big game from Florida’s splendid quarter of senior wide receivers: Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain and Joshua Hammond.
Collectively, the group has 127 receptions, 1,670 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and it has done that facing 6 defenses ranked in the S&P top 30 in defensive efficiency. Virginia comes in at 44th, placing it about in the middle of defenses Florida has faced this year. Most of that drop in ranking comes because of issues in the secondary, documented above. That problem sets the stage for a big night for Florida’s special group of seniors.
Swain suffered an injury against FSU that could limit him some, but no matter — Trask and this marvelous group will produce 3 Orange Bowl touchdowns Monday night.
5. The Gators cover the number
At the time of this writing (Friday afternoon), Florida is a 14.5-point favorite.
There’s a scenario where Virginia wins. The Cavs will be highly motivated, are overjoyed to be in the Orange Bowl and have a talented veteran quarterback and an outstanding front 7, precisely the type of formula that has given Florida trouble this season.
But the Gators are playing for something important, too. They know it. Their coaches know it. Their alumni, as evidenced by this tweet and video from former All-American and All-Pro corner Joe Haden, know it.
My brothers at @GatorsFB: let’s get it!!! Take advantage of the opportunity and give it all you got, fam! It’s your time #CapitalOneOrangeBowl @CapitalOne @PlayersTribune #ad pic.twitter.com/9rVaNk7MyE
— Joe Haden (@joehaden23) December 26, 2019
Mullen has already accomplished tremendous things, taking a 4-win, toxic culture and turning it into a back-to-back 10-win, New Year’s 6 program in 2 short years. Mullen has reclaimed the state of Florida and had Florida a Cocktail Party win away from Atlanta. Unfortunately for Gators fans, Florida played one of its worst games in Jacksonville and Georgia one of its best, leaving Atlanta fans with an SEC Championship Game mismatch instead of a rematch of Florida’s epic tilt with LSU in Baton Rouge.
But Florida can’t — and won’t — focus on what could have been.
Instead, it will make a statement, doing what an excellent team should do against an overmatched opponent: dominate. Take the Gators and the points.