Florida vs. UCF: 5 things to know about Gators' Gasparilla Bowl opponent
Florida will meet in-state foe UCF in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl (7 p.m., ESPN) held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Dec. 23, 2021.
The game will be Florida’s second in the home of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, as the Gators routed host South Florida 42-20 on the road in September. If Florida is victorious, the Gators will close the 2021 season with wins over 4 in-state, FBS opponents: Florida Atlantic, South Florida, Florida State and UCF, a mark that would set a school record for in-state victories in one season.
Here are 5 things to know about the Central Florida Golden Knights.
No dodging this matchup for UCF
UCF, a program that started playing football in 1979 and didn’t ascend to Division I (now FBS) until 1996, has a proud tradition. The Golden Knights have qualified for a bowl game 16 times in their 25 seasons in Division I and have been invited to 12 bowl games.
Despite a track record of success, UCF has only played Florida twice, and UCF has a strange history of avoiding matchups with Florida, the state’s flagship university.
UCF’s refusal earlier last decade, in the midst of the best stretch of football in Golden Knights history, to play a 2-and-1 (2 road games, 1 home game) with the Gators is well-documented, but the Golden Knights also backed out of playing Tim Tebow and the Gators in 2007, with UCF paying the University of Florida $100,000 to cancel a scheduled game in The Swamp. Florida ultimately used a portion of that buyout to schedule Western Kentucky with just months to spare — almost losing a home game in the process.
UCF, which plays in the American Athletic Conference, has long insisted that college football has a “Power 6,” just as college basketball does. Cincinnati’s Playoff berth Sunday may suggest some level of legitimacy to the theory, first advanced by former UCF athletic director Danny White.
But the Knights were offered, according to documents obtained by ESPN, a 2-for-1, with a true home game, against the Gators, and White declined, insisting that UCF does not play “2-for-1 against other Power 6 nonconference opponents.”
When White left UCF to become the athletic director at Power 5 SEC program Tennessee, UCF changed course. New athletic director Terry Mohajir embraced Scott Stricklin’s standing 2-for-1 offer and the programs are slated to meet in 2024, 2030, and 2033.
Many fans thought these programs would meet in the 2018 Peach Bowl, but the Playoff Committee matched up 9-3 Florida with Michigan, sending UCF to the Fiesta Bowl instead.
This time, there was no dodging the matchup for UCF — but with the game in Tampa, they do get a site an hour from their campus.
UCF has a long history in the Gasparilla Bowl — and a solid one against the SEC in bowl games
UCF will be making its 5th Gasparilla Bowl appearance, more than any other program.
The Golden Knights are 2-2, including the most recent Gasparilla Bowl (last year’s was canceled due to COVID-19 issues), a 48-25 UCF win over Marshall in 2019.
UCF is also 2-2 against the SEC in bowl games. The Golden Knights nipped Mark Richt’s Georgia 10-6 in the 2010 Liberty Bowl and famously defeated SEC West champion Auburn 34-27 in the 2017 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl to cap a 13-0 season. UCF claimed the national championship after the Peach Bowl win, given Auburn’s victory over eventual BCS national champion Alabama.
UCF’s national title is still subject to much opposing fan ridicule, but it has been recognized by the Colley Matrix, which aggregates computer and poll rankings and has been used as a championship selector by the NCAA, as well as by politicians, with the Golden Knights declared national college football champions by then Governor of Florida Rick Scott in early 2018.
In UCF’s most recent bowl game against the SEC, the Golden Knights lost — and saw their 25-game winning streak snapped — to LSU in the 2018 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
UCF has a tremendous pass defense
Travis Williams came with UCF head coach Gus Malzahn from Auburn and he has built an outstanding pass defense in his first season in Orlando. The Golden Knights rank 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense, a number that will make UCF the 2nd-best pass defense the Gators have faced (Georgia) in 2021.
Sophomore Davonte Brown stars for the unit, leading the team with a ball hawkish 10 pass breakups for the season. Safety Divaad Wilson is also steady and earned Second Team All-ACC honors.
Gus Malzahn’s offense is what you’d expect: good on the ground and vanilla in the passing game
SEC fans grew to know what to expect when they faced Auburn under Gus Malzahn.
The Tigers were strong and multiple in the run game but often unimaginative and vanilla in the passing game.
This season is no different.
UCF is very good running the ball, ranking 37th in the country in rushing offense and 19th in yards per rush attempt. Two running backs, Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson, gained over 500 yards on the ground in 2021. That said, the Golden Knights ranked only 51st in the country in pass efficiency offense, and were extremely reliant on Second Team All-AAC receiver Ryan O’Keefe in the pass game. O’Keefe was targeted more than 2x as often as any other UCF receiver and finished the regular season with 2 times as many receptions as anyone else on the roster. The problem became even more significant after the season-ending injury to electric quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who has now announced he’ll transfer.
Better teams figured this out — Cincinnati limited O’Keefe to just one catch, SMU held him to under 9 yards per reception, Navy doubled him frequently and limited him to 2 catches — and made UCF one-dimensional in the process.
Will Florida be able to do the same? It depends on if the Gators can slow a prolific UCF run game.
UCF struggles to protect the quarterback, but it won’t matter if Florida can’t stop the run
Another big reason UCF struggles to throw is that they don’t do a terrific job of protecting their quarterback. The Golden Knights rank just 64th in SP+ offensive efficiency despite such a good run game. A big reason? The Knight ranks 46th nationally in sacks allowed, another problem that has reared its ugly head most in UCF’s biggest games.
SMU collected 7 sacks in their 4 touchdown rout of the Golden Knights last month, and before that, Cincinnati collected 13 pressures (though only 1 sack) in its 56-21 win over UCF. Mikey Keene is not nearly as mobile as Gabriel, which has complicated matters for Malzahn’s team up front.
Protecting Keene will be a huge challenge for UCF against a Florida defensive line that ranks 26th nationally in sacks and 15th in quarterback pressures. In truth, it’s probably Florida’s best matchup in the football game — but one the Golden Knights can neutralize if they run the ball.