8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida -14.5, Over/Under: 54.5
With both National Semifinals in the rearview mirror the Bowl Season continues its march, as the No.9 Florida Gators battle the No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers, in the Capital One Orange Bowl from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Now in their second season under the guidance of Dan Mullen, there is a feeling that Florida (10-2, 6-2 in SEC) is nearly restored to their place as one of the country’s truly elite programs. Of course, after seven seasons of relative mediocrity (certainly by their standards), the Gators hired Mullen, who served on Urban Meyer’s Coaching Staff from 2005 to 2008, an outrageously successful period of time in which the program one two BCS National Championships. Mullen, who had spent the previous nine years as Head Coach at Mississippi State (69-46, .600), jumped at the chance to return to Gainesville when the position opened two years ago, and has his current charges on the cusp of returning to the realms of the elite; with a win tonight, Florida will likely finish the campaign with 10+ Wins and a place in the AP Top-10 in consecutive seasons for the first time since the Meyer Era back in 2008-2009. Indeed, these Bowls can be utilized as a springboard for the following season, which is a role that this school looks poised to assume in their first appearance in the Orange Bowl since 2001, which was coincidentally Florida Legend, Steve Spurrier’s, final game on the sidelines. 2019 has been a season of resilience for the Gators, who very easily could have crumbled following the season-ending injury to Starting Quarterback, Feleipe Franks (76.1%, 698 YDS, 9.8 Y/A, 5 TD, 3 INT), who after a sterling Sophomore term (58.4%, 2,457 YDS, 7.6 Y/A, 24 TD, 6 INT), saw his Junior year, and by extension his time in Gainesville, come to a close after just four games with a dislocated ankle. Franks announced his intention to transfer this Spring, a decision that was made due to the inspired play of his successor, Kyle Trask (67.6%, 2,636 YDS, 8.4 Y/A, 24 TD, 6 INT), who has firmly supplanted him as the Starting Quarterback heading into 2020. The Junior has been nothing short of solid in his first year as the Starter, going 6-2 while completing 67.6% of his Attempts for an average of 274.4 Yards per Game with Twenty-Four Touchdowns in comparison o just Six Interceptions. His is a position that the program has had a difficult time developing since the Meyer years, with Mullen overseeing their growth to the point that they’ve collectively averaged 300.4 Passing Yards per Game, which is something that hasn’t happened since the days of Spurrier. Few teams finished as strongly down the stretch, as Florida won their final three games by an average margin of 32.0 Points, with their most recent outing being a 40-17 drubbing of listless instate rival, Florida State in the Regular Season Finale. After a fairly competitive start to the affair, the Gators ran off Twenty-Three Unanswered Points before Halftime to take a 30-7 advantage that thy would never come close to relinquishing. Trask was excellent, deftly completing 30-of-41 Passes for 343 Yards and Three Touchdowns, spreading the wealth to ten different targets, nailing Senior Receivers, Freddie Swain (35 REC, 496 YDS, 14.2 Y/R, 7 TD) and Van Jefferson (43 REC, 528 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 6 TD), for Two Touchdowns apiece. Defensively, the hosts smothered the Seminoles to the tune of just 250 Total Yards on a mere Thirteen First Downs, including Sixty-Nine Rushing Yards on Thirty-One Carries. As he has all season, Sophomore Linebacker, Jonathan Greenard (52 TKL, 15.0 TFL, 9.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 PD), continued to raise hell behind the Line of Scrimmage, logging Six Tackles, Three for Loss, and Three Sacks, bringing his total on the year to Nine, leading a unit that ranked first in the Southeast Conference with Forty-Six Sacks, sporting eleven different players with at least a pair on their ledger. The rowdy reptiles allowed a scant 14.4 Points per Game this season (7th Overall) on 301.6 Total Yards , including 192 Yards against the Pass and another109.6 Yards versus the Run. With that said, it will be interesting to see how many of their number will actually be participating in this affair, for Senior Defensive End, Jabari Zuniga (11 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 SK), and Sophomore Linebacker, Amari Burney (32 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD), both missed multiple games this season with various injuries, with their respective availability in question, while top Cornerback, C.J. Henderson (33 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 11 PD), will be sitting out after the Junior declared for the 2020 NFL Draft where he is expected to be a First Round Pick. Coming into this short trip south to the Orange Bowl, Mullen is 6-2 in Bowls, carrying a three-game winning streak in such contests, including last year’s 41-15 romp over No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
Meanwhile, one of the better surprises to come out of this season is Virginia (9-4, 6-3 in ACC), who have slowly been rebuilding themselves following the appointment of Bronco Mendenhall back in 2016. Arriving by way of Brigham Young, where he led the independent outfit to a 99-43 record (.697) over the course of eleven years, which included five 10-Win Seasons and eleven straight Bowls (6-5). However, he inherited a struggling program that had suffered eight losing season in a ten-year period, including four straight losing campaigns from 2011 to 2015 in which they could muster a dismal 15-33 (.313) record. After going 2-10 in his first season in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers have gradually improved, and with a win tonight they could find themselves with their first 10-Win Season since 1989. Indeed, this has been a season of rebirth for Virginia, who overcame a midseason malaise to win their last four contests of the Regular Season, emerging as the champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division, granting them their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game. Granted, the Coastal was definitely the more mediocre of the two divisions in a league that apart from reigning National Champion, Clemson, was very average in 2019, and that was very apparent when they met the Tigers on December 7th. If Mendenhall was looking for a measuring stick for his charges, there would be none better than Clemson, who throttled his side 62-17. This one was never in question, folks, for the Tigers hung a whopping 619 Total Yards and Eight Touchdowns on their conference brethren, though in the end it was a triumvirate of costly mistakes that ended the Cavaliers surprising run. Senior Quarterback, Bryce Perkins (64.0%, 3,215 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 18 TD, 11 INT), who had been effective throughout the term, didn’t really have a problem moving the football against the opposing Defense, racking up 324 Yards from Scrimmage with Two Touchdowns and Two Interceptions before ultimately being replaced by his Freshman Understudy, Brennan Armstrong (75.0%, 196 YDS, 9.8 Y/A, 1 TD, 2 INT), the affair well out of hand. Don’t be fooled by that showing in the ACC Title Game, for Perkins has been the posterboy for Virginia’s improvement over the past few seasons, developing into one of the most productive dual-threats in the country. The Arizona State Transfer is one of just two players this season to throw for 3,000 Yards and rush for another 700, with the other being Heisman Runner-Up, Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma. He was absolutely essential during that aforementioned four-game winning streak for the Cavaliers, averaging 286.5 Passing Yards and 103.0 Rushing Yards with Thirteen Total Touchdowns to boot. He’ll be counted upon to make plays against Florida’s staunch Defense, as Virginia will hope he can keep them off balance with his skills as a runner; Perkins led the team in Rushing Yards (745) with Eleven Touchdowns on 213 Carries. The Receiving Corps is stocked with veteran playmakers, including Senior Receiver, Hasise Dubois (65 REC, 979 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 4 TD), and Junior, Terrell Jana (67 REC, 760 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 2 TD), with the former proving to be a menace downfield on jump ball thanks to his 6-3, 215 lb frame. However, arguably the most important cog in this machine is Senior, Joe Reed (70 REC, 627 YDS, 9.0 Y/R, 6 TD), whom is utilized in a myriad of ways, particularly in the Return Game, where he was voted All-ACC as a Kick Returner. If you’re familiar with the Atlantic Coast Conference, then you’re well aware that when Reed fields a Kickoff, something is bound to happen; in his career at Virginia he’s returned 104 Kickoffs for 3,010 Yards (2nd All-Time in ACC) on a very healthy 28.9 Yards per Return and Five Touchdowns, ranking first in the ACC in those latter three categories in 2019. Unfortunately, there is a distinct possibility that we may have seen the last of Senior, who after suffering a hip pointer in practice missed the Conference Championship against Clemson, and is listed as Questionable for tonight’s meeting with Florida. Needless to say, if Virginia is going to earn the elusive tenth victory, having this kid on the field would certainly help a lot.