8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Oklahoma -2, Over/Under: 70.5
As we creep closer to the College Football Playoff, what better way to gear up for Friday’s big games than with a National Championship rematch from yesteryear? Well, that’s precisely what we have in hand with this year’s Cotton Bowl, as the (7) Florida Gators meet the (6) Oklahoma Sooners for the first time since the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. Of course, Florida (8-3, 1st in SEC East) was the victor of that particular matchup, which served as the last time that either of these teams competed on that respective stage, which also served as the final game of (Head Coach) Dan Mullen’s first tenure in Gainesville. The former Offensive Coordinator would leave to take over at Mississippi State, where he would go on to lead the Bulldogs for the next nine years, earning a 69-46 record (.600). However, he would leap at the opportunity to return to the swamp and in three seasons has guided the Gators back to prominence with a 29-8 record (.784), including this year’s 8-3 mark propelling them to their first SEC East title since 2016. At the center of their success has been (Senior Quarterback) Kyle Trask (69.7%, 4,125 YDS, 10.1 Y/A, 43 TD, 5 INT, 186.7 RATE), who after spending three years waiting to be the starter has become one of the most prolific passers in the country; in just ten games he has thrown for 4,125 yards and FORTY-THREE touchdowns, scoring no fewer than three in every game this season en route to getting the nod as one of this year’s four Heisman finalists. As you can imagine, when you have a Quarterback putting up such numbers then the Offense must be a juggernaut, and the Gators certainly fit the bill, averaging 41.6 points per game (11th Overall) on 508.0 total yards (7.4 yards per play), including 388.4 yards through the air and another 120.5 yards on the ground. Mullen surrounded him with no shortage of weapons, including All-America First Team Tight End, Kyle Pitts (43 REC, 770 YDS, 17.9 Y/R, 12 TD), and Receivers, Kadarious Toney (70 REC, 984 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 10 TD) and Trevon Grimes (38 REC, 589 YDS, 15.5 Y/R, 9 TD). Unfortunately, Trask won’t have the luxury of relying upon ANY of these stellar pass-catchers for tonight’s showdown with the Sooners, for all three of them have decided to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, sitting out the Cotton Bowl in the process. That’s a combined 151 receptions, 2,343 yards, and thirty-one touchdowns between them, with the burden of the passing game likely falling to the likes of youngsters, Keon Zipperer (7 REC, 107 YDS, 15.3 Y/R, 2 TD) and Kemore Gamble (9 REC, 147 YDS, 16.3 Y/R, 3 TD).
When we last saw Florida, their lingering hopes of booking a trip to the Playoff came to an end as they lost their second consecutive contest, in the form of an riveting 52-46 defeat to top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Trailing 35-17 at Halftime, the Gators got back into it in the Third Quarter running off fourteen unanswered points to cut the deficit to 35-31 entering the final stanza of play, highlighted by a 50-yard bomb from Trask to Grimes, his second passing play of fifty or more yards.. However, their Defense continued to fail them as the Crimson Tide responded with ten unanswered points of their own, stretching the lead to fourteen with 9:53 left to play. The teams would trade touchdowns on their next two drives, before Trask found Pitts for a 22-yard score, and after carrying the football into the end zone for the two-point conversion, found his side trailing by six with just over two minutes left to play in the affair. After a rare stop, Florida would get the ball back, but ultimately ran out of time to put more points on the scoreboard. At the end of the day, the two combatants combined for ninety-eight points, 1,067 total yards, fifty-nine first downs, ad thirteen touchdowns. Trask was 26-of-40 for 408 yards and four touchdowns (including one rushing), while Pitts hauled in seven receptions for 129 yards and that final score and Toney leading the team with 153 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. Though this performance showed just how explosive Mullen’s Offense can be on any given day, the same cannot be said about their Defense, which once again failed them. Simply put, Florida’s Defense has NOT been very good in 2020, for they’ve been rather poor in fact; (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Grantham’s charges have struggled throughout the campaign, allowing 28.6 points per game (63rd Overall) on 404.7 total yards (100th Overall), both of which are the most relinquished by the school since the turn of the century. The Pass Defense in particular has been a major issue, with opposing Quarterbacks averaging 258.3 yards on 64.3% passing, with twenty-five touchdowns in comparison to nine interceptions. Furthermore, the Gators have given up multiple passing scores in all but two games this season, including eight in the last two outings alone. Mullen hasn’t provided any indication towards Grantham’s status for next season, but then again you’d have to forgive him due to other matters requiring his attention. Florida was placed on one-year probation with the 48-year old earning a one-year show-cause order following multiple recruiting violations in 2019.
Meanwhile, things started as poorly as possible for Oklahoma (8-2, 1st in Big XII) this season, who got off to a disappointing 1-2 start, only to rally to yet another Big XII championship, their sixth in a row. After a 48-0 drubbing of Missouri State in the Season Opener, the Sooners dropped back-to-back games for the first time under (Head Coach) Lincoln Riley, committing four turnovers in a 38-35 loss at home to Kansas State, before getting overrun in the latter stages of a 37-30 affair at Iowa State. As a result, the school dropped out of the rankings for the first time since September of 2016, and were largely left for dead by the national media, who dubbed this as a rare transition year for the program. After all, given the success that Riley has had in transitioning from Baker Mayfield to Kyler Murray to Jalen Hurts, it was only a matter of time before he would have to start over the old-fashioned way with a new Quarterback. This of course brings us to (Redshirt Freshman) Spencer Rattler (68.0%, 2,784 YDS, 9.5 Y/A, 25 TD, 7 INT, 170.9 RATE), who overcame some early struggles of his own to lock down the starting gig for this season and beyond; Rattler tossed three interceptions in that loss to the Wildcats, and was even benched briefly in the ensuing trip to Ames, but proved his resiliency in learning from his mistakes en route to throwing for 1,807 yards and nineteen total touchdowns in comparison to just three turnovers over the course of the following seven games. Behind their young Quarterback, Oklahoma won their final seven contests, averaging 43.6 points on 459.9 total yards, including 258.6 yards through the air and another 167.7 yards on the ground, all the while committing just six turnovers. Youth has been the common theme with this unit, who apart from Rattler are young at a number of other key positions, including the Receiving Corps, where (Freshman) Marvin Mims (36 REC, 583 YDS, 16.2 Y/R, 8 TD) has led the way alongside (Sophomores) Theo Wease (36 REC, 494 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 3 TD) and Austin Stogner (25 REC, 410 YDS, 16.4 Y/R, 3 TD). Mims looks like the next prolific burner to come out of Norman, pacing the unit in receptions (36), yards (583), and touchdowns (8), though Stogner was well on his way to laying claim to at least one of those categories before a lower leg injury knocked him out of commission.
When we last saw Oklahoma, they gained a measure of revenge against the team that had handed them their last loss, besting Iowa State in a 27-21 victory. The Sooners started fast, scoring seventeen unanswered points to open the affair, highlighted by a 45-yard rocket from Rattler to Mims. The Cyclones would finally get on the board late in the First Half, but Rattler would drive his side right back downfield, finishing off a stellar half of play with a nine-yard rushing touchdown. Unfortunately, that would be about it for Riley’s troops on the offensive side of the football, for they would be kept out of the end zone for the rest of the day, leaving the outcome of the game in the hands of their Defense. Now in past seasons that would be enough to make the faithful in Norman sweat profusely, but this season it’s been a very different story for Boomer Sooner on this side of the football, with the Defense carrying them throughout their winning streak. After getting gashed for 400 or more total yards against the Wildcats and Cyclones, they held three of their final seven opponents under that threshold while forcing a healthy fourteen turnovers in the process. (Defensive Coordinator) Alex Grinch is working wonders in his second season with the program, for they look like a far cry from the unit that was utterly embarrassed in last year’s Playoff against eventual National Champion LSU, allowing sixty-three points and 693 total yards. Over the final seven games, his troops have permitted just 342.0 total yards, including 94.4 yards against the run, while relinquishing just nine passing touchdown with a dozen interceptions. The Defensive Line has been a major factor in their overall improvement, with (Edge-Rushers) Ronnie Perkins (20 TKL, 9.5 TFL, 5.5 SK) and Isaiah Thomas (31 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 7.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 PD), along with (Nose Tackle) Perrion Winfrey (16 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 SK, 3 PD) wrecking havoc in the trenches. Perkins, who missed the first five games of the campaign due to suspension, has been nothing short of productive in his return to the gridiron, totaling 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss over the last five games, with Thomas and (Linebacker) Nik Bottino (30 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 8.0 SK, 2 PD) combining for 15.5 sacks. All of these kids played a big role in the rematch with Iowa State, with Perkins racking up 1.5 sacks, while the unit as a whole registered three takeaways, all of which were interceptions of Cyclones’ Quarterback, Brock Purdy. Ironically, this season will end with an opponent from the SEC for the fifth consecutive year, and Riley will no doubt be reminding his charges that they’ve lost the last three by a combined score of 168-110. And if that wasn’t enough motivation for the Sooners, then look no further than the comments levied by Florida Linebacker, James Houston, who in an interview claimed that “Oklahoma is a good matchup, but NOT on our level. They’re NOT the SEC. They’re NOT the Florida Gators…” Those sound like fighting words to us.