7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Oregon State -10, Over/Under: 54.0
Power-Five programs collide as the Bowl season rages on, as the Florida Gators get ready to battle the fourteenth-ranked Oregon State Beavers in the Las Vegas Bowl, from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. 2022 was the beginning of a new era in Gainesville, where Florida (6-6, 3-5 in SEC) turned the reins over to (Head Coach) Bill Napier with designs on returning to the realms of college football’s elite, where they haven’t resided for quite some time. Since Urban Meyer departed the program back in 2011, the Gators have been a very uneven bunch of reptiles, posting as many Head Coaches as they have ten-win campaigns. Needless to say, everyone that has followed Meyer has struggled to escape his lengthy shadow; from 2005 to 2010, Meyer led the school to a stellar 65-15 record (.813), including a pair of SEC Titles and National Championships (2006 and 2008), but since his departure have fell well below that standard with a 93-58 record (.615), with zero league crowns and trips to the playoff. Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain, and Dan Mullen each found initial success on to find it fleeting as they struggled to build anything sustainable within the toughest conference in the country. Indeed, the SEC is a treacherous landscape, which leaves to wonder just how long Napier will last in the swamp. 40-12 (.769) in four years at Louisiana-Lafayette, the two-time Sun Belt Coach of the Year had certainly earned a bigger job, leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to as high as fifteenth in the AP Poll, though the question would be how he would handle cleaning up the mess that was Mullen’s tenure in Gainesville, where the pressure to win was higher than any school that he had been beforehand. So, how has Napier performed in his first season at Florida, you ask? Well, it’s been a very mixed bag, for while there were some considerable highs, including wins over (Pac-12 Champion) Utah (29-26) and at Texas A&M (41-24), there were some disturbing lows; though the Gators competed with the likes of Kentucky (26-16), Tennessee (38-33), and LSU (45-35), they were embarrassed by (reigning National Champion) Georgia (42-20), before ending the season on a two-game losing streak at Vanderbilt (31-24) and Florida State (45-38). The Defense was one of the worst that the school has seen in recent years, yielding 28.8 points (91st in FBS) on 415.8 total yards per game despite returning seven starters from last year’s unit that made marginal strides following a disastrous 2020. On the opposite side of the football, the Offense lived and died on the shoulders of (Sophomore Quarterback) Anthony Richardson, who has been an ideal fit for Napier’s system. Slowed by a lingering hamstring issue last season, Richardson (pictured below) eventually supplanted Emory Jones as the clear starter by the end of campaign, causing Jones to enter the portal. While his decision-making and accuracy still need work (53.8%, 9 interceptions), this kid has all the physical tools (6′-4″, 237 lbs) to become a gamechanger at Quarterback with his mobility paying dividends for the Gators; Richardson was more often than not their most effective rusher this year, totaling 654 yards and nine touchdowns in twelve games. Two weeks after that loss to the Seminoles (which we’ll get into shortly), he declared for the NFL Draft, with many scouts having him ranked fourth among eligible passers. Perhaps another year in Napier’s scheme would prepare him better for the professional level, for it has been feast for famine when throwing the football of late; Richardson was held below 50.0% in three of his last five outings, despite posting a stellar 11-2 touchdown-interception ratio. By no means a finished product, it would have been a boon to the Gators if he would have stayed to develop for one more season.
When we last saw Florida, they saw a three-game winning streak over (bitter rival) Florida State come to an end in a wild 45-38 affair in Tallahassee. The two Sunshine State residents traded blows throughout the first half, with the Gators heading into halftime with a 24-21 advantage. Unfortunately, the Seminoles would dominate the third quarter with seventeen unanswered points, leaving the visiting side scratching their collective heads. Napier’s troops managed to rally back and tie the game at 38-38, but the hosts had the last laugh, with a 17-yard touchdown run ending the affair. When it was all said and done, the two adversaries accounted for 957 total yards, forty-eight first downs, and a whopping 489 rushing yards. Again, it was an uneven showing from Richardson, who despite tossing three touchdowns for the second week in a row, completed just NINE of his twenty-seven passes for 198 yards and an interception, while adding another forty-one yards on the ground. (Freshman Tailback) Trevor Etienne erupted for 129 yards and a 45-yard score to tie game late, while his sophomore teammate, Montrell Johnson added another eighty-five yards and a touchdown on just as many attempts (17). (Junior Receiver) Ricky Pearsall, who has been Richardson’s favored target all year long, finished with 148 yards on five receptions, including two huge touchdowns of fifty-two and forty-three yards respectively. However, Florida simply couldn’t get enough stops, as they were burned for nearly 500 yards, marking the third time that they shipped over 450. Furthermore, you can say what you want about this being a rivalry game, but the Gators also tied a season-high with ten penalties for ninety-one yards, their most all year, which undoubtedly played a role in such a close affair. Looking to tonight’s matchup, Napier & Co are 6-4 against the spread in their last ten games overall, and 4-6 against the spread in their last ten outings away from the swamp. However, they usually pay out when the oddsmakers have branded them an underdog, covering the line in eight of ten such contests, including each of their last five. With that said, the rowdy reptiles have been rather docile in neutral sites as an underdog between 3.5-10.0 points, which is the case tonight, covering just one of their last seven. Florida has been largely average in bowl games, posting an all-time record 24-23 (.511), and have lost each of their last two postseason appearances, including their most recent effort, a 29-17 loss to Central Florida in last December’s Gasparilla Bowl. On the injury front, the aforementioned Pearsall is questionable for this matchup, after sustaining a lower body ailment against Florida State, while (Junior Tight End) Keon Zipperer remains sidelined with a knee injury. It remains to be seen if Richardson will participate in tonight’s game after declaring for the draft, and if he opts out, then it could be interesting to see who takes over at Quarterback, for his primary backup, Jalen Kitna, was recently suspended for some disturbing off-field reasons, and (Ohio State Transfer) Jack Miller, has been out all season with a broken thumb.
Meanwhile, it’s ironic that Florida is facing off against Oregon State (9-3, 6-3 in Pac-12) in this postseason affair, for they would love to mimic their improvement over the last few years. Indeed, it was dire straits in Corvallis when (Head Coach) Jonathan Smith was hired in 2017, with the Beavers plummeting to a miserable 7-29 record (.194) in three years under the previous regime. In fact, they finished 2016 at 1-11, matching their worst finish in school history (1995). It’s not uncommon for programs to search through their history for a savior when their backs are against the wall, and that’s precisely what they did when they welcomed Smith back to campus. Of course, the 43-year-old played Quarterback there from 1998 to 2001, before serving as a graduate assistant until 2003. From there, he rose to prominence as Washington’s Offensive Coordinator from 2014 to 2017, ultimately landing on Oregon State’s radar which seemed like a match made in heaven. With that said, this turnaround hasn’t been easy by any means; the Beavers won just nine games in his first three years on the sidelines, while authoring a disappointing 5-22 record in conference play. However, everything changed last season, for with NINETEEN returning starters, he guided his alma mata to a 7-6 finish and their first bowl in eight years. To the joy of the good folks in Corvallis, he’s managed to keep the ball rolling, with the school winning their most games since 2012, and have a real shot at their third ten-win campaign in their history, which would coincidentally be their first since 2006. Their fortunes ironically changed during back-to-back losses to the two toughest teams on their schedule (USC and Utah), with (Junior Quarterback) Chance Nolan benched after throwing six interceptions in six quarters of play in favor of (Redshirt Freshman) Ben Gulbranson, who after throwing a pair of picks of his own really settled into the starting job; 6-1 as the starter, Gulbranson has led an attack averaging 31.7 points on 379.0 total yards in those contests, all the while posting a far more palatable turnover differential of +2 in comparison to -3. Completing 62.3% of his passes for 1,290 yards on 7.4 yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions, Gulbranson brings more physical tools to the table, with his arm strength helping differentiate him from what was a very crowded QB room. The improvement of the Offense aside, the clear strength of this team has been their Defense, which with nine returning starters has continued their growth from a year ago. The Beavers have relegated their opponents to 21.4 points per game (31st in FBS) 342.3 total yards, including 228.3 against the pass and another 114.0 versus the run. The Secondary is one of the most experienced in the country, led by (Sophomore Cornerback) Alex Austin (pictured below), who has logged a pair of interceptions, nine defended passes, a sack and a touchdown thus far, shining for a group that has totaled a dozen picks. Oregon State has held six opponents below 200 passing yards and have permitted just eleven touchdowns through the air this season, the fewest in the Pac-12.
When we last saw Oregon State, they bested their bitter rivals, Oregon for just the third time in fifteen years, taking the 106th edition of the Civil War, 38-34. If Smith was looking for a defining win for his tenure in Corvallis, this was likely it. The Beavers trailed the tenth-ranked Ducks 31-10 late in the third quarter, only to outscore their adversaries 28-3 the rest of the way, including twenty-one unanswered points to end the game. Indeed, the hosts overcame 470 total yards from the visitors and three turnovers, including a pair of interceptions from Gulbranson, who completed just 6-of-13 passes for sixty yards, to come back set the crowd at Reser Stadium on fire. So, how did they do it, you ask? Well, in no uncertain terms, they POUNDED THE ROCK. Both teams carried the ball over forty times, but it was the home side who were the most effective, trampling the Ducks for 268 yards and five touchdowns, with three different players compiling over fifty yards, led by (Freshman) Damien Martinez, who finished with 103 yards on fifteen attempts. Gulbranson scored a pair of touchdowns at the goal line, while (fellow Freshman) Isaiah Newell added two more of his own. (Junior Safety) Kitan Oladepo was all over the place on Defense, totaling SEVENTEEN tackles, while (Junior Linebacker) Omar Speights added thirteen of his own. Looking to tonight’s matchup, Oregon State have been a good bet of late, covering the spread in all but two of their last ten games overall, including five straight outings, along with five consecutive wins when branded as a favorite by the oddsmakers. The Beavers haven’t enjoyed much postseason action throughout their history, appearing in just sixteen bowls with a 9-7 record (.563), though as we stated earlier, Smith had them in their first since 2013 last December, falling to Utah State in the LA Bowl, 24-13. On the injury front, this is largely a healthy team, with the only player in question being (Sophomore Receiver) Anthony Gould, who has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury. The diminutive dynamo has hauled in twenty-seven receptions for 457 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while also making quite an impact in the return game, with fourteen punt returns for a Pac-12-best 256 yards and an NCAA-best two touchdowns.