Fans of the Florida Gators and Central Florida Golden Knights will seemingly get the matchup they’ve always wanted to end a down year for both.
Florida is set to play UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. The game will be played on December 23 at 7:00pm, and will air on ESPN. Greg Knox will remain the head coach for the Gators.
The bowl pairing is intriguing for a bunch of different reasons. Let’s start with the obvious one: these are two teams and fan bases that traditionally have never had a problem with each other, but then along came the 2017 season, fabricated claims of a national championship from Central Florida fans, national ridicule heading the Golden Knights’ way as Alabama took home the trophy, and an offseason of bragging rights from UCF fans ranging from, “SEC! SEC! SEC!” to “national champions!” …all centered around a stray win in the Peach Bowl over an Auburn team that entered the game 10-3.
So, to the victors go the spoils. That was UCF fans’ right. And ordinarily, even with the factually incorrect claims of being national champions, it might have ended there.
Except- then-UCF AD Danny White started running his mouth, revelations surfaced that UCF had actually paid Florida $100,000 to get out of a scheduled 2007 matchup after the Gators had plastered the Knights 42-0 the year before, and White not-so-subtly turned down a two-for-one series with Florida. Then White left UCF for Tennessee, took head football coach Josh Heupel along with him, and the animosity between the administrations seemed to dissipate.
But not among the fan bases. And that’s why it was of high interest to both sides when the Florida Gators and Central Florida Golden Knights agreed on a two-for-one football series. No sooner had White departed Central Florida than negotiations began, and soon afterward, a deal was struck. Florida will host UCF in 2024, travel to Orlando in 2030, and host UCF again in 2033.
Now, an impromptu fourth game between the schools is suddenly on the docket, scheduled for two and a half weeks from now. It’s not the marquee matchup either side has been dying for; Florida stumbled to a 6-6 season and fired its head coach, while Central Florida finished a distant third in the American Athletic Conference in a season lowlighted by 25+ point blowout losses to Cincinnati and SMU. But even still, this game holds intrigue for other reasons.
In a down year in the state of Florida, it’s really just Florida and UCF who have any argument for the “state championship” label. Florida defeated FSU, which knocked off Miami; both of those schools are out of the running. The Gators also blew out FAU and USF, neither of which really had an argument to begin with, but that puts them at 3-0 against in-state opposition. UCF, for its part, has the best record in the state, and with a win over the Florida Gators, could claim transitive property victories over the rest of the state. But if Florida beats UCF, then the Gators have the head to head bragging rights over literally every other FBS team in the state.
It’s also going to be the swan song for many Gator seniors, including Dameon Pierce, perhaps one of the most underrated running backs to come through the Florida Gators program in recent memory. Florida may have a few opt-outs (or who knows, they may not?) but even if they do, it will still present an opportunity for players who plan to return in 2022 to give themselves a leg up on new coach Billy Napier’s totem pole.
Last but not least, it’s a chance to finish with a winning season. I know, that alone is not something for the Florida Gators to shoot for. But for this season to have come off the rails and barreled head first into a fat tree trunk- and still not be a losing season, like FSU had- is something to be proud of. It would be a nice bounce back that would provide some real momentum heading into Napier’s first offseason at the helm.
For those interested, the Gasparilla Bowl is a newer bowl game without a great deal of history. It is the successor to the St. Petersburg Bowl, which was played in the Tampa Bay Rays’ home ballpark of Tropicana Field. The game was moved across the Tampa Bay to actual Tampa in 2018 and renamed the Gasparilla Bowl, which is a reference to a mythical pirate named Jose Gaspar.
Legend has it that Gaspar and his crew patrolled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s, accumulating a crazy amount of wealth by capturing hostages and then releasing them for insane amounts of ransom money. Whether or not any of this is true mattered not the least to the folks in the Tampa area, as the folktales about him inspired the city’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival. You read more about that here if you’d like.