Ordinarily, the Florida Gators vs. the Central Florida Knights would draw fairly high attention from onlookers, and peak intensity from players.
There were the phony claims of being national champions despite no such trophy to prove it from UCF in 2017. There was the incessant jabbering from then-UCF AD Danny White about how Florida didn’t want to play the Knights despite Scott Stricklin offering UCF three shots at the mighty Gators in a two-for-one series– a proposition that White’s successor quickly accepted. There was the revelation that UCF had paid Florida $100,000 in 2007 to avoid another humiliation at the hands of the Gators after Florida had clobbered UCF 42-0 the year before.
And because of all these occurrences and more, there’s been nonstop jawing by both fanbases- and even the players, in some cases- about how the other team was inferior, which brought about lamentations of, “if only we could settle this on the field.”
But when the Florida Gators and Central Florida Golden Knights (fun fact: refer to UCF as the four words before the parenthesis in a conversation with a UCF fan, and you win a free ticket to a virtual circus!) were paired together in the Gasparilla Bowl, the overall reaction that followed was muted at best, and from some corners, downright indifferent. This is because, as fans of both teams already know all too well, both teams are going through suboptimal seasons.
Florida’s 2021 season, to be blunt, was horrible. The Gators were humiliated by South Carolina 40-17 to lowlight a 2-6 record in the SEC, the school’s worst mark in the conference since 1979. They managed to avoid the ultimate ignobility of losing to an FCS team unlike their rivals in Tallahassee (though not for a lack of trying), but three of those six losses came to teams that, had Florida beaten them, would have finished 5-7 and not been eligible for a bowl game (South Carolina, Missouri, and LSU). The end result of all that was both parties of what was said to be a dream coach-QB tandem departing; starting QB Emory Jones entered the transfer portal and head coach Dan Mullen was righteously fired.
UCF didn’t experience quite the torrential downpour of misery that Florida did, although they did lose starting QB Dillon Gabriel to a broken collarbone in the third week of the season- and playing in the AAC isn’t going to be as conducive to implosions. Back to back losses to subpar Louisville and Navy teams in September ruined any chances of a New Year’s Six Bowl, and while the Knights did subsequently figure out how to win close games, they looked mightily suspicious in nailbiting four-point November victories against Tulane and South Florida, each of which finished the year a paltry 2-10. For perspective, back in September, Florida jumped out to a 35-3 lead against USF midway through the second quarter and cruised from there to a 42-20 win.
The books seem to agree with that last piece of data. According to Sports Betting Dime, Florida is a 7 point favorite with a money line of -290. UCF, for its part, checks in with a money line of +225.
But that’s where we have to wonder which Florida Gators team shows up. Under no circumstances is this Florida team good, but it’s shown itself to at least be competent at times- such as against Alabama, Tennessee and FSU. It’s also shown itself to be embarrassingly bad at other times- such as against Kentucky (offensively), LSU (defensively), and South Carolina (in all phases of the game).
That’s what really makes this matchup wholly unpredictable. Florida’s offensive line has gone toe to toe with big, bad Bama for two and a half quarters; it’s also been bullied by Samford and Vanderbilt for full quarters at a time. Florida’s defense pitched a shutout against woeful Vanderbilt and held Kentucky to 13 points; that same defense allowed 6-6 South Carolina and LSU teams to score a combined 89 points before putting on the single most embarrassing defensive display in school history against Samford. Emory Jones looked like… not quite a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he looked like an above-average, top five SEC quarterback against Alabama and Tennessee; he looked downright atrocious in losses to 6-6 LSU, Missouri, and South Carolina teams before nearly giving the game away against FSU.
For those who want to go the motivation route and say that facing a particularly unfriendly opponent with a penchant for trolling is a recipe for the Gators bringing their A-game, recent precedents with this corps of players say otherwise. Florida was a double digit favorite against rival LSU in each of the last two seasons- the first time with CFP implications attached, the second time with revenge supposedly on their minds. Both times, LSU came in limping without over a third of its starting roster. Both times, the Gators lost.
Now, LSU may be more naturally talented than UCF even at half-strength, but there’s another disturbing parallel between the games brewing. Florida practiced in full pads just one time before the LSU game in 2020, and two times before the 2021 game. In comparison, Florida is expected to only use around half of its 15 allotted practices in preparation for the Gasparilla Bowl.
This Florida Gators team is Jekyll and Hyde, with some middle-ground results sprinkled in for a measure of unpredictability. No result would be a surprise, because this team has done it all before. If Florida plays its best, this is a three-score win for the Gators. But because Florida has only played its best for about eleven quarters of a twelve game season (one quarter against USF, three against Alabama, two against Tennessee, one against Vanderbilt, one against Samford, and one against FSU), it’s not reasonable to expect more than a quarter of Florida’s best football in tomorrow night’s four quarter game.
And one quarter of Florida’s best football might be enough to beat the Knights. UCF quarterback Mikey Keene is a freshman, and he’s had plenty of freshman moments against defenses less talented than Florida’s. Emory Jones- or whoever plays at QB for Florida- might make bad reads, but UCF’s offense has been far worse than Florida’s had, and now takes a step up in the level of talent it faces.
But that all adds onto the fact that this Gasparilla Bowl, while intriguing because it finally pits these two pseudo-rivals against each other, is far from the matchup that both sides are really yearning for. The winner will have bragging rights, but they’ll be of the, “Even in a terrible year for us, we STILL beat you!” variety.
Instead, the rallying cry is to just get this one win, on this one day, to end this one terrible season on a relative high note. The winner does get to claim an unofficial state championship thanks to Florida already beating FAU, USF and FSU, the latter of which beat Miami.
Here’s hoping that the Florida Gators do that, and salvage something tangible from an otherwise lost season.