On the surface, the No. 9 Gators don’t seem to have much to play for against No. 24 Virginia in Monday night’s Orange Bowl. With a win, they could finish in the top-6 depending on the results of other bowl games. With a loss, they’ll likely finish in the 12-15 range. Ultimately, it won’t make that much of a difference; 10 years from now, people are only going to remember the teams that made the playoff.
However, this game does have plenty of significance for UF (10-2, 6-2 SEC). A win would represent the program’s first back-to-back marquee bowl wins since 2008-09 and secure their first consecutive top-10 finishes since the same years. More significantly, they have an opportunity to defend their state, win 11 games for the first time since 2012 and continue the momentum that Dan Mullen has built into his third season.
The Cavaliers (9-4, 6-2 ACC) are enjoying one of their best seasons in school history and have nothing to lose, which makes them dangerous. For the final time this season, here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness and three players to watch for from Virginia.
Three Positions of Strength
UVA’s offense runs through Bryce Perkins, who is considered one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. The senior has completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,207 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also leads them in rushing with 745 yards and 11 touchdowns on 213 carries. He was named Second Team All-ACC after a season that saw him set school records for passing yards and total offense in a season. In 2018, he and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray were the only players with more than 2,600 passing yards and more than 900 rushing yards. His ability to escape pressure with scrambles and the designed runs they call for him will challenge Florida’s defense.
The Cavaliers’ passing game is led by a trio of highly productive receivers. Hasise Dubois is the big-play threat. He’s caught 65 passes for 979 yards (15.1 yards-per-reception) and four scores. Terrell Jana and Joe Reed are more of the possession-type of receivers. Jana has made 66 receptions for 752 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Reed leads them with 70 catches and six touchdowns. There’s not a lot of depth behind those three, but they have enough top-end talent to challenge a Gators secondary that will be without starting cornerback CJ Henderson, who has chosen to forgo the game as he prepares for the NFL Draft.
UVA ranks sixth nationally (one spot behind Florida) in sacks with 45 and tied for 15th in tackles-for-loss with 94. They’re allowing only 130 rushing yards per game, which is 30th. Most of the time, these statistics are credited to a dominant defensive line. Instead, the Cavaliers’ linebackers are responsible for a lot of their big plays in their 3-4 scheme. Inside linebacker Jordan Mack leads the way with 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss. Weakside linebacker Noah Taylor is tied for the team lead with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and has added seven sacks. Inside linebacker Zane Zandier is also responsible for 11.5 tackles-for-loss and has contributed five sacks. UF’s offensive line has struggled with creative pressures, so this should be a big matchup to watch.
Three Positions of Weakness
Despite having an extremely mobile quarterback, this unit has failed to generate much of a running game. They rank just 111th in the country at 126.5 yards-per-game. For comparison, that’s only six more yards than UF is averaging despite the Gators playing a tougher schedule and starting a statue at quarterback. They’ve also given up 38 sacks, which is fourth-most in the ACC. They’re young along the line, as seven of the 10 players on their two-deep are redshirt sophomores or younger. This has all the makings of another dominant game for the Gators’ defensive line.
The Cavaliers rank 70th in passing defense at 228.2 yards-per-game, and they are 11th in their conference with 11 interceptions. Much of this futility falls on their corners, as they’ve combined for just one interception and 11 breakups. They’ve given up more than 270 yards in seven of their 13 games, including 383 yards to North Carolina on Nov. 2. Kyle Trask could put up another 300-yard game.
They don’t use this position a lot in the passing game. Tanner Cowley has caught 25 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown. Those are decent numbers but nothing that the Gators have to worry about too much. The only other tight end with a reception is Grant Misch
Three Players to Watch
Quarterback Bryce Perkins
Mullen said Perkins has improved a lot as a passer this season, which has made the Cavaliers’ offense more lethal. It’s almost impossible to stop designed quarterback runs, scrambles, zone reads and drop-back passes all at once. Finding a way to make him a pocket-passer will be a key to success for the Gators’ defense. Perkins’ biggest flaw is his decision-making, as he’s thrown 11 interceptions, including four multiple-interception performances. If UF can keep him in the pocket and make him rush his throws, they’ll have a chance to make some interceptions.
Wide Receiver Hasise Dubois
He tends to rise to the occasion against top-tier competition. He caught nine passes for 143 yards at Notre Dame, four passes for 139 yards against Virginia Tech and 10 for 130 yards against Clemson. Even if C.J. Henderson was playing, he would still be capable of putting up similar numbers against UF. Without Henderson, that seems even more likely. Kaiir Elam is probably the best matchup against him, so it’ll be interesting to see what wins out: experience or incredibly talented youth.
Linebacker Zane Zandier
In addition to tying for the team lead in tackles-for-loss and being second in sacks, the junior leads them with 95 tackles, is second with five pass breakups and has intercepted a pass. He’s everything you could want in a 3-4 inside linebacker, as he excels in run support, coverage and pass rush. Opponents can rarely be sure what he’s going to do on a given play, which could give Kyle Trask trouble with his pre-snap reads.