Despite losing their last two games, the No. 7 Gators were still awarded a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the third consecutive season. They’ll take on No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2, 6-2 Big 12) in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Dec. 30 at 8 p.m.
This will be Florida’s first appearance in the Cotton Bowl and its second meeting with the Sooners. Of course, the lone previous meeting came in the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, in which the Gators won 24-14. UF is 24-21 in bowl games, including three straight wins.
Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction as UF (8-3) begins preparations for the Cotton Bowl.
1) This was the best passing offense in school history. Kyle Trask became the first Gator quarterback to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in a season against Alabama, and he extended his school record for touchdown passes in a season to 43. While the 2001 Gators threw for more yards per game, and the 1995 Gators threw more touchdown passes, neither of those teams had to go through the grind of an 11-game conference schedule that included eight consecutive games without a bye week. Trask also broke his records this year without any semblance of a running game. Everybody knew exactly what the Gators were about to do, and they still couldn’t stop it. Trask threw for more than 400 yards against Georgia and Alabama, two of the top defenses in the country. He didn’t just throw to one or two primary receivers, either. Some weeks, Kyle Pitts was the top weapon. Other weeks, it was Kadarius Toney or Trevon Grimes. The running backs had a big game against Georgia. This was the most effective and deepest passing offense in UF history, and it may not be matched for a while.
2) The Gators have a ways to go in the trenches. They don’t have a lot of size and depth on the defensive line, and the offensive line gets dominated by the better defensive fronts on the schedule. Florida only averaged 2.1 yards per rush against Alabama and gave up five sacks. On the other side, Alabama averaged 4.7 yards per carry and gave up just two sacks. As a result, the Crimson Tide were able to dominate time-of-possession and put pressure on Florida’s offense to be perfect. Dan Mullen identified the trenches as an area for improvement after the loss. Unfortunately, this will probably be a multi-year rebuild. They’ve arguably recruited offensive line worse than every other position, and they’re not getting many instant-impact types upfront on defense. With the passing game almost certain to take a step back next season, it will be of the utmost importance for the Gators to improve upfront.
3) Receiver Kadarius Toney may have worked himself into the first round of the NFL Draft. He is 16 yards away from the 12th 1,000-yard receiving season in school history and the first since Taylor Jacobs in 2002. Over the last three games, he caught 25 passes for 443 yards and three touchdowns. He has everything NFL teams look for: elite speed, agility, precise route-running, good hands, a willingness to block, and versatility. He’s shown that he can stay healthy for a full season after he battled injuries in two of his first three seasons. He could challenge Trask to be the second Gator taken in the draft.
1) Will Mullen make any changes to the defensive staff? He’s proven to be extremely loyal and patient with his assistant coaches, sometimes to a fault, but there has to come a point where he’s seen enough, right? This is Todd Grantham’s third season in charge of the defense, and they just turned in perhaps the worst defensive season in program history. There doesn’t seem to be a quick turnaround on the horizon, either. The defensive line is undersized and undisciplined, they have very few true linebackers on the roster and the safeties frequently look lost and confused. Defensive tackle Kyree Campbell is on his way out, and linebacker Ventrell Miller and defensive end Zachary Carter could join him. Few of this staff’s recruits have earned significant snaps yet. Will Mullen overhaul the coaching staff?
2) Will any more Gators follow Kyle Pitts and opt-out of the Cotton Bowl? After the SEC Championship Game, Mullen remarked that this team had likely played its last game together. His comment was proven true on Sunday morning when Pitts declared for the draft and announced that he would not play in the bowl game. The only other Gators that would be logical opt-out candidates are Toney, Trask and Grimes. However, Trask seems like the type of guy who would play in the bowl game even if he was projected to go first overall, so it would be a surprise not to see him in Arlington, Texas, next week. While redshirt junior Marco Wilson likely will be drafted in the late rounds – if he’s drafted at all – he participated in Senior Night festivities and seems like somebody who’s ready to get away from college football.
1) The two teams will combine to score at least 90 points scored in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and Mullen are two of the best offensive minds in the game, and both teams are defensively challenged, to say the least. This will be another one of those games where the team that’s able to manage the clock the best at the end of each half and wins the turnover battle will come out victorious. It should be an exciting way to send out 2020.