Notebook: Bizarro World awaits in Cotton Bowl

Dec 23, 2020 | 0 comments

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This has been a wacky year for just about everybody around the world in more ways than one, so the way No. 7 Florida is closing its season is fitting.

As the Gators and No. 6 Oklahoma prepare for their matchup in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 30, their roles have flipped from what we’ve come to expect from them. The Sooners (8-2), who have long been the poster boys of defensive futility, are the team with the top-25 defense, while the Gators (8-3) are the team with a Heisman-caliber quarterback and a nonexistent defense.

“That [SEC Championship] Game looked like what everybody would term a Big 12 game, and our [championship] game looked like what everybody would term an SEC game,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “Shows you that good offense, good defense, all that can be played anywhere.”

Oklahoma ranks 20th in the country in total defense, 30th in scoring defense, and third in rushing defense. They’re sixth in the country with 3.6 sacks per game.

They have excellent talent at all three levels. Defensive end Isaiah Thomas is tied for 10th in the country with eight sacks. Linebacker Nik Bonitto has recorded 10 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks. Defensive back Tre Norwood is tied for fifth in the country with four interceptions.

“They're very active defensively,” UF offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “I think on the front end, they do a great job of pursuing the football and shedding blocks, not staying blocked long and making plays in the backfield. And in the secondary, I think particularly at corner, they have great ball skills. They play with great patience. They’ve got great footwork, and they make plays on the ball when it's in the air. Definitely a huge challenge for us.”

Gators coach Dan Mullen was the offensive coordinator for the only other game between the two programs – the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. He thinks Oklahoma’s always had some talented defensive players, and the statistics don’t always tell the full story when you play an up-tempo style like they do and face as many explosive offenses as they do in the Big 12.

“I think they’re a team that’s a very explosive offense that’s won a lot of football games that puts up a lot of points,” Mullen said. “So, I think that can skew your defense statistically. Teams play you very differently when you’re playing with a big lead. You play differently when you’re playing with a big lead. So, from what I’ve seen from them, they have an excellent defense. I don’t know that that’s really changed since Lincoln [Riley] took over for Bob [Stoops] a couple of years ago.”

On the other side, UF ranks in the top-11 nationally in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and yards per play. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch envisions this game being perhaps the toughest test yet for his suddenly stingy defense.

“Could not say enough good things,” Grinch said. “You're talking about what very well could be a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, elite receivers across the board, a run game to complement it. Obviously, an elite coach in Coach Mullen and a track record to win high-level football games on national stages.

“It's a tremendous challenge, there's no question about it. [It could] be, like, the best offense we've faced this year.”

Mullen careful about overreacting to defensive issues

Florida is giving up 404.7 yards and 28.6 points per game this season, which rank outside of the top-60 nationally. They’re on pace to allow the most yards per game in program history since at least 1946 and the most points per game since 1946. Their 52-46 loss to Alabama marked the first time in school history that the Gators lost a game in which they scored at least 40 points, according to the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective.

When one side of the ball struggles that badly and is responsible for all three losses in a season, it’s understandable for fans to expect a change at defensive coordinator. Mullen, however, believes it is important to make personnel decisions based on self-evaluation and reflection and not on the frustration experienced after a loss.

“I think it’s very easy to just jump to a conclusion. ‘Oh, we gave up this many points or this many yards, so this must be the problem,’” Mullen said. “I kind of look at things very, very differently. I’m here on a daily basis dealing with every aspect.

“‘Because we gave up this many points or this many yards, well, our defense must be terrible.’ Or, we’re playing with a lead and changing our style of how we were going to play. ‘Boy, you know what, that Alabama game, we just gave up all those points,’ or we had some opportunities to make some stops, but we had a couple of mental errors along the way that hurt against one of the premier offenses in college football. It’s very easy to point and say, ‘Defense bad; we have to change everything.’ Or, you look at what the issues are. It’s like, ‘Hey, if my wrist hurts, I don’t just cut off my arm. Let’s go figure out what the problem is.’ If I have to cut my arm, I cut my arm, but that’s not where I’m starting. We’ve got to evaluate every aspect of it after the season, see where we’re at and go from there.”

Todd Grantham defended himself by stating that the goal is to win football games. Toward that end, his defense has been good enough to earn three consecutive New Year’s Six bowl bids and an SEC East title.

“Right now, what’s the difference between us in the SEC Championship Game?” he said. “It’s six points. If you look, Alabama is a very talented defense, and at the end of the day, we gave up six more points in the game. We’ve got to find a way to eliminate that and to get the win. Really it gets down to wins and losses and how you’re going to go about winning the game.

“Guys are working hard every day and believing in the system. I think a big reason to say that is, if you look at the second half and the way the guys played and really fought their hearts out and really continued to grind, there's obviously belief in what we're doing because we were able to get it back within a six-point game and have the chance to take the lead.”

Cornerback Kaiir Elam said Grantham is getting unfairly blamed for the mistakes of the players. He’s making some good calls, but they’re not executing at the level needed.

“I have nothing but love and respect for Coach Grantham,” Elam said. “Part of the reason I feel like fans are probably mad at him [is] because it's on the defense and us not executing. Which, he's not on the field playing, so how can you get mad at him? I feel like it's on us to execute his play-calling and just on us to step up.”

Trask snubbed by league’s coaches

Despite having thrown for nearly 400 more yards and 11 more touchdowns than Alabama’s Mac Jones, Kyle Trask was named Second Team All-SEC by the conference’s coaches on Tuesday.

Obviously, since the league’s coaches don’t view him as the best quarterback in the SEC, it seems unlikely for Trask to win the Heisman Trophy despite his record-breaking season. Mullen thinks that’s a shame.

“He leads the nation by far in touchdown passes; he leads the nation by far in passing yards,” he said. “Hard to say anybody’s meant more to their team than Kyle Trask has to our team this year. So, I don’t know what criteria people are looking for. If the Heisman Trophy is looking for somebody that is the best player, that means the most to their team, most outstanding player in college football, I guess the guy that I think has a double-digit lead in touchdown passes [would be a good choice].”

Johnson took it a step further. He has a message for those who don’t believe Trask is the best quarterback in the country.

“I would tell them that I have some oceanfront property in Idaho to sell,” Johnson said. “What Kyle has done this season is absolutely remarkable. The amount of information that we put on him and his ability to play at a really consistent level throughout the course of a season has been exceptional. I can’t say enough about just how proud I am of him as a player but even more so as a person. He’s just a great example for not only the quarterback room in general but just our program and how he has worked for his opportunity and made the most of it when he got it.”

Receiver Justin Shorter was baffled when he saw that Trask didn’t make the First Team.

“I think that he's the best quarterback in the nation,” Shorter said. “That's just me, hands down. Ever since I've thrown with him, since the first day that I met him over the summer and we've been throwing, I remember telling him, ‘Hey, I think, honestly, you're the best quarterback in college football.’ But obviously, just seeing that, I was kind of confused.”

More opt-outs coming

Superstar tight end and soon-to-be first-round NFL Draft pick Kyle Pitts surprised absolutely no one on Sunday when he announced that he would not play in the bowl game and enter the draft.

Mullen said one or two other players have informed him of plans to do the same, but he wouldn’t disclose names out of respect for them. He’ll let the players announce their plans on their own terms.

“Everyone has communicated with me, but publicly, I want to leave it up to them,” Mullen said. “I could have told you that Kyle Pitts wasn't going to play a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted him to do it.”

One player who will definitely be playing against Oklahoma is Trask. Well, we think. His answer to the question didn’t make much sense and left the door slightly open.

“I’ll make that [NFL] decision after the season’s over, but yeah, I’m most likely 100 percent playing in the bowl game,” Trask said.

Sooners potent on offense

While Oklahoma has improved on defense, they’re still primarily known for their offensive acumen, and for good reason. They rank in the top-20 in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense, and yards per play.

While the Sooners only average a tenth of a yard more per carry than the Gators, they have a trio of talented running backs. Rhamondre Stevenson is a bruising runner who’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has scored six touchdowns. T.J. Pledger is a smaller, shiftier option who’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry, while Seth McGowan is averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

“When you talk about [Stevenson], dynamic guy, can accelerate, can make guys miss, can create double-digit runs and find a seam that’s maybe not always as big as it needs to be and make things happen,” Grantham said.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler, a former five-star recruit, is dangerous with both his right arm and his legs. He’s completed 68 percent of his throws for 2,784 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s also rushed for five scores.

“He’s a guy that you can tell is getting more comfortable in the system, understanding more about where to throw the ball, where to go with it relative to the formations and what the defense is giving you,” Grantham said. “And then he has the ability to make plays with his feet. He can pull it in the run game. He can extend plays in the pass game to get guys open. I think the one thing that we'll have to be conscious of is the word ‘plaster’ this week, meaning that even though you're playing zone, as he continues to scramble, you're going to have to basically match the guy in your area and cover him man-to-man because he really can extend plays for guys to get open, which creates explosives.”

Quick Hitters

  • Dan Mullen says Kadarius Toney has playmaking ability, which draws a comparison between him and Percy Harvin. However, he doesn't like to compare players. Toney is his own player, and he's one of the best every-down receivers in the country. He can also run the ball and return kicks. He might have the strongest arm on the team, and he's become a very technical route-runner with great hands. He thinks Toney will have an unbelievable pro career.
  • Mullen said that he’s expecting one or two more opt-outs, but he'll let those guys announce their decisions.
  • Mullen said that they'll have less practice time for this game than a normal game week. So, the development of the young guys might have to wait until the spring. This will be a great opportunity for Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer and some other guys in the game.
  • Read everything that was said by the Florida coaches and players in the We Chomp Chat.



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