2019 Orange Bowl preview: can Gators hold serve in their home state?

Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia will fight. But they don’t exactly have a surplus of weapons with which to fight.

Florida’s pairing with Virginia in the 2019 Orange Bowl elicited a lot of groans, eye rolls, and frustration among Gator fans. The reasoning was simple: fans feel that a 10-2 team that finished the season ranked in the top ten in every respected poll- even the CFP Rankings, which didn’t seem to care much for them this year- deserved a better opponent than a 9-4 Virginia team.

The truth is, they probably did.

On paper, this should be a mismatch. Virginia’s offense finished the regular season ranked 82nd in the FBS (390 YPG on the nose), and presumably the only reason it finished that high was because just two of their twelve regular season opponents finished with eight wins or more. The Cavaliers’ defense looked suspiciously stellar for the first eleven games of 2019, and then the competition abruptly stiffened with Virginia Tech and Clemson in back to back week (update 12/29: …and now their sack leader, Jordan Mack, is out for tonight’s game.) To its credit, Virginia fought off the first of those two teams, but still allowed the Hokies and Tigers to put up a combined 1,102 yards on them. Florida, meanwhile, ranks higher on both sides of the ball against a far stronger schedule.

The common opponents eye test favors Florida, too. Virginia needed a goal line stand to escape an FSU team that the Gators had finished off by halftime. And those two results were not anomalies. Though Florida certainly didn’t look like a championship contender against Miami, at least they won the game; Virginia, for its part, exhibited a chronic allergy to the scoreboard against the Hurricanes, totaling all of nine points on five drives that got to the Canes’ 26 yard line or farther, and lost 17-9 despite outgaining Miami 326-265.

Then there’s the fact that Florida has a better record than Virginia despite playing in a much tougher overall conference, including three teams in the top 12 of the final CFP Rankings (and beat one of them), has typically recruited an entirely different level of athlete (Virginia’s average finish in the recruiting rankings over the last four years was 54.75, while Florida’s worst finish in that four year stretch was 14th), and thus is bigger, faster, stronger and simply more talented than Virginia across the board. The more tape I watch on Virginia, the more convinced I am that they should be a five win team, and the only reasons they aren’t are grit and excellent coaching from Bronco Mendenhall and his staff. The Cavaliers gave Clemson some fits early on, driving down into the Tigers’ red zone on their first two drives and sacking Trevor Lawrence twice in the first half before the talent disparity took over. The Tigers’ 62-17 win in Charlotte wasn’t a mistake; the Cavs will fight, and they may scare you for a quarter or two, but not only are they not of the caliber team you usually see in a New Year’s Six Bowl, they’re not close to it.

For all those reasons and more, it’s no surprise that the Gators are currently a two touchdown favorite over the Cavs. Essentially, every objective metric points to a double digit Florida win. Which means that there’s really only one way that the Gators lose this game: if they believe all of this and then play like they have no obligation to prove it. For which, may I remind you, there is a precedent for this program this decade in high profile bowl games. (If you need another hint, it came at the hands of a long time Gator assistant.) Of course, none of the players or even the coaches from that game are still here, but those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.

It all starts and ends with quarterback Bryce Perkins. Stop him, and you’ve stopped Virginia’s offense. Wayne Taulapapa helps carry the load on the ground (459 yards on 111 carries), and the Cavs do have a trio of respectable pass catchers in Hasise Dubois, Terrell Jana and Joe Reed (202 catches for 2,366 yards between them), but those receivers are only worth anything if Perkins is able to throw the ball. He’s fairly elusive, as evidenced by his 745 rushing yards this season (which is nearly twice that of Taulapapa, the Cavs’ second leading rusher), but he’s no Kadarius Toney and while his passing accuracy is respectable for a Division I quarterback, he’s also no Joe Burrow. What really doesn’t bode well for Virginia is that he did this all with a weak offensive line (even by ACC Coastal standards), and Florida has the type of defensive front that exposes any weakness an opposing offensive line may have.

Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the Cavs’ overall solid defensive numbers. Virginia has surrendered 27 points or more in each of their last six games- two of which came against a 3-9 Georgia Tech squad in its first year of a brand new offense and de facto mid major Liberty- which could set the stage for a big game for Kyle Trask. Virginia’s only prayer at winning this game is to generate some real pass rush against Trask, which isn’t altogether impossible given Florida’s various offensive line woes this season and given that the Cavs racked up 45 sacks on the season, but Dan Mullen has a way of getting the ball out of his quarterback’s hand quickly and skirting around his weakness on the offensive line. Also worth noting: what Florida fans consider a bad offensive line and what some of Virginia’s opponents in the ACC Coastal consider a bad offensive line are two very, very different things.

In other words, that just means the Gators simply have to do their jobs in order to win. That means not turning the ball over, that means executing their defensive assignments, pass routes, gap control, wrapping up and making the sure tackle rather than going for the highlight hit, and so on. And so far this year, the Gators have done that. Other than the near thermonuclear cataclysm against Miami, Dan Mullen’s Gators have not just won every game they’ve played as a favorite, they’ve covered the spread. (You have to go all the way back to the Missouri game last year for the last time Florida lost a game as the favorite.)

As for whether or not these players will care? I think they will, if only because Dan Mullen has installed a sense of pride in the logo that wasn’t there under previous regimes. Florida isn’t losing anyone for this bowl game other than CJ Henderson, and the guys who are playing their final games- like Jonathan Greenard, LaMical Perine, Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Jabari Zuniga and so on- will likely all be doing so with the sole intention of enjoying being Gators for one more night. It’s possible that they think ahead to what’s next for them, because anything is possible, but I just don’t see it with this crew of seniors.

So if the Gators, show up, care and execute, this is a blowout. Virginia is a fighter by nature, and Perkins will make plays here or there against Todd Grantham’s notorious third down defense, so the Cavs will score. But Florida will simply outgun them. Barring naptime in South Florida, a handful of uncharacteristic mistakes or Bryce Perkins magically morphing into Lamar Jackson, the Gators should win this one going away, and win their second New Year’s Six Bowl in as many years.

Projection: Florida 41, Virginia 21

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