Cotton Bowl: Florida enters struggling, Oklahoma on a hot streak
Florida and Oklahoma may both be ranked in the top 10, but these teams are in two different places heading into the Cotton Bowl.
The No. 6 Sooners (8-2) are fresh off their fourth consecutive Big 12 title under coach Lincoln Riley, who has produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018).
The seventh-ranked Gators (8-3) just lost their shot at a conference championship, and now they’ve lost their top four receiving targets for Wednesday’s game. Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes opted out for the draft, while Jacob Copeland is COVID-19 positive.
But the second Heisman finalist for UF coach Dan Mullen, quarterback Kyle Trask, is still running the show on offense and made the trip to his home state of Texas.
“The quarterback’s played at a very high level,” Riley said of Trask, who leads the nation in passing yards (4,125) and touchdowns (43). “They've obviously thrown the ball as well as anybody in the country this year.”
But with his top targets deciding to sit against the Sooners, Trask could have bowed out as well with his NFL stock in mind.
Not his style.
“That’s why he's the team captain for us,” Mullen said of Trask. “It just shows the character that he has. You never want to count him out on anything.”
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch isn’t counting out Trask or the Gators. Despite two straight losses and missing the majority of this year’s receiving production, the Gators proved their offensive prowess in a 52-46 shootout with top-ranked Alabama, according to Grinch.
“The first film you throw on is them against Alabama,” he said. “And you're saying, ‘Now, wait a second.’ To put up those numbers, to have that type of production, to see it on that stage, you're saying, ‘This is one of the best in our country.”
Sooners tight end Jeremiah Hall added, “When you're talking about the No. 1 team in the nation and Florida being able to compete with them as close of a game as that was, that just shows you that they're no team to play around with.”
Trask has already shown he can produce without Pitts, tying his single-game career highs for passing yards (474, LSU) and touchdowns (6, Arkansas) in two contests where he did not play. However, Florida’s receiving corps will be a shell of itself with no Toney, Grimes or Copeland as well.
Perhaps no one knows the ability of their backup wideouts better than UF cornerback Kaiir Elam, who has seen them in practice all year.
“I think they're all pretty talented,” said Elam, a first team All-SEC selection. “Ja'Markis Weston, Trent Whittemore. Those are the guys who came in with my class that I really like. I think they're going to be special.
“We have a lot more young receivers that are really good as well. Hopefully they can step up and make the plays and surpass what the senior receivers and the receivers leaving right now have done.”
Mullen added, “There are guys that have kind of been in maybe that supporting actor role now that are going into the lead role in the show. And so I think those guys are excited for that opportunity to get out there and go make plays.”
The lineup changes likely won’t stop Florida from airing it out against the Sooners, who excel at stopping the run. They have the No. 3 rushing defense in the country and also rank sixth in sacks per game (3.6).
“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 back field.
“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.”
So is Oklahoma’s offense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense and passing efficiency. Starting quarterback Spencer Rattler, the No. 1 QB recruit in 2019, leads the Big 12 in passing with 2,784 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“He’s a nice quarterback,” Gators linebacker James Houston said of Rattler. “He has a good arm, great offense. He has a couple of weapons to use within the offense. He can use his legs and run as well.
“I think it should be a great challenge for individuals on the defense to see where their talent lines up and how they can compete against some of the best competition in the nation.”
Redshirt junior cornerback Marco Wilson is also skipping the Cotton Bowl to begin NFL draft prep, while starting safety Shawn Davis will miss his fourth consecutive game due to injury. Florida is looking to bounce back defensively after giving up more than 600 yards of total offense against Alabama for the second time this season.
“We're coming off a two-game losing streak,” Elam said. “I don't like to lose. I know my coaches and everybody on the staff does not like to lose. So I think this is a big game for us. We have the ability to go out and win, but we just need to execute and continue to get better.
“We couldn't get it done against LSU on Senior Night, and we didn't get it done against Alabama. So, this is going to be a big game for us really to win and especially send the seniors off on a good note. Hopefully, we have a better showing.”
Riley knows the Gators have talent on a defense that leads the SEC in sacks.
“Got a lot of respect for Todd Grantham and the job he's done throughout the years," Riley said. "Got a lot of outstanding players to work with, a lot of guys that really flash on tape, and have the ability and have made a lot of big plays throughout the season.
“You've got to play very well, very sharp football to have the chance to move the ball and score points against them. What you would expect out of a Florida defense, active, well-coached. It’ll be a fun match-up.”
What: Cotton Bowl
Who: Florida (8-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-2)
When: 8 p.m.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850