UCF Knights over the Florida Gators? Five reasons why it'll happen in Gasparilla Bowl

Ken Willis
The Daytona Beach News-Journal
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In a normal year, any attention given to the Gasparilla Bowl would be limited to relatives of the players involved.

And we’re not talking cousins, but moms and dads and brothers and sisters. Maybe brothers and sisters, if we're being honest.

But long before the bowl schedule was finalized, this was no normal year. So it should probably surprise no one that the Gasparilla Bowl, which isn’t even the biggest bowl game in Tampa, not only sold out, but sold out early. 

Why? The tumblers fell in place perfectly for the Gasparilla’s organizers, who jumped at the opportunity to invite the Florida Gators and Central Florida Knights — a college football blueblood and an aspiring colt.

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Florida and UCF, separated by two hours on the map but by decades of football history, square off Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, beginning at 7 on ESPN. 

The Knights and their followers have been itching for a shot at the Gators ever since the UCF program stepped up its game and entered some national football conversations. A future three-game series was finally announced this past year, with the first meeting slated for 2024. 

A preview of that future meeting wasn’t expected, but it’s here. Can the Knights take advantage of it? Yes they can, and here are five reasons why they will.

1. Need vs. Want

The Florida Gators bring along a 6-6 record which can be labeled as embarrassing, given the preseason expectations. No way they want to compound the frustration by staining their history pages with a 6-7 mark for 2021. Of course they want to win. 

But the Knights feel as if they need to win this one.

UCF coach Gus Malzahn leads his Knights into the Gasparilla Bowl to face the Florida Gators.

First-year UCF coach Gus Malzahn is surely pounding into his team the importance of this game for the Knights’ near-term prospects. The Knights are ticketed for “promotion” to the Big 12 Conference in a few years, and higher-caliber opponents will become more common, but for now, this is big and would go a long way in the all-important recruiting wars.

Meanwhile, the Gators psyche is being nurtured by an interim head coach — Greg Knox — who's likely been updating his LinkedIn profile in hopes of a quality landing spot next season.

2. Lame-duck in the shotgun

Emory Jones has announced he's transferring from Florida, but only after he leads the Gators one more time.

Talk about awkward. Emory Jones is suiting up for the last time as the Florida quarterback. 

Because he’s a senior? Because he’s entering the 2022 NFL Draft? No. And no.

Anthony Richardson led the Gators to their season-ending win over Florida State, but then underwent knee surgery and won't be available Thursday night.

This is his Gator swan song because he plans to transfer to another school in the coming days or weeks. Weird, huh? A guy gives his two-week notice, but you still have to trust him with important duties because … well … check out Reason #3.

3. Nowhere to turn because Anthony Richardson is out

In the season finale against FSU, the Gators ushered Emory Jones to the bench and inserted promising talented Anthony Richardson, who carried the day and led a comeback victory to made this bowl matchup possible.

Guess what … Richardson had knee surgery after the regular season and won’t be available. The other Florida quarterbacks in uniform Thursday night have taken exactly the same number of snaps as you have this season. 

Isaiah Bowser returns to the backfield for UCF Thursday night.

4. Gators' defense: Weak, weaker, weakest

The Gator defense has been an issue for two seasons, to put it nicely. And now it’s gotten worse — on paper, anyway.

Florida has lost three defensive starters to the transfer portal and another who has opted out ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

Meanwhile, UCF's bruising running back Isaiah Bowser has recovered from leg injuries. He’ll be part of a three-man running committee the Knights hope will have its way with the Gators, assuming the UF defense hasn’t morphed into the ’85 Bears over the past few weeks. 

If it’s run-at-will time for UCF, that takes some pressure off quarterback Mikey Keene. The first-year freshman had some rookie moments this year, but showed enough to suggest he can follow McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel as an upper-rung QB in Orlando.

The Florida defense during a rare moment of celebration this season. Yes, against Vanderbilt.

5. You thought we’d forgotten?

The attention span isn’t what it used to be, but come on, you remember a certain Saturday just five weeks ago, right?

These are the same Florida Gators who gave up 42 first-half points and 52 points overall to the Bulldogs.

No, not those Bulldogs, but the ’Dogs from Samford (SAMFORD!), a below-average FCS team.

That one followed three losses and was followed by another loss at Missouri before a bowl-salvaging win over a rebuilding FSU — a win, as mentioned earlier, fueled by a quarterback who won’t be available Thursday night.

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