Photo courtesy of Florida athletics
The winner of the Gasparilla Bowl might as well be declared state champions.
Thursday’s contest in Tampa will feature Florida and UCF. After ascending into the top 10 early in the season, the Gators limp into bowl season with a record of 6-6. UCF, on the other hand, has won five of its last six games to finish 8-4.
Both teams will be without significant pieces for the Gasparilla Bowl. For Florida however, quarterback Emory Jones will play his final game before hitting the transfer portal. Fans could also see Anthony Richardson behind center. Those two were a big reason why Florida was one of the nation’s better rushing teams.
The UCF offense hasn’t had the firepower it typically does since quarterback Dillon Gabriel went down. The Knights will likely rely heavily on the ground game. Johnny Richardson has emerged in recent weeks and is a versatile running back. Ryan O’Keefe is a solid possession wide receiver while Brandon Johnson is a touchdown machine.
The play of the defense has been the biggest reason for UCF’s second-half turnaround. In their last last five wins, the Knights did not allow more than 17 points in any game. Linebacker Tatum Bethune is the name to know for UCF on defense.
Florida will also be without key pieces on defense, including leading sack man Zachary Carter, who has opted out and leading tackler Mohamoud Diabate, who is transferring. The good news is that cornerback Kaiir Elam and linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. will be available.
During Thursday’s contest, UCF will be looking for its first-ever win over an in-state Power 5 team. Florida is 2-0 all-time against the Knights with the last meeting being a 42-0 shutout in 2006. With Florida shifting to a new coach and with a roster that is less than full, focus could be a real issue in the Gasparilla Bowl. The contest begins at 7 p.m. ET and airs on ESPN.
Prediction: UCF 21, Florida 20
Other Games Across the State
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12) at New York Jets (3-11)
Sunday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
In what seemed like a winnable game on paper last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars were embarrassed by the Houston Texans. They’ll try to bounce back this week against the New York Jets in a contest that could have draft implications. The contest will feature the top two picks from the 2021 NFL Draft at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
Prediction: N.Y. Jets 27, Jacksonville 21
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Sunday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
After getting shut out at home by the New Orleans Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hit the road to take on the Carolina Panthers. Since a 3-0 start, Carolina has lost nine of 11 games. Despite being banged up on offense, the Buccaneers remain a double-digit favorite.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 24, Carolina 17
Miami Dolphins (7-7) at New Orleans Saints (7-7)
Monday, Dec. 27 at 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Monday Night Football matchup will feature two teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Miami Dolphins have won six straight games following a 1-7 start. New Orleans has bounced back with consecutive victories after dropping five of seven. Miami hasn’t won seven games in a row since the end of the 1985 regular season.
Prediction: Miami 20, New Orleans 18