Florida Gators Cotton Bowl Preview: Overcoming Adversity

With the unprecedented 2020 season set to come to a close, Florida will have to continue the trend of overcoming adversity in their matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners.
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It's all about perseverance.

Coming off a disappointing ending to the regular season and SEC Championship Game, the Florida Gators look to cap off the 2020 season with a bang against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Wednesday night.

In this matchup of college football’s brightest offensive minds, Dan Mullen and Lincoln Riley bring anticipation for a shootout of epic proportions in the programs’ second meeting in history.

With each team averaging over 40 points and 475 yards per game, the offensive firepower brings loads of excitement for the Gators' third New Year’s Six Bowl in as many years.

As the game approaches and the 2020 version of Florida football rides off into the sunset, it’s important to look at what Oklahoma brings to the matchup that could inhibit the Gators from departing victorious.

Struggling to start the season, the Sooners relinquished two fourth-quarter leads in back to back games to fall to the likes of Kansas State and Iowa State in their first two Big 12 competition of the season.

Following these losses, quarterback Spencer Rattler received a vast majority of the scrutiny due to his three crucial interceptions against Kansas State and a game-ending interception in the end zone on the Sooners final drive against Iowa State.

As a result of his early-season performances, many began to question the development skills of the head coach and play-caller Lincoln Riley, given the fact that Oklahoma lined up with three transfers under center in Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts since his tenure at OU began.

While all three would go on to become Heisman finalists—with Mayfield and Murray winning the award—and are now holding starting jobs in the NFL, their previous stints at Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Alabama respectively cast a shadow on quarterback development Riley’s resumé.

The question of “Can Riley win with a quarterback that he must shape from start to finish rather than one who is already given the intangibles by another coach?” began to surface.

However, the complexity of Riley’s RPO (run-pass option) offense was not taken into account for analyzing the redshirt freshman. According to Mitchell Schwartz—an offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs—an RPO is intended to exploit the defense's alignment. The decision is solely based on what the quarterback sees either pre-snap or during the play.

As one of the most innovative offensive minds in the sport, Riley employs a scheme that demands a heightened quickness in his quarterbacks' decision-making process.

As a result, it’s not uncommon for inexperienced quarterbacks to falter in the early times of operating the offense, causing Rattler’s struggles to be attributed to that fact in starts two and three of his collegiate career.

Throwing a combined four interceptions in those games alone, his continuous improvement throughout the season has resulted in him adding just three picks to that total the rest of the way. Accompanying that number with 2,784 yards, a 68% completion percentage, and 25 touchdowns, Rattler’s increased efficiency behind center has expeditiously halted the questions surrounding Riley’s developmental abilities.

As a result, following the uncharacteristic 1-2 start for the Big 12’s finest, the Sooners found a way to overcome their early-season woes. Kickstarting the turnaround with a four-overtime victory over Texas, OU would cap off the regular season with a 7-2 record and a berth to the Big 12 Championship Game.

Exacting revenge against Iowa State 27-21 to earn their fourth consecutive Big 12 Championship (winning them all since its return following a seven-year hiatus in 2017), Oklahoma succeeded in restoring their standing as the Big 12’s top dog, continuing its stronghold as the conferences champion.

Entering the contest with UF on a hot streak, Rattler and the Sooners will be given multiple opportunities to exploit a lackluster Gators defense, making it necessary for Florida to send pressure and force the young quarterback to make mistakes the way he did early on. 

In other words, Florida will look to rattle Rattler.

On the opposite side of the football, Oklahoma sports an immensely improved defense from recent years—allowing just 21.9 points per game—but will be put to the test against one of the nation’s most dangerous passing games.

As a task that stood to be tall just a few days ago, a number of notable opt-outs for the Gators has changed the complexion of the game in recent days.

Set to miss 64.7% of total receptions, 65% of yardage, and 75.5% of scoring in the passing game due to the absence of their top four receivers in Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes, and Jacob Copeland, Florida's record-breaking quarterback Kyle Trask will play his final game in blue and orange with the familiarity he is accustomed to.

Accounting for 4,125 yards on 69.7% completion, 43 touchdowns, and just five interceptions through the air, Trask has performed at a high level all season for UF and made himself quite the argument for the Heisman Trophy as a result.

With the plethora of options that have assisted Trask in breaking the single-season record for touchdowns absent from the contest, the future of the Gators receiving corps—as well as the rushing game—will need to step up in a big way to keep Florida afloat.

Depending on the likes of Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson, Trent Whittemore, Kemore Gamble, and Keon Zipperer, amongst others, the Gators offense will look much different from what the nation has known from them throughout the year.

The days of a prolific air attack for UF is seemingly fading into the darkness, and balance in play calling is set to be restored. But the one who spearheaded months of offensive excellence this season will take the field one last time, with an opportunity to make some magic with fresh faces.

Despite being Trask’s final hoorah, a heavier workload than ever before for his predecessor Emory Jones may be in order as the inexperienced pass-catchers bring a need for more efficiency in the rushing department.

A back and forth scoring battle is likely to occur when UF and OU clash in Arlington (Tex.) at 8 PM Wednesday. As a result, the essential part of this contest rests on each defense’s shoulders. Needing to minimize the damage on the scoreboard and give the ball back to their offense to work their magic, both teams have a similar game plan heading into this one.

With each team experiencing their fair share of adversity to get to this point in the season, Florida enters with a chance to go out on top before loads of turnover—both in personnel and scheme—takes place moving into the 2021 season. Meanwhile, Oklahoma attempts to build significant momentum as they look to spring themselves back into playoff contention next year.