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Final Score Prediction: UCF and Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl

Predicting the final score between the UCF Knights and the Florida Gators.
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Tonight’s 7 p.m. kickoff versus Florida will be one with high anticipation as UCF has it’s program taking a new direction under Head Coach Gus Malzahn, while Florida just fired now former Head Coach Dan Mullen and hired Bill Napier to replace him (not coaching tonight).

It’s unusual to see two teams in the midst of changing head coaches within a calendar year playing each other in a bowl game, let alone two teams from the same state.

Those changes do not change the disdain the two fan bases have for one another, or the fact that many of the players on these rosters know each other as most of them are from the state of Florida. That’s where this final score prediction begins, the mental side of the game.

Emotions Will Run High

Who stays calm? Close games often come down to penalties; dumb penalties. How often does a costly 15-yard personal foul or unsportsmanlike penalty change the outcome of a game?

Side prediction: the team with the fewest mental errors that lead to the officials being more involved with throwing those pesky yellow flags will be far more likely to come out victorious tonight. One added extension of emotions to consider before moving on.

There’s going to be a big play during the early portion of the football game. A sack-strip-fumble-scoop-and-score, or a flea flicker for a 70-yard touchdown, a play that directly impacts the scoreboard no matter how it happens. Which team handles that play well?

Sometimes even the team that scores loses its cool and/or becomes too confident. The team that stays the course and stays level headed holds an advantage the rest of the game.

UCF Passing Offense

This category is the most important. Why? Does UCF wide receiver Jaylon Robinson play? When asked on Monday about Robinson’s health, Coach Malzahn was far from forthcoming about what would happen. Just the opposite, he was quite hesitant.

Robinson is a gamebreaker that changes the offense because he can run by defensive backs with sheer speed, and also zig and zag through a secondary and take it to the house with overall football acumen and athleticism.

If he’s not a full go for the game tonight, it’s going to be very hard for UCF to win. The Gators could then use star cornerback Kaiir Elam to follow UCF wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe all game long instead of having to choose between Robinson and O’Keefe and potentially mixing up coverages instead.

Additionally, that would present the option for the Gators defensive coaching staff to add another defender to the box to slow down UCF’s rushing attack. Indeed, Robinson’s status changes every snap the Knights have the football.

With that in mind, UCF has been through a lot of attrition all season and the Knights have still found a way to go 8-4.

Because freshman quarterback Mikey Keene has made nine starts, he’s much more efficient and understanding of the process to prepare for a game. Look for him to come out crisp and ready to fire.

He’s going to hit the short to intermediate passes like usual, mixing in screens and swing passes. At some point in the first quarter, however, look for Keene to test the Gators down the field.

If Elam and the Gators are able to keep everything in front of them, it’s going to be difficult for the Knights to consistently sustain drives. Pay close attention to passes that travel beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage this evening. Those are paramount to UCF’s success or failure in the passing game.

When UCF passes, the primary front seven defender to watch for Florida would be outside linebacker Brenton Cox, Jr. He has 7.5 sacks on the season and can really come off the edge of the line. If UCF struggles to contain him, he can dismantle a passing game in a hurry.

UCF Rushing Offense

This could be the best matchup of the evening, and perhaps the most intriguing. The Gators are without talented defensive end Zachary Carter, who’s preparing for the NFL Draft, and middle linebacker and leading tackler Mohamoud Diabate, who entered the Transfer Portal. Those are two excellent football players to be without.

On the other side of the football, the Knights return running back Isaiah Bowser. When the 6’1”, 225-pound bruiser is in the lineup, he changes the game because of how well he runs between the tackles. He’s excellent at staying on his feet and moving the chains and wearing on a defense all game long.

When Bowser played, he also helped keep Keene in manageable passing situations. He’s not alone in the UCF backfield either, as the following article details his talents combined with Johnny Richardson and Mark Antony-Richards:

UCF’s Three-Headed Monster a Big Factor in Gasparilla Bowl

Richardson is the jack rabbit that’s hard to chase down. Sheer speed with a “right now” top gear ability. The Knights will look to find ways to place him in one-on-one scenarios.

Antony-Richards is a powerful runner that’s been clutch for UCF running and catching the football, and he’s another big body at 6’1”, 215-pounds.

All three of these running backs play behind a veteran offensive line that’s helped the Knights average 188.7 yards on the ground per contest. They will be challenged by Florida’s big front, led by Antonio Valentino and Gervon Dexter at the nose guard position, both weighing in at over 300-pounds.

This category looks to be an advantage for the Knights, but do not discount Florida’s front seven talent despite losing Carter and Diabate. It’s an SEC team that recruits at a high level.

Wildcard: how much does Keene take off and run?

Florida Passing Offense

He giveth, and he taketh away. Florida quarterback Emory Jones threw 13 interceptions. He also tossed the pigskin for 2,563 yards and 19 touchdowns. Most notably, however, Jones struggled in big games to make the best decision. That’s what led to those turnovers.

During four separate games this season, Jones threw two or more interceptions. That statistic gives the Knights a chance to make game-changing plays on defense even if Jones throws for 250-plus yards. To do that, the Knights need to take away at least one key receiving option.

Well, at least slowing down at least one of Jacob Copeland and/or Justin Shorter, the two top wide receivers for the Gators, needs to happen for UCF to win.

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However the UCF defensive coaching staff decides to attack these two will be vital. If both of them are consistently getting open and Jones subsequently does not turn the football over, Florida is going to win the Gasparilla Bowl.

To help create some of those turnover opportunities, UCF defensive ends need to play at a high level. Watch for defensive end Big Kat Bryant, a former SEC player himself while at Auburn, to play at a high level. This is his best chance to impress scouts prior to next spring’s NFL Combine.

While the Gators should be able to pass the football consistently, the overall question will be turnovers. Will the UCF secondary capitalize on the chances to grab an interception when it comes their way? Same for the UCF linebackers. There cannot be any dropped interceptions or Florida’s offense will take advantage.

Florida Rushing Offense

This area should benefit Florida the most. Not only is Jones running around and making plays with his legs (designed runs or improvised), there are three quality running backs in the Gators’ backfield.

The primary runner will be Dameon Pierce. He’s one of the nation’s most efficient running backs. Pierce averages 5.9 yards per carry. Much like Bowser, the Bainbridge, Ga. product is one that grinds out yards between the tackles and makes plays in space, too.

He’s also aided by Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright, another bruiser and a speed player. Davis will power through his fair share of tacklers, while Wright provides the speed to hit the corner and hit the gas to run away from defenders.

Look for Florida to be able to run the ball effectively and push upwards of 150 or 160 yards rushing behind its massive offensive line.

One other factor for Florida’s rushing offense would be Running Back Coach Greg Knox taking over interim Head Coaching duties for this game. He’s going to want to run the football.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

This will be a four-quarter battle. Both teams will come out swinging and look for some trick plays mixed in throughout the contest. There will also be momentum-swinging penalties and turnovers.

In the end, it still may come down to the status of Robinson playing or not playing for the Knights. If he plays, UCF wins. If not, Florida should come out on top. With how Coach Malzahn acted during Monday’s press conference, it is hard to imagine Robinson being at full strength. That’s why the final prediction is as follows.

Florida 31 UCF 24

For UCF coverage and recruiting information go to: The Daily Knight podcast. For more college football, UCF and recruiting information, go to Twitter: @fbscout_florida and @UCF_FanNation, as well as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Like and Subscribe!

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