The Florida Gators (6-6, 2-6) take the field for the first time in a month and the final time in 2021 Thursday as they battle the Central Florida Knights (8-4, 5-3) in the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa.
Florida enters the intrastate matchup without two of its top offensive weapons, as both quarterback Anthony Richardson and wide receiver Jacob Copeland will not play. Richardson is recovering from a meniscus injury he dealt with during the regular season, while Copeland announced his decision to enter the transfer portal. Quarterback Emory Jones also entered the portal but will suit up one last time in the orange and blue Thursday, starting in place of Richardson.
Running back Dameon Pierce and cornerback Kaiir Elam will both put their NFL futures on temporary hold and play in the Gasparilla Bowl. Pierce was one of Florida’s most productive offensive players this season, racking up 5.9 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns. When asked why he is playing in the bowl game, Pierce gave a simple answer.
“Because I’m a Gator, bro,” Pierce told media Tuesday. “When I signed here, I signed for four good years, get my education and I’m going to rock out that way until I die, you know?”
Elam is slated to be a first round draft pick come April if he chooses to forego his senior year. He says he hasn’t made that choice yet, instead focusing on beating UCF before deciding on his future later.
The Gators enter Tampa after scrapping their way to bowl eligibility with a win over FSU on Nov. 27.
Meanwhile, the Knights finished with eight wins, including back-to-back victories over Connecticut and South Florida to finish off the season.
UCF will be without star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who announced he is also transferring to the University of California-Los Angeles. Gabriel only played in three games this season before getting injured but boasted a 9:3 touchdown to interception ratio and a 158.9 passer rating Year Mikey Keene stepped up in his place and performed admirably, throwing for 1,583 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the Knights to the fourth-best offense in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 32.2 points per game.
UCF was mediocre in its passing attack — averaged 211 yards per game through the air, eighth in the AAC — but thrived on the ground. The Knights averaged 188.7 rushing yards per game, good for third in the American. Leading rusher Johnny Robinson — 693 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per carry — could run wild against a Florida defense that allowed 153 yards per game on the ground and will be without its best defensive lineman, Zachary Carter, who elected to sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
The Knights defense has also been strong this season: The unit allows 25.2 points per game (third in the American), 155 rushing yards per game (sixth) and 213 passing yards per game (fourth).
Jones and company could have a tough time passing against this stout unit and will instead likely lean on a Florida rushing offense that averaged 209 yards per game during the regular season.
The Gasparilla Bowl will kick off from Raymond James Stadium at 7 p.m. Thursday and will broadcast live on ESPN.
Contact Michael Hull at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.
Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer.