As bad as No. 10 Florida’s 55-20 Cotton Bowl loss to No. 8 Oklahoma was Wednesday night — and it was very, very, very bad — be careful about viewing the debacle at AT&T Stadium as a big-picture referendum on the Gators through Dan Mullen’s third season.
Due to opt outs, injuries and coronavirus protocols, Florida (8-4) was without 17 players who combined for 164 career starts, including leading tackler Ventrell Miller, three-year starting defensive back Marco Wilson and the team’s top-four receiving threats. There were enough defections on the defensive line, according to Mullen, that the Gators didn’t have to play the bowl game.
“That wasn’t the 2020 football team that you saw,” Mullen said. “That was kind of like a kick-start for us for the future.”
Let’s assume that’s the case and not an excuse for the embarrassment his team suffered against the Sooners (9-2). If Wednesday’s performance was the debut of the 2021 Gators, they’re a long, long way from College Football Playoff contention.
The obvious concern Wednesday was the same one that plagued Florida all season: The defense is a disaster.
Florida gave up more than 50 points for the second consecutive game. The last time that happened: 1917, before the last pandemic.
The yearlong culprits of busted coverages, gaping holes and third-down penalties traveled with the depleted roster to Arlington, Texas, giving Mullen another sour data point to evaluate in the coming days.
Although there were bright spots, if you squinted hard enough — sophomore defensive end Khris Bogle had a sack, a forced fumble and batted down a third-down pass in the red zone — the defense is holding the Gators back from the national championship picture.
Florida hadn’t given up more than 54 points since the Fiesta Bowl that ended the 1995 season, when Nebraska exploded for 62. The Gators changed defensive coordinators and won the national title the next year.
If they want similar results in ’21, they’ll have to consider a similar move.
Especially if the offense doesn’t take a major step forward from what it displayed against the Sooners.
The four-star replacements for All-America tight end Kyle Pitts (who opted out as an expected first-round draft pick) combined for at least four drops. One of them bounced off Kemore Gamble and into an Oklahoma defender’s arms for one of Kyle Trask’s three first-quarter interceptions.
Other pass catchers struggled, too. A nice deep ball from Emory Jones hit five-star Penn State transfer Justin Shorter in the hands before falling to the turf.
Florida lost four receivers to the NFL after last season and still found a way to field an elite passing attack this year. Reloading this receiving corps doesn’t look so easy.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be. Assuming Trask declines a sixth year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, UF’s offense can succeed differently.
Trask’s likely replacement, Jones, is a former top-100 recruit with a good arm but better legs. His game-changing running ability fits a typical Mullen offense well. Jones’ 60 yards on 10 carries against Oklahoma tied for the team high and opened up running and passing lanes for his teammates.
It’s unfair to expect Jones to follow Trask as a Heisman Trophy finalist, but he outplayed his mentor Wednesday, for whatever that’s worth. Both played 39 snaps and led the offense to near-identical yardage (220 for Trask, 212 for Jones). Jones scored the Gators’ only touchdown drive in the first half; Trask threw an interception in the end zone.
“I’ve been working my butt off for three years, waiting my turn,” Jones said. “I feel like I’m ready.”
Maybe he is. But if the team that surrounded him in the Cotton Bowl — the lineup that’s supposed to jump-start Florida into next season — doesn’t improve drastically, he and the Gators are in for a long 2021.