The Florida Gators’ Las Vegas Bowl game against No. 17 Oregon State is easy to look past.
The 6-6 Gators are, deservedly, a two-score underdog. They are playing without starting quarterback Anthony Richardson, All-America offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence, second-leading receiver Justin Shorter and defensive anchor Ventrell Miller, who are all sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft. A top-25 finish is out of the question, and Florida fans won’t be throwing a parade in Gainesville to celebrate winning a lower-tier bowl game.
So what is at stake Saturday at Allegiant Stadium? More than you think.
Here are four reasons why this bowl will resonate:
This season has been somewhere between a disappointment and a failure, regardless of how it ends. But UF has a chance at avoiding ignominy. A loss would secure a second straight losing season. The last time that happened was 1978-79 — a drought that began before coach Billy Napier was born.
There’s a practical, building-block component to this, too. In the last 11 recruiting cycles, only five coaches have signed top-10 classes after losing seasons (including Will Muschamp). The Gators were 10th in the 247Sports composite Friday morning.
Would one extra loss cause recruits to flip? Probably not. But everything matters as UF battles Alabama, Georgia and everyone else in the sprint to the early signing period, which begins Wednesday. A winning record would also be something to sell in the coming weeks as the Gators turn their full attention to the 2024 class and the portal.
Jack Miller’s debut
With Richardson out, Miller is in line for his first start. It’s a big one for the former blue-chip Ohio State signee and the Gators’ quarterback room.
Florida only has two scholarship quarterbacks (Miller and true freshman Max Brown) plus a commitment from top-100 national recruit Jaden Rashada. That still leaves the 2023 Gators one or two passers short of where Napier would like to be. The Gators will look for help in the transfer portal. But how aggressively? And what can they sell?
The answers depend, in part, on how Miller performs in the first major action of his college career.
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New faces, new opportunities
Miller isn’t the only player stepping into a larger-than-usual role. Offensive lineman Kamryn Waites (who followed Napier from Louisiana) and defensive back Jadarrius Perkins are both in line for their only starts of the season. Four true freshmen also have risen onto the depth chart. While the Gators would prefer to have a full roster without NFL opt-outs, players in the transfer portal or injuries, they’re finding a silver lining in the changes.
“A lot of young players that don’t play are getting those reps,” running back Montrell Johnson told the Gators’ website, “and they need it because they’re going to be playing.”
Springboard to 2023
Dan Mullen infamously said the 2020 Cotton Bowl was a “kick-start for us for the future.” He was right. Many of the problems that showed up in that blowout loss to Oklahoma continued in 2021, costing him his job.
Kirby Smart represents a rosier comparison. His first year at Georgia was a disappointment but felt better after a win over TCU in the middling Liberty Bowl. “Eight and five is better than 7-6,” he told reporters afterward, “but it’s still not where we want to be.” That win helped launch the Bulldogs to the national title game in Smart’s second season.
Next fall isn’t national-title-or-bust for Napier, but it’s big. That means this game is, too, as a gauge of the roster and culture he is building.
“I think bowl games are all about attitude and mindset,” Napier said. “It’s about being ready to play.”
If the Gators are ready to play despite a roster that is in flux and end the year with a top-20 upset, that’s a good sign for Napier’s second season.
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