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4 reasons why Florida Gators’ Las Vegas Bowl showing is bigger than you think

A loss would give Florida back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1978-79.
The Florida Gators are preparing to face No. 17 Oregon State in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl.
The Florida Gators are preparing to face No. 17 Oregon State in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl. [ L.E. BASKOW | Las Vegas Review-Journal ]
Published Dec. 16, 2022|Updated Dec. 16, 2022

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.

Related: Our college football bowl preview guide, from FSU-Oklahoma to UConn and beyond

So what is at stake Saturday at Allegiant Stadium? More than you think.

Here are four reasons why this bowl will resonate:

History

The Gators need a win in Las Vegas to avoid having back-to-back losing seasons.
The Gators need a win in Las Vegas to avoid having back-to-back losing seasons. [ ELLEN SCHMIDT | Las Vegas Review-Journal ]

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

Florida Gators quarterback Jack Miller is set to make his first career start.
Florida Gators quarterback Jack Miller is set to make his first career start. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel via AP ]

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?

Related: Who is Jack Miller, Florida Gators’ starting quarterback for Las Vegas Bowl?

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

Defensive back Jadarrius Perkins (right) is expected to make his first and only start of the season in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Defensive back Jadarrius Perkins (right) is expected to make his first and only start of the season in the Las Vegas Bowl. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

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.

Related: What’s the NCAA transfer portal window like? ‘Insanity’

“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

The Gators' 2020 Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma foreshadowed their dreadful 2021 season.
The Gators' 2020 Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma foreshadowed their dreadful 2021 season. [ RON JENKINS | Associated Press (2020) ]

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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