No. 9 Florida is in the Orange Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, marking the final game of coach Steve Spurrier’s tenure.
No. 24 Virginia is not only competing in its first Orange Bowl, but also its first New Year’s Six game ever.
Monday night’s game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., is a big stage for both. The Gators (10-2) can move closer to reclaiming their seat at the table with the nation’s ultra-elite programs, a party that the upstart Cavaliers (9-4) are eventually hoping to crash.
“We’re a program that is developing, rising, growing and becoming,” fourth-year Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That isn’t ‘become.’ That isn’t ‘has arrived.’ That is ‘arriving.’ This is a giant opportunity for us. This game means the world to us in terms of growth and in terms of taking the next step for our program.”
Florida, in its second season under coach Dan Mullen, can finish with double-digit wins and a top-10 end-of-year ranking in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow era (2008-09).
“When you look at recruiting and you look at what you’re trying to accomplish in building a championship-level football program, the fact that you’re playing in a New Year’s Six bowl, that you’re here at the Orange Bowl playing on the biggest stage of college football, I think that’s attractive to young men,” Mullen said.
Both teams got here thanks to strong finishes to the regular season. Florida won its last three games by a combined 119-23 margin, while Virginia went 4-0 in November for the first time since 1951.
The Gators haven’t played since a 40-17 rout of rival Florida State in Gainesville on Nov. 30. The Cavaliers’ first-ever trip to the ACC championship game ended with a 62-17 thumping by No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 7.
Florida’s twin strengths are its passing game with junior quarterback Kyle Trask and its pass rush, sparked by senior outside linebacker Jonathan Greenard.
Trask has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 2,636 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Gators are averaging more than 300 passing yards per game (300.4) for the first time since 2001.
Greenard has 8 1/2 of Florida’s SEC-best 46 sacks, while 11 other players have at least two sacks. The Gators pitched three shutouts and held five opponents without a touchdown this season.
Scoring hasn’t been a problem for the Cavaliers, whose 421 total points and 32.4 scoring average are both the second-highest marks in school history.
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins runs the show for Virginia and is one of only two players in the country (Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is the other) to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 700 yards this season.
“It’s pedal to the metal, full throttle all the way through this game,” Cavaliers guard Dillon Reinkensmeyer told the Daily Progress. “Just know that we’re there to win. We’re not there to just show up.”
Virginia All-American kick returner Joe Reed missed the ACC title game with a hip pointer but is hopeful he can play.
Florida won’t have cornerback C.J. Henderson, who is sitting out after declaring for the draft. Defensive end Jabari Zuniga missed seven games this season with a nagging ankle injury, and linebacker Amari Burney missed the final three regular-season games because of a sprained knee, but both are expected to be on the field.
–Field Level Media