For the first time in program history, the Virginia football team will be playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Cavaliers will take on the No. 9 Florida Gators in the Orange Bowl on Monday night.
Coming in with a 10-2 record, the Gators have already achieved back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since the Urban Meyer era back in 2008 and 2009. It is an impressive feat for coach Dan Mullen, who took over the team following a 4-7 season just two years ago. The two losses his Gators suffered this year both came against top 10 opponents in LSU and Georgia.
The Cavaliers earned a spot in this game by winning their first ACC Coastal Division title after defeating Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003. They fell to Clemson in the ACC Championship game 62-17 the following week. The Hoos will try to take the overall experience and specific moments from playing in a big game against an opponent as talented as Clemson and not focus simply on the final score. Virginia is seeking back-to-back bowl wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2003 when it defeated Pittsburgh in the Continental Tire Bowl after beating West Virginia in the same bowl the year prior.
These two programs have only met once before when the Gators took down the Cavaliers 55-10 all the way back in 1959. Even though they lack history with each other, this game certainly does not lack significance and meaning for both sides. A win for Florida helps re-establish them as a dominant football program, while a victory for Virginia announces that a sleeping giant may have finally woken up after many years outside of the college football spotlight.
1. Can the Hoos get off to a fast start?
It is no secret that Virginia has struggled with playing complete games of football consistently this season. Especially early on in the year, the Hoos relied on second half comebacks and big performances to propel them to victory. This strategy will not work against a team as talented as Florida.
The Cavalier offense needs to come out sharp and move the ball down the field in their opening possessions. They are capable of doing this as they did it against Clemson in the ACC Championship. The Hoos totaled nearly 200 yards in just the first quarter against that stout Tiger defense. The issue was they did not finish that first drive and ended up turning the ball over in the red zone with an interception. While they did not score on that opening drive, we saw what it did to the opposing team and their fan base. Coming in as large favorites, the Tigers were not expecting Virginia to punch them in the mouth, and it silenced the crowd and put them on their heels.
Luckily for the Hoos, Florida has not been great about getting off to quick starts as a team. This season, the Gators are 80th in the nation in terms of first half points, averaging just over 13. Virginia needs to take advantage of this and grab an early lead that energizes the players and their supporters who make the trip down to Miami.
2. Who will win the turnover battle?
This question has made an appearance in many previews this year. The reason for that is looking at whether or not Virginia turns the ball over almost always gives the answer to whether or not they won the game. In their four losses this season, the Hoos averaged nearly three turnovers a game. On the other hand, in their wins, they averaged only one turnover a game.
Looking at turnover margin, the Cavaliers are -3 for the season, while the Gators are +5 in that same category. As just mentioned above, the Hoos come into this game as underdogs. To upset a team, you almost always have to win the turnover battle or at least not lose it. Virginia needs quarterback Bryce Perkins to not try to make too many heroic plays with his arm in his final game as a Wahoo. Him playing smart, in-control football and the Cavalier defense forcing a turnover or two could be crucial for the Hoos in their upset efforts.
3. Which team can protect their quarterback better?
Both of these teams have defenses that have been elite in getting to the opposing quarterback. Florida is fifth in the FBS in total sacks with 46 on the season, while the Cavaliers are right behind them with 45. The defenses feed off of pressuring the quarterback throughout the game and forcing them into poor decisions or a major loss of yards.
Neither offense has been great about protecting their own quarterback on the other side of the ball either. Virginia is 119th in the nation in sacks allowed per game, allowing 3.2. The Gators have been a little better at 2.1 sacks allowed per game, which places them 73rd in the country. The offensive lines will be put to the ultimate test as they face off against front sevens from both teams that have been putting up eye-popping sack numbers this season. Whichever one can buy their quarterback more time to operate and take less hits will play a critical role in determining the winner of this game.
Three Opponents to Watch
1. Kyle Trask, Quarterback, #11
The 6’5”, 239-pound junior was not the starting quarterback for the Gators coming into this year. He was supposed to back up Feleipe Franks, but Franks went down with an injury early in the season. Trask quickly took control of the offense and has not looked back since. Even after not having started every game, Trask is fourth in the SEC in passing yards this season with over 2,500. He has also thrown for 24 touchdowns with only six interceptions. That 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio is impressive and has been an integral part of the Gators success this season.
2. Kyle Pitts, Tight End, #84
The 6’6”, 239-pound sophomore has one of Trask’s favorite targets and a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Pitts leads the Gators in receptions and receiving yards this season with 51 catches for 610 yards and five touchdowns. His play recently earned him a spot on this year’s All SEC first team. Trask will look to use Pitts as a safety blanket throughout the game as the Cavalier defense looks to put pressure on the quarterback. UVA’s scheme has had trouble with tight ends at times in the Bronco Mendenhall era too so that’s worth watching. Additionally, Pitts will try to use that large frame as a blocker to establish the running game early for the Gators.
3. Jonathan Greenard, Linebacker, #58
The 6’3”, 263-pound senior is the unquestioned leader of this Florida defense. This season, Greenard is second on the team in total tackles with 49 and leads the team and the SEC in sacks with 8.5. His impact goes beyond just making tackles as he has been a total playmaker for the Gators with an interception, two fumbles forced, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Like Pitts, Greenard’s play earned him a spot on this year’s All SEC first team. The more Greenard’s name gets called over the loud speaker at Hard Rock Stadium on Monday night, the worse that is for the Virginia offense.
1. Win a bowl game in the state of Florida
Historically speaking, bowl games in the state of Florida have not been kind to the Virginia football program. The Cavaliers are 0-6 all-time in bowl games played in that state with three of those losses coming in Miami. Playing a team from the state of Florida will not make breaking this losing streak any easier for the Hoos. Due to the close proximity between the stadium and the opponent, there are expected to be more Gator than Cavalier fans in attendance.
2. Beat a top 10 ranked team
The Cavaliers have not beaten a top 10 ranked opponent since defeating the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles 26-21 in 2005. Since then, they have lost 14 consecutive games against top 10 teams. Earlier this year, the Hoos fell to the No. 10 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish 35-20 up in South Bend. Although they did not finish the job, the Cavaliers did lead 17-14 at halftime in that game. When they play their style of football and are on, this Virginia team can hang around with and even beat a top team.
3. Finish a season with 10 wins
Virginia only has one 10-win season in the entire history of the program. That season came back in 1989 under George Welsh when the Hoos went 10-2 in the regular season before losing in the Citrus Bowl to Illinois 31-21. Coming into this bowl game with a 9-4 record, the 2019 Cavaliers have a chance to join that 1989 squad in rare air for the program. Finishing a season with 10 wins, a win over Virginia Tech, a Coastal division crown, and an Orange Bowl trophy would have to make this one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
Remember When …
The Cavaliers defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 34-27 in the 1995 Peach Bowl. Watching the Hoos beat an SEC school on Dec. 30 in a notable bowl game is something that Virginia faithful would not mind doing again.