Cotton Bowl preview: Can Kyle Trask lead Florida past Oklahoma’s defense?


When the Cotton Bowl matchup of Oklahoma and Florida was announced (Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), it was fun to think back to the meeting between these two teams in the 2009 Orange Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game. Dan Mullen was even on the sideline for the Gators as offensive coordinator for the last time before moving on to coach Mississippi State.

It also happens to be the last time both of these teams played in a national championship game.

Mullen is back at Florida now as the head coach, hoping to get the Gators back to national championship contention. Oklahoma has been in the hunt plenty of times since losing to Florida in the Orange Bowl but has not yet captured a title, even after making three straight College Football Playoff appearances before this season.

So what should we expect in the 2020 matchup?

It would be easy to think about offense first because of what Lincoln Riley has brought to the table as Oklahoma’s coach and how Mullen has transformed the Gators over three years at the helm. But how the defenses prepare for each other could end up being the key.

Florida has struggled on defense all year, leading to speculation about defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s job security, though Mullen said Grantham will coach in this game. Oklahoma has made strides with its defense this year, allowing only 21.8 points per game — its lowest average since allowing 22 points a game in 2015. And while Oklahoma plays in the Big 12, the Sooners have not faced an offense as prolific as Florida’s this season.

Key player for Florida: Kyle Trask. No matter what happens with the Heisman, Trask had a record-breaking season for the Gators, throwing for 4,125 yards and a school-record 43 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. His development and emergence this season allowed the Gators to play for the SEC championship and keep their game against Alabama closer than many expected. What makes him even easier to root for is the path he took to become the starting quarterback at a school with three Heisman winners. He earned it all, waiting for his opportunity to start — even though at various points during his career it appeared that it might never come.

Key players for Oklahoma: The Sooners’ defensive rise this year under second-year coordinator Alex Grinch can be credited in large part to the success of their defensive front: defensive ends Ronnie Perkins and Isaiah Thomas, and nose guard Perrion Winfrey. In just five games since returning from suspension, Perkins has racked up 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Thomas is the team leader in both categories (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), and Winfrey has six tackles for loss. All three of them made the All-Big 12 team. Oh, and don’t forget outside linebacker Nik Bonitto, who has 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Matchup to watch: Spencer Rattler vs. the Florida pass defense. This has not been a great year for the Gators on defense, and Oklahoma is going to put pressure on the Florida secondary with its wide-open offense. The ultimate question is: Can the Gators slow down the Sooners? Florida is allowing 258.3 passing yards per game, ranking No. 100 in the nation, and is allowing 28.6 points per game.

X factor: No Kyle Pitts. Florida will be without its biggest playmaker on offense, after the tight end decided to opt out of the game and declare for the NFL draft. It is hard to blame him, considering he was injured late in the season and gutted out his performance against Alabama. But without Pitts, Florida struggled to establish consistency and its usual red zone presence in a loss to LSU. Though the Gators won two other games without him, the question is whether Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble can step up once again.

Motivation factor: Oklahoma is not in the College Football Playoff for the first time since the 2017 season, while Florida has now lost two straight games — including a heartbreaker to Alabama in the SEC championship. However, both Riley and Mullen brushed off questions about whether their teams will be up for the game. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of motivation to want to go and play in that game,” Mullen said. “These guys are competitors. So I think that opportunity to play in this game against that team and you look across at the opponent that you have, that’s the motivation you need to go play.”

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