Florida followed a breakthrough season under Dan Mullen last year with a second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game, this time the Orange Bowl against Virginia. Although the Gators are no strangers to playing in South Florida, Virginia is making its first Orange Bowl and first New Year’s Six appearance.
Although Florida enters the game as a heavy favorite, it will no doubt have its hands full with Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, the most dynamic dual-threat quarterback the team will have faced this season.
Key player for Florida: LB Jonathan Greenard. There is no underestimating the impact Greenard made on the defense in his one and only season with the Gators. He leads the team with 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss and is going to be one of the biggest keys to not only getting pressure on Perkins but also closing off running lanes. Virginia struggles to run the ball outside Perkins, so containing him is a must for the Gators’ defense.
Key player for Virginia: QB Bryce Perkins. In two years as the Virginia starter, Perkins has made a name for himself not only as a gifted dual-threat quarterback but as the heart and soul of a team that won its first Coastal Division championship. Perkins accounted for 35 total touchdowns this year and 3,960 total yards, and he accounts for most of the Cavaliers’ offense. Virginia was the first team to go more than 300 yards on the Clemson defense in the ACC championship game, and Perkins is the biggest reason for that.
Matchup to watch: Florida RB Lamical Perine vs. Virginia LBs. The Florida running game has been fairly inconsistent this season, and to take some pressure off quarterback Kyle Trask, the Gators are going to have to get Perine going. Virginia’s strength is its linebacker unit, with Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier, a trio that has combined for 231 tackles this season. They will be asked to do a lot, especially with a secondary that is banged up, and stopping Perine and the Gators’ runners is at the top of the list.
X factor: Virginia receiver/returner Joe Reed. It was unfortunate for Virginia that Reed sat out the ACC championship game because of an undisclosed injury. He adds so much to the Cavaliers, not only on offense but also on special teams. Reed holds the Virginia career kick return yardage record, with 3,010 yards, and the school record for kick returns for touchdowns, with four. Reed also leads the team with 70 receptions and touchdown catches (six).
Motivation factor: There is plenty of motivation on both sides. The Gators have a chance to finish with 11 wins for the first time since 2012 and gain momentum headed into the offseason, with Kyle Trask returning at quarterback and two years that have to be considered successes under Dan Mullen. For Virginia, the goal is to put a loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game in the rearview and prepare for another high-level opponent, especially with what awaits to open the 2020 season. Virginia opens with Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so the three-game stretch of Clemson-Florida-Georgia will show coach Bronco Mendenhall where his program still needs to improve.