Oklahoma football: Sooners aim to show this time is different

The 2020 Oklahoma football season has been about as strange and full of ups and downs as this crazy year itself.

Who would have ever thought, three games into the COVID-altered season, the Sooners would be staring down the barrel of a 1-2 record, back-to-back Big 12 losses and sitting at the bottom of the conference standings. At that point in time, the notion of running the table the rest of the way was certainly in the realm of possibility, but not very probable.

Well, the improbable, along with some welcome help from other teams along the way, came to pass. Call it Sooner Magic, or whatever you want. The 2020 Oklahoma Sooners are a testament to the age-old proposition: “It’s not how you start, but how you finish that’s important.”

The Sooners squeezed out a two-overtime win over archrival Texas, and that served as the launching pad for what ended in a sixth straight Big 12 football crown and a No. 6 standing in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

That earned the Sooners a Dec. 30 date with the Florida Gators in the Cotton Bowl Classic, one of the so-called New Year’s Six bowls, considered the most prestigious of the postseason assignments. The Gators are one of the best teams in the SEC this season and the No. 7 team in the land, according to the 13-member CFP selection committee.

Florida’s path to the Cotton Bowl was a little different than the Sooners.

Florida won its first two conference games before suffering a loss to Texas A&M. After that, the Gators had two consecutive games postponed because of COVID. They returned to action 21 days later and proceeded to run off six straight wins, an 8-1 record and a No. 6 ranking in the second from the last College Playoff rankings.

On the 10th weekend of the Florida season, the Gators suffered one of the biggest upsets of 2020 and what one writer described as the “most disappointing defeats” in the history of Florida Gators football. A 57-yard field goal in heavy fog at Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium found its way through the uprights with 30 seconds remaining, giving LSU a most unexpected 37-34 victory that effectively ended any hope the Gators had of making the College Football Playoff.

That one devastating loss unfortunately became two, as Florida put up a gallant effort before falling  52-46 to top-ranked Alabama in the SEC championship game the following weekend.

With the rich history and tradition of these two elite football programs, it is fairly surprising that they have faced each other just one other time on the gridiron. They met in 2009 for the national championship of the 2008 season, and No. Florida and Tim Tebow prevailed over No, Oklahoma and 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma 24-14 in the BCS National Championship game.

What Florida needs to do to win the game

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask needs to be himself, and that will be especially important as he will be missing his three best receiving weapons.

Trask, a 2020 Heisman finalist, will be without the Gators’ top  three receivers on an offense that ranked No. 1 in the country in passing yardage per game (388.4).

Kyle Pitts, a 6-foot, 6-inch tight end, was one of the most dangerous receivers in college football this season and, for sure, would have given the Oklahoma defense huge problems. Less than 24 hours after Florida’s loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, however, Pitts announced he was declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft and would not play in the Cotton Bowl game.

On Monday this week, wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes disclosed that they also were opting out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Toney led the Florida receivers this season with 70 catches for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns. The trio of Toney, Pitts and Grimes accounted for nearly 240 of Florida’s 388 season average in passing yards.

Trask, who leads all FBS quarterbacks this season in passing yards and passing touchdowns and ranks fifth in passing efficiency, will need to find other receiving targets and have them step up in the game with Oklahoma.

The Gators don’t run the ball very well, which is going to put added pressure on Trask and the Florida passing attack that will be without its three best receivers. The Florida offensive line must be able to protect Trask and slow down a Sooner pass rush that has produced a nation-best 30 sacks in the last seven games and do enough to enable some kind of run game to prevent the Gators from becoming one-dimensional.

Defensively, Florida has to be able to get pressure on the Sooners’ young quarterback Spencer Rattler. If he has time and is able to get into a rhythm, that could spell doom against a pass defense that ranks 99th in the country.

The Gators have been one of the best team’s in the country this season in third-down efficiency (No. 5 nationally) and sustaining drives. Florida’s best defense in this game is the ability to stay on the field on offense and keep Rattler and the high-powered OU offense watching on the sideline for long periods. The intriguing factor in this matchup is that the Sooner defense is the fifth best in the country in getting off the field on third down.

What Oklahoma needs to do to win the game

The Sooners have scored a school-record 27 points in 62 consecutive games, and it will probably take at least that many to defeat Florida in the Cotton Bowl Classic. The Gators will be without some key receiving weapons, but they have averaged 41.6 points a game this season, just under the Sooners’ 41.8 average.

As redshirt-freshman Spencer Rattler goes, so goes the Oklahoma offense, but it is actually the much-improved Sooner defense that holds the key to an OU win in this game. Florida has been very inconsistent this season running the ball, and the Sooner rush defense and tenacious pass rush have been the strengths of Alex Grinch’s “Speed D” defensive unit.

Expect Florida to go to the air a lot in this game, even without its top three receivers, and for Kyle Trask (and his nearly 70-percent completion percentage) to challenge the Oklahoma linebackers and secondary on quick throws to speedy Gator receivers in space and on deep shots. Likewise, the Sooner sack quartet of Ronnie Perkins, Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto will have Trask in their crosshairs all game.

Unlike the Gators, OU will be a near full strength in the receiving corps, and the Sooners will try to take full advantage of a highly suspect Florida pass defense that ranks 99th in the country in defending the forward pass. Look for true freshman Marvin Mims and sophomore Theo Wease to play big roles in the Sooner offense in the Cotton Bowl game, and don’t be surprised to see H-back Jeremiah Hall get in on some big plays.

The Sooners are notorious this season in getting off to fast starts, especially at the beginning of both halves. They’ve also had a tendency, mostly earlier in the season, to give up double-digit second-half leads and allow opponents to get back in games.

Oklahoma has outscored its opponents 134-17 in the first quarter of games this season and holds an average score margin of 25.3 to 8.1 after two quarters. The Sooners haven’t been nearly as potent offensively in the second half of games, scoring 100 fewer points than in the opening half.

OU has not trailed at halftime all season, and getting off to another fast start and not taking its foot off the gas will be important for the Sooners against Florida, who have played their best in the third quarter this season.

Avoiding long sequences in which the offense goes three-and-out — like the Sooners did five times in a span of six second-half possessions against Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship — will also be a critical factor for Oklahoma to win this game.

Stat line(s)/key matchups to watch

  • Florida’s No. 1 passing attack (388 yards per game) against OU’s 75th-ranked pass defense. The Sooners rank 4th in the country, however, in averaging 3.6 sacks per game and have more interceptions (13) than passing touchdowns allowed this season (11).
  • Oklahoma’s overall offense, ranked 18th among FBS teams, against the 62nd-ranked Florida defense.
  • Florida’s 109th-ranked rushing offense against Oklahoma’s No. 3-ranked rushing defense.
  • The Sooners have played seven games against SEC teams in the last eight seasons and is 4-3 in those games (Alabama 1-1, Tennessee 2-0, Auburn 1-0, Georgia 0-1, LSU 0-1).

Bottom line

What started out with Florida as a three-point favorite after the bowl pairings were announced on Sunday has since flipped to Oklahoma’s favor by the same margin, largely because of the news that the Gators will be without their three best receivers for the game.

What that tells us is this game is expected to be close. Despite Florida being down some key players, the Gators still have one of the best quarterbacks in the game this season and a deep and talented roster. The last thing the Sooners can afford to do is underestimate Florida’s will, determination and level of talent to win this game.

Oklahoma 38, Florida 31