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How much does Florida-UCF matter in a bowl game?

The Gators and Knights meeting in an exhibition takes some shine off the matchup.

Florida State v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

When the Florida Gators and UCF Knights finally meet on the gridiron in their scheduled regular-season matchups, those contests are going to be one of college football’s biggest games of that day.

Whatever angle any fan of either team will be most interested in will probably be valid in each game, and the game taking place where it should — in Gainesville or in Orlando — is going to amp up the excitement. And no matter how poorly things might go for either Billy Napier at Florida or Gus Malzahn at UCF, those games will be viewed as deeply important for both teams, perceptually. I think we can all agree on that.

Does that hold true for a bowl game held in Tampa in which Florida will have an interim head coach and, arguably, neither team will be starting its best quarterback?

That’s the question posed by the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl, in which Florida — with Emory Jones once again set to go the whole way at quarterback, this time in a final ride — is a seven-point favorite, per DraftKings, over the Knights.

And I’ll just be clear: I don’t think this one matters all that much.

For Florida, this is definitely the vestigial tail not just of a season — the unavoidable truth of any bowl game that Dan Mullen exploited in the 2020 Cotton Bowl, only to learn it is still an unorthodox belief in college football — but of a tenure, with this game coming as Mullen is vacationing somewhere snowy and Napier is assembling his “army.”

Jones being the quarterback the Gators will roll out only underlines that. If he or Florida were looking to the future together, he wouldn’t have announced transfer plans; if Anthony Richardson were healthy enough to play, it would be a shock to see Jones starting for the Gators after a second in-game benching.

Instead, Jones is making a noble last start while Richardson recovers from a surgery that began his offseason early — but is repairing a meniscus problem that did not prevent him from helping lead Florida to victory over FSU. It’s an unusual situation that caps an unusual year for both QBs (who have, it should be noted, handled the year’s tumult in admirable form) — and it underlines how unusual this game truly is.

But Florida may not be the only team that won’t be starting its top quarterback.

UCF’s season began with Dillon Gabriel under center, and the signal-caller who ultimately succeeded McKenzie Milton after the latter suffered his career-altering injury was excellent early on, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and throwing for nine touchdowns in the Knights’ first three games. But that third one ended with his own career-changing injury, a broken clavicle sustained on a doomed final play in a loss to Louisville, and thrust freshman Mikey Keene into the starting role.

And while Gabriel was excellent under former UCF coach Josh Heupel and good under Malzahn, Keene has been uneven this fall. His great games include a five-touchdown performance against Temple and two-touchdown, no-pick outings against Tulane and UConn, but in the other five starts among his last eight, he hasn’t posted a passer rating better than 110.0 — a mark that Jones, for all his struggles, has exceeded in every game this season since his interception-marred season opener against Florida Atlantic.

UCF has been able to win despite Keene being more mediocre than masterful, with Malzahn’s forever-formidable run game generating yardage and a defense being stingy against overmatched teams. But since Gabriel led a comeback against Boise State, UCF’s wins have come against teams it has been able to out-talent, and its losses — to Louisville and Navy in close games, then to Cincinnati and SMU in blowouts — have come against programs on or beyond its level.

At this moment, Florida is still likely on or beyond UCF’s level when it comes to talent on hand — despite its post-season departures.

Zach Carter and Khris Bogle opting out and transferring out, respectively, does not fully deplete Florida’s store of edge rushers, Mohamoud Diabate hitting the transfer portal mostly creates an opportunity for younger linebackers, and Kaiir Elam seemingly wanting to play this game despite a likely first-round selection coming whether or not he does keeps the Gators’ secondary close to full strength.

On offense, not having Richardson or Jacob Copeland saps some playmaking from the Gators’ attack, but Dameon Pierce is still around to bulldoze tacklers (and should get a greater share of touches with Nay’Quan Wright out due to injury), and Florida’s pass-catchers have frankly been able to produce all season even without consistent contributions from Copeland.

UCF has players who will see Sundays, but not as many as, say, 2020 Oklahoma did — and 2021 Florida will be closer to what it was all year in its bowl game than 2020 Florida was for its blowout at the Sooners’ hands. 2021 Florida went 6-6 for good reasons, of course, and struggled at times even against supposedly lowly teams like FAU and Samford, but the pre-bowl talent exodus hasn’t been as dramatic as it was a year ago — and Florida’s favored with all of the above factored in.

Some — maybe all? — of these factors will be different when the regular-season showdowns roll around. But for now, this game feels like one that Florida is expected to win but will get little credit for winning — or an upset that will mean a lot more to UCF fans than anyone trying to scry the future.

And I can’t say that means all that much.