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Florida vs. UCF: Previewing the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl with stats and scheme

The numbers suggest Florida’s defense is the best unit that will see the field. Yes, really.

Florida State v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

After Early Signing Day, Florida football is headed full steam ahead into the Billy Napier era. And despite what Dan Mullen may have told you, there is still one last stop to make before wrapping up the 2021 season.

Tonight, Florida heads back to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for a second time this season. After defeating USF 45-20 in Week Two, Florida hopes to replicate that effort against the Bulls’ War on I-4 counterparts from UCF.

With the coaching change, this game has flown under the radar. Most Florida fans have been focused on recruiting and new coaching hires. Because the focus has been elsewhere, I wanted to take a closer look at UCF and what Florida fans can expect to see in the Gasparilla Bowl. First, let’s take a look at how these teams stack up by the numbers and then we’ll jump into some video about the UCF scheme.

By The Numbers

The so-called “Moneyball” revolution has made its way to football, and with it a bunch of great stats that can provide really interesting context when discussing teams. With the proliferation of tempo and the diversity of schemes at the college level, yards gained and yards allowed per game don’t provide as much information as they used to, and certainly not enough to fully describe or explain teams’ performance.

I wanted to see how the Florida offense compared to the UCF defense and vice versa, so I picked some of my favorite metrics and compared each team.

The metrics I have chosen are:

  • Available Yards %: What percentage of available yards is the team gaining/allowing? 100 percent would mean the team is scoring/allowing a touchdown every possession.
  • Third Downs: What percentage of third downs is each team converting/allowing?
  • EPA/Play: As defined on by Parker Fleming: “Expected Points Added (EPA) translates yards to points in context. A three-yard gain on first and 10 is bad; a three-yard gain on third and two is good. EPA takes into account the down, distance, yardline, and game state of each play to calculate the added point value of every play. EPA is an explosiveness-weighted measure of success: How often did you provide positive value, and on average, how much positive value did you add? A higher EPA on offense is good, and a lower EPA on defense is good. EPA/Play accounts for every offensive snap.”
  • Success Rate: Using EPA, what percentage of your plays generate neutral or positive value? All plays with negative EPA are failures.
  • Points Per Drive: How many points do you score/allow per drive? From; stats are only for non-garbage time possessions in FBS vs FBS games.
  • Yards Per Play: Also from, how many yards do you gain/allow on a per play basis. Again, only for non-garbage time possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.
  • Explosive Plays: How many plays from scrimmage did you create/allow a play of 20+ yards?

Florida Offense vs. UCF Defense

Metric UF Offense Rank UCF Defense Rank
Metric UF Offense Rank UCF Defense Rank
Available Yards 50.20% 51 42.80% 34
Third Downs 43.48% 30 39.36% 74
EPA/Play 0.042 70 0.021 45
Success Rate 45% 24 41% 57
Points Per Drive 2.35 57 1.89 32
Yards Per Play 6.36 27 5.17 23
Explosive Plays (20+) 67 29 45 20

Florida Defense vs. UCF Offense

Metric UF Defense Rank UCF Offense Rank
Metric UF Defense Rank UCF Offense Rank
Available Yards 42.20% 29 43.30% 91
Third Downs 35.63% 35 38.61% 77
EPA/Play -0.014 31 0.059 62
Success Rate 41% 53 42% 67
Points Per Drive 1.84 27 2.34 59
Yards Per Play 5.5 48 5.87 64
Explosive Plays (20+) 52 60 65 38

It may shock you to read, but the Florida defense is statistically the best unit in the game. The UCF defense is a close second. Both defenses have done pretty well in most of the above metrics. However, each unit does have its flaws: Florida is about average in terms of allowing explosive plays, while UCF is below average on third downs.

The worst unit in the game, statistically, is the UCF offense. The Knights have struggled to replace Dillon Gabriel at quarterback, especially when it comes to moving the ball consistently, but have still been able to create a good number of explosive plays.

Florida’s offense was in the top 25 for the first half of the season and has seemingly fallen off a cliff in the second half. The Gators went from a team that could seemingly rush the ball at will to a team that struggled to run the ball against a bad Missouri defense. In Florida’s first six games of the season, they rushed 246 times for 1,642 yards, or 6.67 yards per carry; in the final six games of the season, the Gators ran the ball 219 times for 866 yards, or 3.95 yards per carry.

Did teams figure out the Gators or did injuries up front slow them down? Which Florida offense shows up in Tampa?

In the games they have lost, UCF has really struggled to stop the run. In their eight wins, the Knights have only allowed 93.63 yards per game. In their four losses, UCF allowed 279 yards per game. Some of that disparity could be a function of game state — teams that are winning are more likely to run the ball to run out the clock, padding rushing totals along the way — but that difference is still worth noting. If the Florida offense from the first half of the season can show up in the trenches, then Florida has a great shot to win this game. If the second half of the season Florida run game shows up, it could be a long night in Tampa.

What you believe on these fronts should probably govern your betting, should you be so inclined to do some. Florida is a 6.5-point favorite at DraftKings, and UCF’s losses to Cincinnati and SMU — teams that were able to run all over the Knights — were not close. But since Florida’s struggles to run the ball began, its only win by more than a touchdown came over Samford.


I took a closer look at UCF on both sides of the ball in the video below. The offense is not too far outside the norm schematically for Gus Malzahn. You still see some of the same concepts he’s been running for a long time.

Defensively, UCF shows a lot of aggression and uses some nice concepts to get pressure on the quarterback. I looked at their most recent game, a 17-13 win over USF, and their game against their best opponent this season, Cincinnati. The Bearcats beat the Knights 56-21 on their way to the College Football Playoff.

Florida would, obviously, gladly take a performance like that. But can the Gators generate one?

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