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Florida, UCF to play in 2021 Gasparilla Bowl

It’s a party — and a long-awaited reunion of two of the Sunshine State’s recent rulers.

Florida State v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Florida and UCF will meet in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl on Thursday, December 23 at 7 p.m. Eastern, the bowl announced Sunday.

The pairing had been floated by many — yours truly included — as a logical matchup of one of the Sunshine State’s oft-grouped “Big Three” programs from Power Five conferences as one of the state’s four FBS schools outside them. And even if it’s only likely to be partially as satisfying as the eventual series between the schools, it’s certainly a fresher matchup for Florida than another game against a mid-tier Big Ten team, though it will be the Gators’ sixth trip to Tampa for a bowl game since their first Outback Bowl appearance in 2002.

To be clear, though: This isn’t a game featuring either program’s best team. Florida finished the regular season at 6-6, salvaging bowl eligibility by downing Florida State, while UCF’s 8-4 record is the product of an up-and-down season in which the Knights have gone 7-0 at home but just 1-4 away from it, getting walloped by Cincinnati and SMU and losing closer games to Louisville and Navy.

Gus Malzahn’s first season leading the Knights after a long tenure at Auburn — or at least “long” in the sens that any tenure at Auburn can be — has also seen the UCF offense alternate between superb and sputtering. The Knights scored 30+ points in their first four games, but have not hit that number six times in their last eight, including in a 17-13 loss to USF — a team that Florida drilled by a 42-20 count despite very much taking its foot off the gas in the second half.

Still, this will be a battle for Sunshine State supremacy. Florida’s win over FSU and FSU’s win over Miami establishes a clear leader among the Big Three when the transitive property is considered, and its wins over USF and FAU — which itself beat FIU — also produce a hierarchy in the state.

The remaining question, of course, is whether the Gators could chomp the Knights — and it will be answered in Tampa in just under three weeks.