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UCF to Face Florida in 2021 Union Home Mortage Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa

The Knights face the Gators in football for the third time, but the first time in a bowl game

Bethune-Cookman v UCF
Gus Malzahn’s UCF Knights will take on Florida in the 2021 Union Home Mortage Gasparilla Bowl
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

It’s official.

The UCF Knights are going to face the Florida Gators in football on a neutral field.

The game: The 2021 Union Home Mortage Gasparilla Bowl, which will take place on Thursday, December 23rd at 7pm on ESPN in Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This will be UCF’s fifth appearance and Florida’s first in the Gasparilla Bowl.

UCF LS Alex Ward celebrating a turnover
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 edition of UCF Knights was the first under head coach Gus Malzahn and finished with a record of 8-4 after enduring a slew of injuries in key positions. UCF opened the season with a hard-fought win against Boise State after a nearly three-hour weather delay. The season’s outlook would drastically change after multiple starters were hurt during a heartbreaking loss to Louisville during the team’s third game. UCF would finish the first half of the season with a pedestrian 3-3 record. Instead of folding, the Knights rallied the troops, using a back-loaded home schedule, moxie, and an improving defense to go 5-1 in their final six games, wrapping it up with a 17-13 win over South Florida to take the series lead in football.

UCF QB Mikey Keene
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Knights are led by freshman quarterback Mikey Keene, who went 6-3 as a starter. He’s thrown for 1,586 yards with 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Keene struggled at first, but has improved as the season went on, throwing zero interceptions in his last four games. While Keene leads the offense, the strength of the team has been the running game, which had to endure key injuries as well. The running back stable is led by senior Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser, along with speedster Johnny Richardson, and Auburn transfer Mark-Antony Richards. The team averages almost 190 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida
UCF LB Tatum Bethune
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The center of the defense is linebacker Tatum Bethune, who leads the team with 101 tackles. He’s done it all, adding tackles for loss, sacks, pass deflections, and interceptions to his name this year. Bethune is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. Other leaders are Auburn transfer defense end Big Kat Bryant, who leads the team with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss, defensive back Quadric Bullard, who is second on the team with 79 tackles and leads the team with three forced fumbles, and defensive back Divaad Wilson, who is fourth in tackles with 65 and is tied for the team lead in interceptions.

The 2021 Florida Gators finished 6-6 by becoming bowl eligible in their final game against Florida State. Prior to that game, head coach Dan Mullen was relieved of his duties and interim coach Greg Knox took over.

The Gasparilla Bowl has had numerous names over the years. The game began in 2009 as the St. Petersburg Bowl, which was played in Tropicana Field. The original bowl was between Conference USA and the Big East. It then had a backup deal with the ACC, who ultimately only supplied one team in the bowl’s existence. Today, the bowl is part of a Group of Five pool team versus an ACC or SEC opponent, but for the most part, the game has ended up with teams from Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference. For the 2020 edition, the bowl game was originally meant to be South Carolina versus UAB but was canceled after South Carolina had to back out due to COVID-19, and no replacement team was found. In the 12 years, the bowl has existed, there have been ten CUSA teams and eight Big East/AAC teams. Both conferences have five wins to their name.

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl - Central Florida v Marshall
UCF won the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl over Marshall
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Because C-USA and the AAC have had strong ties to the bowl game, and due to the close proximity, UCF’s fifth appearance in the Gasparilla Bowl will be the most in bowl history. UCF had been tied with Marshall with four. UCF versus Marshall also happened to be the 2019 matchup, the last game played.

Fun Facts:

  • This will be UCF’s fifth appearance in the Gasparilla Bowl, the most for any team. The Knights had been tied with Marshall for the most appearances since 2018.
  • In his eight seasons as the head coach at Auburn, Gus Malzahn faced Florida only once, a 24-13 Auburn loss in Gainesville in 2019.
  • UCF is 0-2 all-time against Florida, with both meetings in Gainesville. The last one was a 42-0 blowout in 2006.
  • UCF is 2-2 all-time in the Gasparilla Bowl and its associated predecessors. The Knights beat Ball State in 2012 and Marshall in 2019, and lost to Rutgers in 2009 and NC State in 2013.
  • UCF is 2-2 all-time in bowl games against teams from the Southeastern Conference. The Knights defeated Georgia in 2010 and Auburn in 2017 while losing to Mississippi State in 2007 and LSU in 2018.
  • Florida is 3-2 in bowl games played in Tampa, but they have all been Outback Bowls against Big Ten opponents.