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The Big Preview: Virginia Heads to Orange Bowl to Face Gators

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NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Virginia vs Clemson Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After a 9-3 regular season, the Virginia Cavaliers went to the ACC Championship game and faced No. 3 Clemson. On Monday, Virginia gets another top ten team in the Orange Bowl against AP No. 6 (CFP No. 9) Gators. Next year, the Hoos open against Georgia—currently No. 5—in the 2020 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.

So that’s three top ten teams in a row. It’s also three “neutral site” games in a row that are essentially road games for Virginia. Charlotte is much closer to Clemson than to Virginia and is full of Tigers fans. Gainesville, FL isn’t particularly close to Miami, but it’s a heck of a lot closer than Charlottesville is. And, again, the Miami area is full of Gators. And, of course, Atlanta is only about 100 miles from Athens, GA and is sure to be full of Bulldogs.

It’s a tough stretch for the Hoos, but nobody is complaining. The publicity and visibility that comes from playing in such high profile games is valuable to recruiting. It’s fun to see the Hoos face off against national powers, but it also provides a grim view of just how far the Hoos have to go to reach that plane of football existence.

Florida may not be as good as Clemson, but they’re 11-2 with losses to current #1 LSU and #5 Georgia, losing by just two touchdowns at LSU and one touchdown in the world’s biggest outdoor cocktail party. Despite two losses, this is surely one of the nation’s top teams.

The Hoos are two-touchdown underdogs.

Virginia on Defense

Early this year, Virginia’s defense was among the nation’s elite, reaching as high as 11th in the nation in total defense. But even after nearly a month off, the defense that will be out there against Florida is not that same defense.

Obviously, the big loss was preseason All-American Bryce Hall. But they’ve also lost safety and nickel back Brenton Nelson, safety Chris Moore and ILB Rob Snyder. And that is on top of injuries to CBs Darius Bratton and Germane Crowell (both expected contributors) before the season even started.

At this point, there are freshmen backing up both safety and both cornerback positions. Sophomore Heskin Smith starts at corner and the nickel CB is redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker. There’s a whole lot of inexperience in the defense secondary, and Clemson took advantage of that.

Justyn Ross simply beats the coverage downfield and outruns Joey Blount.

Here it’s Tee Higgins, with actually some pretty good coverage, but the ability to play the ball isn’t there. And oh yeah, Clemson’s WRs are really really good.

Florida does not have the same level of athlete that Clemson has, nor do they have Trevor Lawrence at QB. They do have Kyle Trask at QB, who has thrown for 2,600 yards, 26 TDs and just 6 INTs against SEC talent. He was the backup all season last year, and took over the starting job when Feleipe Franks dislocated his ankle against Kentucky back in September. Franks, by the way, has announced that he will not be returning to Florida. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility to play next year.

Trask’s counting stats don’t blow you away, but his QB rating of 159.2 was 12th nationally. He completed almost 70% of his passes, but averaged just 8.4 yards per attempt. That’s solid, but it’s well behind most of those other 11 guys. That’s part of their offense, they don’t throw the ball downfield a lot. It’s a lot of short passes to the RBs and WRs. A lot of swing passes, WR screens and similar passes.

For being a top-ten team, Florida has just the 53rd ranked offense in the country—17th in passing and just 120th in rushing offense. The numbers are a little deceiving—the Gators’ passing is full of short passes used as a run game would be. It gets the ball out to the playmakers quickly in space.

Not surprisingly for a team in Florida, they have an abundance of playmakers. Eight Gators have at least 20 receptions (Virginia has just five). The top receiver is TE Kyle Pitts, which could be a problem if Virginia’s Jordan Mack is really out with an injury. Virginia often uses the ILBs for underneath coverage in the middle of the field, and Mack excels in that role. He’s also an adept blitzer and leads the team with 7.5 sacks. His absence would hurt in many ways.

The next six receivers are all WRs, with RB Lamical Perine ranking eighth in receiving. He is tied for third in receptions, but averages just six yards per catch. Perine is also tops on the team in rushing, but with only 538 yards. He’s a bigger back, with good speed, a one-cut guy who’s tough to bring down in the open field.

One reason the rushing offense rates so poorly is sacks. Florida has given up two sacks per game, losing over 300 yards to sacks alone. Though Virginia once led the nation in sacks, with all the injuries Virginia’s defense has suffered, the pass rush has really fallen off, though they still managed to finish the regular season ranked seventh in the category.

That is their path to winning this game. If Virginia can apply pressure on Trask, they can be successful. Maybe they can force a couple of turnovers, and hopefully a few big plays can get some momentum for a defense has that given up over 34 points per game over their last six games after giving up under 20 per game for their first seven games.

One of the reasons Clemson scored so easily was a lot of missed tackles. That’s something that comes with inexperience. That must improve. Florida has so many athletes, and a single missed tackle can lead to six (see some of the big plays above here). That’s the second key to this game.

Virginia on Offense

As good as Virginia’s defense was early in the year, the Gators were better—at least on paper. They currently rank ninth nationally in total defense,

As an SEC team, this defense is very very fast. But, probably the fastest player on the Gator defense is CB C.J. Henderson, and he’s not playing in this game as he gets ready for the NFL Draft.

Adding to that speed on defense is the 4-2-5 base defense they play. That gets an extra DB on the field, in most cases sophomore Marco Wilson. Wilson plays a spot they call the “STAR”, but it’s really just a nickel CB. Henderson was one starting CB, and with him out, we expect true freshman Jaydon Hill there. The CB opposite Henderson has been another true freshman Kaiir Elam. Those are both talented guys, but they’re both true freshmen, and true freshmen CBs can be generally be beaten by talented WRs and QBs.

Yes, this defense is big, fast and talented. Perhaps not quite as big, fast and talented as Clemson, and the Hoos had 380 total yards against the Tigers. Early on, the Hoos did what they wanted. Clemson eventually made some adjustments and were able to shut Virginia down, but the game was well out of reach by that point anyway due to Clemson’s powerful offense.

Bryce Perkins has averaged 376 yards of total offense over the last five games. That average is higher than any single game had before this stretch. Perkins reportedly was not 100% heading into the season, and you could see it on the field. As he’s gotten healthier, Virginia’s season has completely changed. A team that relied on its defense and enough timely scoring to pull out a win has become an offensive juggernaut that struggles to stop the opposition.

Over those same five games, the Wahoo offense has averaged 461 yards. That means Perkins has accounted for over 80% of the Virginia offense. If they’re going to have any success, it’s going to be Perkins.

The Gators have been victimized by some big plays this year. The defense is very aggressive, and that aggression can lead to big plays. This leads to big plays on both sides.

Sure, Virginia doesn’t have the RBs that LSU has. But Perkins is a bigger running threat than Burrows. We saw against Virginia Tech what Perkins can do against an aggressive defense with the zone-read.

The Gators are fourth nationally in sacks, so protecting Perkins will be very important. Georgia’s Jake Fromm had all day to throw, and that’s a big reason why Georgia won that game.

Georgia’s OL is certainly better than Virginia’s, but the Virginia OL has improved greatly as the season has progressed. There is a very good chance that will be the most important key to this game. If Perkins gets some time to throw, and gets some holes to run through, Virginia has a chance to actually win this game.

Conclusion

This isn’t nearly as bad a matchup for Virginia as Clemson was. But the talent difference is still rather large. Florida is made up almost entirely of four-star guys. Virginia rejoices when they get a single four-star guy.

Virginia may be able to keep this close, relying on Bryce Perkins to make enough plays against this defense. But Trask and company are going to be tough for Virginia’s defense to stop. If the defense was at full strength, this would be a much better matchup.

The fact that Florida is only favored by 14.5 shows how much Virginia’s offense has improved from earlier in the season. This same offense that couldn’t move the ball against Miami and Louisville is now projected to score 20 points against the ninth best defense in the nation. Really makes you wonder how this season could have gone is Perkins had been healthy and the OL had gelled sooner.

Prediction: Florida 38, Virginia 14 (season record: 10-3)