June 9, 2023

Florida’s 2021 season mercifully came to an end on Thursday night, but not before one last disappointing performance to cap things off. The 6-6 Gators drew the 8-4 UCF Knights in the Gasparilla Bowl, and UCF looked like the more motivated team at Raymond James Stadium. UF led 10-9 at the half, but UCF had a much better second half and eventually took the lead, pulling away for a 29-17 win that sealed the Knights as the top team in the state of Florida this season.

It was a chippy contest, and the ending was a bit overshadowed by an emotional and scary moment when Gators receiver Justin Shorter went down after a hit to the head and had to be carted off the field. The game was all but over at that point, but it certainly took away whatever wind remained in Florida’s sails. UCF became the first in-state team other than Florida State or Miami to beat the Gators since Stetson in 1938.
With the season officially in the books, it’s now new coach Billy Napier‘s team entirely, and Thursday night’s game made it clear that he has a lot of work to do. Here are five takeaways from the bowl loss.
Emory Jones had already entered the transfer portal, and he intends to head elsewhere next season. It’s a decision that makes sense, as Anthony Richardson appears to be the future of the position (health permitting), and credit to Jones for choosing to play in this game when many players in his position wouldn’t have.

But if he was hoping that his performance would make a strong case to power programs around the country, he was almost certainly disappointed. Jones had some success on the ground, taking 10 carries for 62 yards, but he was almost entirely ineffective in the passing game. He completed just 14 of 36 passes for 171 yards while not finding the end zone.

However, that’s not because the plays weren’t there. Jones missed two would-be touchdowns on deep balls that missed the mark. A trick-play pass from Trent Whittemore to Kemore Gamble also came up short, and Florida simply missed too many opportunities on offense in this one. I wish Jones all the best moving forward, but this game illustrated why it just didn’t work with him this season.

At one point this season, Florida’s run game was among the best in college football. That success has faded a bit during the latter part of the season, and while it wasn’t enough to get their team a win, UF’s senior running backs in Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce ended their Gators careers in a good way.

Davis was especially effective, taking six carries for 81 yards, while Pierce had 13 carries (his second double-digit carry outing of the season) for 57 yards. Both found the end zone once, and Davis got more carries later in the game as Pierce carried eight times in the first quarter alone.

Neither has officially declared for the NFL draft, but Davis, a fifth-year, and Pierce, a potential 2022 draft prospect, will in all likelihood choose to move on. If Thursday night was their final performance in the orange and blue, they went out on a high note.

I don’t say this to take away from what was an undeniably big moment for UCF’s football program. Beating the flagship, even with an outgoing coaching staff and a number of players unavailable, is a praiseworthy accomplishment for first-year Knights coach Gus Malzahn.

But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend this game is much of a reflection on Florida’s program moving forward. UCF used most of its available bowl practices, while the Gators didn’t even come close. Likely no one from the current staff is staying on under Napier, and they were probably not very motivated to coach a good game in this one, nor were the players motivated to win this game.

That lack of motivation is certainly an indictment of the current coaching staff, but it doesn’t reflect on the one that’s coming in and has already made a lot of moves that should inspire confidence in the UF fanbase. Starting tomorrow, this is Napier’s program entirely, and he will start to reshape it according to his long-term vision.

There will be a lot of changes in the coming weeks and months, and I expect this team to look a lot different next season, even if it isn’t tremendously improved. This is a disappointing way to end a season that was already disappointing, but it also represents the final chapter in an era that has now come to an end.

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