On paper, two weeks ago, the Cotton Bowl appeared to have a phenomenal matchup: hot-streak Cotton mainstay Oklahoma vs. No. 10 Florida, who gave Alabama all it could handle in the SEC championship.
But the luster came off the game a little with announcements in the last few days that the Gators will be without their top four pass catchers against the eighth-ranked Sooners.
The game airs tonight on ESPN, and the telecast begins at 7.
Receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney announced Monday they are skipping the game in Arlington to prepare for their NFL futures. Fellow receiver Jacob Copeland announced he won’t make the trip after testing positive for COVID-19. All-American tight end Kyle Pitts opted out of the bowl hours after the SEC title game.
Their absences leave Florida trying to replace four guys who combined to catch 174 passes for 2,778 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2020. Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore are expected to get extra playing time in their place.
Pitts is expected to be a top-15 draft pick, and Grimes and Toney also could go in the early rounds.
Because of the perception that Big 12 defenses are soft, OU linebacker Nik Bonitto is well aware that the Sooners defense, even with all the drastic improvements playing its “Speed D” scheme for two seasons, has to prove itself outside the conference.
After winning their sixth conference title in a row, the Sooners (8-2) will again end the season in a New Year’s Six bowl game against the Gators’ high-powered offense, which leads the nation in passing though its offense suddenly looks quite different because of the late departures.
“I feel like there’s still a notion that we don’t have a lot of respect as a defense when playing against those type of teams,” Bonitto said. “We just see there’s a huge opportunity in front of us to prove ourselves as a defense, and show we belong with one of the best in the nation.”
The last three seasons for the Sooners have ended by giving up an average of 54 points in losses against different SEC teams in College Football Playoff semifinal games. They allowed 63 points and 692 total yards to eventual national champion LSU in the Peach Bowl last December.
, ending defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s initial season that until then had showed big promise.
Florida senior quarterback Kyle Trask, the national leader with 375 yards passing a game and 43 touchdowns, had his third consecutive 400-yard passing game in a 52-46 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC championship game. The Gators have averaged 41.6 points a game, and 7.4 yards per play.
“I think certainly what you don’t want to do is circle one game, one opponent, and say that dictates an entire season’s worth of work that way,” Grinch said. “But in the same token, the next challenge is a tremendous one. ... What a way to end 2020.”