For the first time in nearly two decades, the Florida Gators are making the trip down the turnpike for the annual Orange Bowl game – and for the first time in program history, the Virginia Cavaliers landed in South Florida to take part in the game.
For the 86th edition of the annual football game that has crowned dozens of national champs before, this game is more about ending 2019 on a positive note inside Hard Rock Stadium – a facility that come December 30th will have plenty of orange and blue inside of it.
“It’s really cool, especially when growing up you look at the game and as a kid you watch and think ‘hey, this is right here in my backyard and now I am getting the opportunity to go play in it,’ said Florida head coach Dan Mullen, who will be leading the Gators into just their fourth edition of the game. “We haven’t played in a lot of Orange Bowls and I think for our fan base it is really exciting.”
The Gators enter the game with a 10-2 record and a No. 9 ranking during a season that saw them beat both in-state rivals Florida State and Miami in the same season for the first time since 2008 – when they won their last national championship by beating Oklahoma in a game played inside Hard Rock Stadium.
Still, with some saying a win would make Florida an early favorite to play in next season’s College Football Playoff – with the national title game scheduled for January 2021 inside the same stadium the Gators are ending this season – it’s all about business as normal as they arrived in South Florida on Christmas Day.
“Our first four practices we had a big thing on preparing hard and we are going to keep doing that while we are here,” said defensive back Donovan Stiner.
Virginia will be making their second trip to South Florida this season – after losing their first visit in October against the Miami Hurricanes. Since that game, the Cavaliers won five of their last seven games and with ACC champion Clemson heading to the playoff system, No. 24 ranked UVA knew they would be making their first ever visit to the Orange Bowl.
“It is an absolute tangible and realistic step for the advancement of our program,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “It’s a little surreal right now, but acknowledging the journey we’ve been on and how hard our players have worked, this is the next step for our program and we can’t wait to capitalize and do our very best.”
For quarterback Bryce Perkins, the game against Florida is the culmination of a long journey that started in his home state of Arizona, spending time at Arizona State and a junior college before transferring across the county to lead the Cavaliers to their first division title in program history. The secret to his success? Enjoying the moment.
“Football is fun and you shouldn’t be playing if you’re not having fun. We definitely took our time to reflect and enjoy the moment and enjoy the progress of this program,” Perkins said after the team’s arrival Thursday in Fort Lauderdale. “The guys, our mindset is dead serious when we come out here. We know what we got to do and we know how to do it to reach our goal.”
It will be just the second time the teams have met, with Florida dominating Virginia in their previous meeting back in the 1959 season in Gainesville.