TAMPA, FL. – Bowl season will look a heck of a lot different in Tampa than it did a year ago when one of the two games scheduled for Raymond James Stadium was canceled and the other was played in front of a pandemic-reduced crowd.
This time around, there are two appealing matchups that should draw very well. The Gasparilla Bowl (Dec. 23, 7 p.m.) has a Sunshine State flavor with UCF and Florida while the Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, noon) will feature Penn State and Arkansas in the first meeting between the schools.
The matchup between the Knights and Gators should easily set a Gasparilla Bowl attendance mark a year after the game between South Carolina and UAB was canceled due to virus issues with the Gamecocks. The bowl’s attendance mark was set in 2019 when an announced crowd of 33,539 saw UCF defeat Marshall in the first Gasparilla Bowl played at Raymond James Stadium.
The previous 11 games, under various sponsors, were played at Tropicana Field.
The Knights (8-4/5-3 American) and Gators (6-6/2-6 SEC) will meet for the third time. Florida won regular season matchups and in 1999 (42-0) and 2006 (58-27).
The Gators will be making their second appearance in Tampa this season and the contrast surrounding their visits could not be more different. They were bumped up to No. 11 in the AP poll following a 42-20 win over USF on September 11.
A little more than three months later they will arrive in town as a team having needed to defeat Florida State on Thanksgiving weekend under interim coach Greg Knox to secure a bowl berth. UF fired Dan Mullen following an overtime loss at Missouri that was the Gators’ fourth straight defeat to a conference opponent and left them at 5-6.
The Gators are 24-22 all-time in bowl games, including 3-2 in Tampa with each of those games being in the Outback Bowl. UCF is 5-7 all-time in bowl games, including 2-2 in the Gasparilla Bowl. Knights coach Gus Malzahn, who will be concluding his first season in Orlando, is 0-2 at RJS with the losses coming in the Outback Bowl games while coaching Auburn.
Last year’s Outback Bowl, an Ole Miss win over Indiana, had a pandemic-restricted crowd of 11,025. There are no such restrictions this year and Penn State, which always travels well, and Arkansas should be well represented.
Penn State (7-5/3-5 Big Ten) was No. 4 two straight weeks before James Franklin’s team suffered a three-game losing streak that altered what was a season with very high expectations. The Nittany Lions lost their five games — three of them to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — by a combined 21 points.
The Nittany Lions will be playing in their fifth Outback Bowl, though first since losing to Florida on New Year’s Day 2011 in what was Joe Paterno’s last bowl game. The setback was Penn State’s first Outback Bowl loss after winning their first three.
Penn State, which is 30-18-2 in bowl games, has a unique place in Outback Bowl history. Their first appearance was a 43-14 win over Auburn in the first year (1996) with Outback Steakhouse as the title sponsor. The game was previously known as the Hall of Fame Bowl. A 26-14 win over Kentucky to ring in 1999 was the first bowl game played at Raymond James Stadium.
The Razorbacks (8-4/4-4 SEC) will make their Outback Bowl debut and do so No. 21 in the final College Football Playoff rankings and No. 22 in the AP.
The Razorbacks, under second-year coach Sam Pittman, lost three of their four games to teams (Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss) that are in the top eight of the final CFP rankings. Two of the losses, to Alabama and Ole Miss, were by a total of eight points.
Arkansas, which snaps a four-season bowl drought that was the longest in the SEC, is 15-24-3 in bowl games.
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