Three months ago, Oklahoma was 1-2 with its streak of five straight Big 12 championships appearing to be in jeopardy. Fast forward to the 2020 Cotton Bowl, and the now-No. 6 Sooners have won eight straight games after blowing the doors off of No. 7 Florida 55-20. With the victory, there's a good possibility that Oklahoma will end the year as a top-five team, if not a top-four team as it has been playing its best football at the right time.
From the start, this was Oklahoma's night. The Sooners defense picked off Gators star quarterback Kyle Trask three times in the first quarter, helping them jump out to a 17-0 lead thanks to a pick six. Of course, Florida was without its top four receiving targets -- Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland -- and Trask, try as he might, never quite got into a rhythm with his new-look receiving corps, many of whom spent the season on the scout team. In his defense, that was going to be near-impossible. Florida had three practices after Christmas to get ready for the game, and it showed.
Despite the obstacles, Florida actually responded well to the early deficit and at one point rallied with 13 unanswered points of its own to make it 17-13 in the second quarter. But then Oklahoma answered with two quick touchdowns in the final five minutes of the first half to go up 31-13 and never looked back.
The second half is when the overall depth started to show. Oklahoma's running game, anchored by Rhamondre Stevenson, put up a whopping 435 yards -- a Cotton Bowl record. Stevenson led the way with 186 yards rushing, while Marcus Majors and Seth McGowan had big moments as well. The result was a school record for points by the Sooners in a bowl game.
The Gators were never able to catch up. Oklahoma's defense took over in the second half and kept Florida's normal big-play offense from getting loose. After starting 4 of 5 on third downs, the Gators went 0 for their next 8. And while the offense did put up 521 yards, it was at 6.4 yards per play after garbage time. For most of the second half, the Gators hovered around 5.5 yards per play.
This was Florida's worst bowl loss since the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and the most points allowed by any Florida team since that game. Even though Dan Mullen's team won the SEC East and gave Alabama a run in the SEC Championship Game, it will finish 8-4 and likely outside the top 10.
Here's what else we learned from this year's Cotton Bowl.
1. Oklahoma would make a fun eight-team playoff case
The College Football Playoff Selection Committee had a harder job than normal this year justifying two of the four teams that made the field. The amount of discontent with the current format indicates that, at some point, the field is going to expand -- likely to eight teams. One thing that allows for is the hot-hand team to make an end-of-season run. Oklahoma would be that team this year.
After starting 1-2, a lot of people counted out the Sooners. And to be fair, that's easy to do in this format. Picking the four best teams leaves some but not a lot of room for error. But after winning seven straight games coming into the Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma was playing like a top-five team even if it wasn't ranked there.
How would Oklahoma perform against, for example, No. 3 Ohio State in an eight-team playoff? It's a fun thought exercise. It's not one we'll get to see play out any time soon, but if/when it does happen, it could give credence that teams peaking at the right time are every bit as capable of winning a national championship as the top-ranked team.
2. Florida was previewing its future
One of the most exhausting #embracedebate takes from this game will be Florida's position of playing the Cotton Bowl so shorthanded. As mentioned above, a lot of key players on both sides of the ball either opted out or weren't able to play due to COVID-19. That's the story of college football in 2020. Rarely have we seen teams at their full strength for good stretches of time. In fact, Mullen said the Gators were so short-handed at certain positions they could have simply not played the game but chose to forge on, using numerous players who were on the scout team this season.
"That wasn't the 2020 football team you saw. There were about 25 guys missing from the 2020 football team out there tonight,
he said after the Cotton Bowl. "That was kind of a kick-start for us [to 2021]."
Mullen did a good job of giving other players opportunities out of necessity. QB Emory Jones got a lot more playing time than he has in any game this season and showed off some nice moments running and throwing. In fact, finished tied for first on the team with 60 yards on 10 rushing attempts and a touchdown while throwing for 86 yards. And with Pitts, Grimes, Toney and Copeland out, Florida had a new-look wide receiver group. In all, 12 different players caught at least a pass for 271 total yards.
The results were a mixed bag -- there were a lot of drops -- but Mullen knew what he was up against and chose to lean into preparing guys for next year. That's not to excuse the Gators' performance or to say that they didn't care about being there or to diminish what Oklahoma did. That's just the reality of the situation.
3. Oklahoma's defense lived up to the hype
For most of the second half of the season, there's been chatter about how improved Oklahoma's defense has been under coordinator Alex Grinch. That showed up in this game. Yes, Florida was depleted of its best players. Yes, the Gators still racked up more than 500 yards of offense by the time the final whistle blew. But you have to look deeper. The Sooners started hot with three takeaways and then were lights out in the second half. Florida was unable to convert a first down after getting four of its first five. Four of its six second-half drives went for 22 yards or fewer.
Oklahoma's defensive front played a huge role in its success. Defensive end Ronnie Perkins and linebackers David Ugwoegbu and Nik Bonitto were everywhere in the trenches, stopping plays before they started. That disruption was key in making Florida's normally potent offense far less efficient.
This was never a shut down defense and the season-long numbers were inflated a bit because of some poor Big 12 offenses, but this group was playing well together down the stretch. That strong defense effort helped the Sooners pull away in the second half.