Florida’s Dan Mullen says depleted Gators could’ve opted not to play in Cotton Bowl

Florida coach Dan Mullen said his team could have opted to not play in Wednesday night’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic based on player availability but chose to anyway because the players wanted to compete.

Following a 55-20 blowout loss to No. 6 Oklahoma, Mullen said his depleted roster would have allowed the No. 7 Gators to skip the game.

“With the number of people that were out for the game, we were under numbers actually,” Mullen said. “We had the numbers to not play the game.

Added Mullen: “I give our guys credit. … Our young guys wanted to go play in that game, and they wanted to get that experience and wanted to be on that stage.”

On Tuesday, Mullen estimated that he would have 60 scholarship players available. The SEC this season established a minimum threshold of 53 scholarship players for game participation, but teams could opt to play even if they didn’t meet that number. There were also minimums at three key positions: quarterbacks (one), defensive linemen (four) and offensive linemen (seven).

Mullen did not specify if the Gators were under the minimum at a specific position.

“I kind of viewed — I don’t know, maybe this is wrong — that wasn’t the 2020 football team that you saw,” Mullen said of the Gators, who finished 8-4 after dropping their final three games. “There were 25 guys missing off the 2020 football team out there tonight. That was kind of a kick-start for us for the future, an opportunity for the young guys to play.”

Mullen added: “The last game the 2020 team played was 11 days ago [in the SEC championship].”

Among the missing Gators were multiple starters. Their top three wide receivers — Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland — were all out, and so was star tight end Kyle Pitts. Grimes, Pitts and Toney opted out of the game as they prepare for the NFL draft, and Copeland was out because he tested positive for COVID-19. The Gators were also without four defensive starters.

The missing pass-catchers had a significant impact on quarterback Kyle Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist. The senior threw a season-high three interceptions and did not throw a touchdown after coming into the game with 43 to his credit. His completion percentage (57.1%) was also a season low. Sophomore quarterback Emory Jones also saw significant playing time in the game, attempting 16 passes and rushing 10 times for 60 yards and a score.

Oklahoma (9-2) dominated Florida, finishing with 684 yards, including 435 rushing. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said they decided “we were going to be a team on a mission,” and “we wanted to make a statement with the way that we played.”

Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey said, “We saw the [Gators’] opt-outs. We didn’t really care who was opting out and who was staying for this game. We were ready to roll and go out there and play them anyway, no matter who it was. We’re just glad they showed up and gave us a chance to play.”

The Sooners also said they were aware of the comments Florida linebacker James Houston made last week, referring to Oklahoma as “a good matchup” but “not on our level.” Oklahoma freshman wide receiver Marvin Mims said, “It definitely fueled the fire a little bit,” and Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler tweeted after the game, “It was a good matchup.”

“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t see what our opponent said,” Rattler later said. “We went out there and just did our job, executed, focused on what we had to do as a group and came out on top.”

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