Seminoles, Sooners Excited for Opportunity in Cheez-It Bowl Showdown
By Nina Murillo
Florida Citrus Sports
With the Cheez-It Bowl less than 24 hours away, final preparations are in full effect for the Florida State and Oklahoma football teams.
The Dec. 29 contest, which kicks off at 5:30 p.m. and airs on ESPN, is the eighth all-time meeting between the Seminoles (9-3) and Sooners (6-6) and the first since 2011. A Florida State victory would give the program its 25th 10-win season, while Oklahoma will look to add to its 6-1 all-time record against the ‘Noles.
“It’s the last game no matter what,” Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said Monday. “We’ve got guys that are capable, and I feel great about where they’re at.”
No stranger to Central Florida, Oklahoma starting quarterback Dillion Gabriel — a UCF transfer wrapping up his first season in Norman — said he is appreciative of the opportunity to return to Orlando this postseason.
Gabriel has thrown for 2,925 yards at Oklahoma and has 24 total touchdowns on the year after three campaigns with the Knights. Gabriel threw for 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions overall in Orlando, guiding UCF offenses that ranked second nationally in yards per game in 2019 (540.5) and 2020 (568.1).
“I had no expectations except trusting God and what he has for me,” said Gabriel, who finished fifth nationally in passing yards in 2020 before an injury-shortened 2021 season. “I’m grateful for the journey.”
One of Gabriel’s favorite targets, Marvin Mims Jr., said that it is exciting to play in a bowl game in part because it provides a final opportunity to take the field with your brothers.
“He’s a guy that knew the X’s and O’s when he first got here brought all of us under his wing,” Mims said of the signal-caller, Gabriel. “It is great to have him out there. He has been in this offense and he knows just about everything Coach Lebby knows.
“It is great to have him out there, with his play-making ability, putting the ball in the right spot, the right reads all the time,” Mims continued. “Especially when we have questions and have to adjust mid-game.”
On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Ted Roof said that he’s proud of his squad’s effort amid a tumultuous season.
“With this group of men, this group of players, it’s fun to go to work every day,” Roof said. “It’s all about what’s next and how can we get better.”
And make no mistake, Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis will put OU’s defensive front to the test.
“Oh, he is a tremendous challenge,” Roof said. “He is a playmaker. He extends plays with his legs, makes players miss in space, is an accurate passer and can extend plays — not only scrambling but also to throw the ball down the field. We have a lot of respect for him; he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
Oklahoma defensive end Ethan Downs said that playing is about more than just a victory and a win.
“We are telling a story with this season of, it really feels like, life: You get punched, you get knocked down, you get right back up,” Downs said. “Sometimes you are on a high, and a lot of times you are on a low. We are trying to show our perseverance and what we are made of.”
The Sooners enter the game as the only FBS team without a losing season in the 2000s and will look to avoid their first sub-.500 season since 1998.
“We are trying to show our heart by getting back up and fighting,” Downs said. “Even when it doesn’t look like we’ve had such a great past, we are trying to give people hope for the future.
“We are playing for more than just 7-6, which looks a lot better than 6-7,” Downs continued. “We are playing for the future the program and the people that have been through the program and the coaches, Oklahoma’s reputation. There is a lot on the line.”
Like Oklahoma, Florida State’s roster was only impacted minimally by opt-outs, a fact Norvell says speaks volume about his team. The opportunity to play was enough.
“This team is excited to play, the opportunity to win your 10th game is big,” Norvell said. “It’s a great challenge but also a great opportunity.”
Travis said that the opportunity to close the season in a premier bowl in Orlando is something the team earned and deserved.
“I think we owe it to this university,” Travis said. “Florida State gives us everything, and I think it was an easy decision for a lot of the guys to be here and support.”
‘Noles offensive coordinator Alex Atkins said the bowl game participation rate is a genuine sign of his players’ feelings about each other.
“I’m blessed to be around a group of guys that want to be around each other,” Atkins said. “The way you create a good team is when the guys want to play for somebody else – ‘I don’t want to let you down.’ And I think we got a lot of that.
“Every coach talks about brotherhood and teammates and love and family,” Atkins continued. “And all that sounds good until you have to make a decision that is greater for the team than it is for yourself.”
Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said the team will not take anything for granted but he trusts his group and will have them focused despite easy distractions.
“I think the way we have gone to work the last three weeks after the Florida game, it represents who we are,” Fuller said. “Our guys care about each other, they care about representing this great university, and they care about playing well.”