Let’s get ready to rumble! The famed ring announcer Michael Buffer should do the player introductions for this one. Florida versus Florida State, two heavyweights fighting for a BCS berth at the least, a possible BCS Championship game appearance if things fall just right for the winner. It’s been many years since both teams came in ranked in the top ten. Once again Florida-Florida State matters. Nationally, not just to Gator and Seminole fans. This match-up features two defenses ranked in the top five nationally and in the top ten of every statistical defensive category. The biggest question in this one might be who scores and how?
The Seminoles have offense. They are ranked 14th in the nation in total offense at 493.55 yards per game. They’re even better at scoring currently ranked 7th in the nation at 42.91 points per game. Coming into last season’s game the Florida State offense was a patchwork. They had injuries across the line, had multiple starting lineups, and were very young. They played like it against Florida gaining 95 yards of total offense. They still won the game because Florida’s offense played even worse.
This season E.J. Manuel, as a senior, is finally playing the way Seminole fans hoped he would when he signed out of Virginia. He can run, he can pass, and he has a deep, athletic corps of wide receiver’s to get the ball to. He’s always had skills, the knock on him has always been he makes bad decisions, especially when pressured and that he tended to hold the ball too long trying to make plays with his arm when he should just tuck and run taking what the defense is giving. Hmm, sounds like a certain Gator quarterback this season doesn’t it?
Manuel is having a great season averaging 253 passing yards per game with 21 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. Will Muschamp said about him this week,
“The quarterback you can see his development through his time there. He’s playing like you’d expect a senior quarterback to play.”
He’s definitely playing more poised than he has at any other point in his career. Realistically, the Gator defensive line will have to control their pass rush lanes to keep Manuel in the pocket like they have against other dual threat qb’s they’ve played this year and get in his face, make him feel the rush even if they do not get to him, and try to bat some balls down.
Their receiver corps is extremely deep and talented. With six players having 20+ catches on the season, it’s obvious they are difficult to defend. Guys like Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw, and Rodney Smith. They have height, speed, and playmaking ability at wide out. Throw in the tight end Nick O’leary who is a matchup nightmare for the linebackers and this group looks scary. This unit is likely the strength of the offense with star running back Chris Thompson sidelined for the season.
The Gators counter with a set of defensive backs and linebackers playing the best football of their career. The defensive backs, led by junior Jaylen Watkins, sophomore Marcus Roberson, and senior safety Josh Evans have been stifling. They love to play man-match defense getting into the receiver’s faces, disrupting their routes, shadowing their routes, and batting down footballs. They play tight and wait for the quarterback to make a mistake and then capitalize with big
The biggest question for Florida coming into this week was whether or not Jeff Driskel would be able to play. Muschamp answered that earlier in the week saying Driskel would play. He was not sure how much he’d be able to as the week of practice would tell. All reports so far are that Driskel appears fine and should be close to 100 percent this week. They will really need his running ability if they hope to have a shot in this one.
The strength of the Florida offense is the running game. They like to run the ball inside to Mike Gillislee and then hit the edges with zone read keepers by Driskel or jet sweeps to Andre Debose who will be back this week as well after sitting out the last two games. If they can make first downs with the inside runs by Gillislee Florida will have a big advantage as they like to wear opposing defensive lines down for the second half. It also really opens up Driskel on the edge as ends try to crash down in run support. If, as they did last year, they can stop the inside run with their front four with no run blitzes or having to bring a safety down then the Gators could be in trouble as their passing game has struggled all season.
The receiving corps is very short on proven play-making ability outside of tight end Jordan Reed who has been the go to guy for Driskel this year. They have, however, been playing better the last couple of weeks and you’ve got to wonder if they haven’t been slow playing the offense the last two weeks to avoid showing the Seminoles anything making it harder for them to prepare. Quinton Dunbar, the slot receiver, has been able to make plays at times and he works hard after the catch to get extra yards. He, like many others, has had issues with drops. Senior Frankie Hammond has been steady this season but unspectacular other than the one long touchdown he had against Tennessee.
The biggest difference in this season’s team coming into the Florida State game from last year has been the improved play of the offensive line. While many fans continue to grouse about the play of this unit, realistically, this unit is light years ahead of where they were last year at this time.
“I think we’re very different, differently equipped this year than we were a year ago,” coach Muschamp said this week. “”I think we’re much better on the offensive line. That’s where we really struggled against this group last year. they rushed four guys and stopped the run. (They) were able to play guys in coverage and force the quarterback to throw the ball off rhythm. We’re much more equipped on the offensively on the offensive line than we were a year ago and that’s really where we’re better than we were a year ago”
If the Gators are going to have a chance against a defense that is ranked first in the NCAA in total defense and in the top ten nationally in every other defensive statistic, then this unit is going to have to play the game of their lives. A couple of things this unit has going for them is they are healthier than they have been in a while and they have faced multiple defensive lines very similar to the one they will see on Saturday. Muschamp mentioned in his media conference that this line is very similar to what they’ve seen this year. This unit, in terms of size, speed, and athleticism is as close to an SEC defensive line as you will see outside of the SEC. Fisher, like Muschamp, is a Nick Saban disciple and understands how important the line of scrimmage play is and has recruited well and has them playing at the highest of levels.
Overall, my opinion is this one will be a defensive struggle and will likely come down to special teams and turnovers. The Gators and the Seminoles both have a finalist for the Lou Groza Award at placekicker so they are certainly reliable there. Dustin Hopkins, the FSU kicker, will finish as the NCAA all-time career leader in points scored by a placekicker. Florida also has a punter who was named a finalist for the Ray Guy Award given to the top punter in Kyle Christy and he has been a weapon this season. He may actually by the team MVP with his ability to boot them out of bad field position and drop punts down inside the twenty yard line. His leg with Loucheiz Purifoy and others covering punts and kickoffs and Florida may have the edge here.
Finally, the game may ultimately hinge on who makes the mistakes. If the Gators can get pressure on Manuel and force him into mistakes they may not need the offense to play lights out. If Florida State can force Driskel and company into making mistakes then Florida State may win going away. Personally, I think Florida continues it’s plan of conservative offense taking care of the football, I think the Gator’s defense forces Manuel into some turnovers giving the Gators some short field opportunities, and I see the Gators hanging on in a close one to win at the end on a Caleb Sturgis field goal 16-13.