And so we come, finally, to the last game. The rivalry game.
At 8-3 in my 2014 projections, Will Muschamp’s Gators are hot, but he knows he still has work to do in order to keep his job for 2015. I- and most rational people- project Florida State to be, at the very least, in the hunt for the four team playoff coming down to the final week of the season. Plus, the game’s going to be played on FSU’s home turf. But then again, so was the game 10 years ago…
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
2013: 14-0 (8-0 SEC), ACC Champs (def. Duke) BCS National Champs (def. Auburn)
Last Meeting (2013): FSU 37, Florida 7
All Time Series: Florida 34, FSU 22 (2 ties)
Coach: Jimbo Fisher, 5th year (45-10)
Who Are You?
I personally believe Georgia is Florida’s biggest rival, if only because of the implications within the SEC East that this rivalry (obviously) does not have. But don’t get me wrong. FSU is a huge rival for Florida, and while I get the feeling that FSU hates Florida more than Florida hates FSU (my guess as to why is that no matter what happens in an argument, Florida can say 34-22 and there’s no real equivalent response), there’s not a Gator fan alive who doesn’t have a burning desire to beat this team after what happened last season.
But beating them is going to be a tall order, to say the least. Florida State’s good. Really good. They may not be quite what they were a year ago, but they’re still a force. Jimbo Fisher has built a sturdy program with an SEC blueprint, and the Noles appear to be replacing the guys who leave with equally/more effective pieces (see Jameis Winston replacing EJ Manuel).
Having said that, the Noles are beatable. It’s going to take almost a perfectly played game from Florida, but it’s possible.
Returning Starters: 7
The FSU offense might be slightly less explosive than it was a year ago. But make no mistake. It’s still going to be one of the nation’s best. It starts with Jameis Winston, the Noles’ Mr. Everything and answer to Tim Tebow. His arsenal of playmakers in the receiving corps took a hit with Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw (1,944 yards between them last year) now playing on Sundays, but Rashad Greene is back to give Winston one dependable target, and all-ACC tight end Nick O’Leary makes two. How well this offense functions depends on whether FSU can find that third dependable target.
Christian Green could be that guy. After an impressive freshman year in 2011, Green was lost in the shadows of Benjamin and Shaw over the past two years. But he’s looked sharp this offseason, and he, along with BCS Title game hero Lavonte Whitfield and highly touted freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane, will be counted on to make plays for their Heisman Trophy winning QB.
The running game also has its work cut out. There’s 1,579 yards worth of production to replace with the losses of Devonte Freeman and James Wilder Jr. But the talent to do it is there. Karlos Williams gives them a dependable #1 back, and there’s depth behind him. After missing 2012 due to injury and being ruled academically ineligible last year, Mario Pender is finally ready to play. He’ll compete with Ryan Green and freshman Dalvin Cook for that second spot. There may not be much experience, but each of these guys can inflict damage.
This offensive unit is rounded out by a stellar offensive line. There are four returning starters, and of those four, there’s one All-American (tackle Cam Erving) and one additional all-ACC pick (guard Tre Jackson). All five starters will be seniors. To sum that all up: the Gators’ front seven is going to have a tough task.
Offensive Grade: A-
Replacing so many playmakers at once (two of the top three receiving targets and two of the top four rushers) won’t be easy. But there’s still plenty of talent left, plus some new talent (Lane, Cook, Pender). Worse comes to worse, Jameis Winston will find a way to make the offense tick.
Returning Starters: 7
FSU didn’t really need its defense last year. Who needs a defense when your offense can put up 40 on a bad day? The Noles blew out most of their opponents, and their offense won the game for them both times they were really challenged, against Boston College and Auburn. But it was there anyway, and lost amid the talk of Jameis Winston and the offense, it was quietly one of the best in the country last year.
Jimbo Fisher felt confident in linebackers coach Charles Kelly to promote him to defensive coordinator after losing Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia. Kelly has some reloading to do: star DT Timmy Jernigan, CB LaMarcus Joyner and LB’s Telvin Smith and Christian Jones have left for the NFL. But like the situation on offense, FSU has talent to work with.
Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman return to anchor the defensive line, and they’ll be joined by Chris Casher and Niles Lawrence-Stample to form a very strong front four. My question about this defense is at the linebacker level. Three of their biggest contributors (Dan Hicks, Jones and Smith) are gone, and they’re left with one starter (Terrance Smith). Reggie Northrup takes over at weak side linebacker, while Ukeme Eligwe slides in at the strong side spot. Can these two guys step up and make plays the way Telvin Smith and Christian Jones did?
Finally, we get to FSU’s defensive backfield, which should again be a major strength. They do lose Joyner and safety Terrance Brooks back there, but Ronald Darby, PJ Williams and Jalen Ramsey are more than capable of picking up where they left off. Ramsey, the first freshman to start at corner for the Noles since 1985, is in a lot of ways similar to Vernon Hargreaves- young, talented, and physical, and can hold his own with even the best receivers. Florida’s receivers may have a long day.
Defensive Grade: A
Questions at linebacker keep me from giving this defense an A+. But this is easily one of the nation’s top ten, and probably top five, defenses. If the Gators’ offense can’t at least match the high expectations of Kurt Roper and this new offense, they will struggle.
Florida Key: Offense
The Gators have to get the ground attack going early and often, or else they’re going to get sledgehammered. And I do think Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane will have some success. Remember, FSU had the nation’s top rush defense in 2012, and the Gators shredded them for 244 yards on the ground. With a good offensive line, I expect another decent showing in the running game. But decent isn’t going to beat FSU. Great might, like it did in 2012.
Florida Key: Defense
Lost among a year’s worth of “37-7” taunts from FSU fans is a curious fact: for a quarter and a half of last year’s game, the Florida defense completely shut down Jameis Winston and FSU’s offense. The Gators sacked Winston four times, and even picked him off once. Check the tape of the first half of that game. A banged up front seven got in Winston’s face on a consistent basis last year (which is exactly what I said they’d have to do about six minutes in to this interview); Florida’s fully healthy front seven this year should be exponentially better, so if Muschamp is smart- and he is- he’ll stuff the box and try to rattle Winston again.
Key Matchup: Kelvin Taylor, Adam Lane & Florida offensive line vs. FSU front seven
If there’s a weakness in this Seminoles defense, it’s the linebacker position. I’ll again point to the 2012 game, in which the Gators’ 109th ranked offense racked up 244 yards on the ground against FSU’s top ranked rush defense. I know the players are different on both sides now, and I’m not suggesting Florida can duplicate that number. But I am saying that if Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane get going, FSU’s going to be in a world of trouble. Because that will mean Florida will control the ball for long periods of time, and thus, the Gators’ defense will get the rest it needs to resume its hot pursuit of Winston each time they take the field. If the running game gets going, a lot of stars will suddenly align.
What Does This Game Mean?
Well, you’ve read my Florida-FSU rivalry piece at some point, I’m sure; that should pretty much explain the tone of this rivalry. But as for implications specific to this year, a loss doesn’t mean a ton. It’s just what the folks in Vegas predicted, and it’s what most realistic fans are predicting, too. The worst that could possibly happen: FSU bludgeons us again, and even then we have “34-23” in our back pocket.
A win, on the other hand…
I still have serious questions about Will Muschamp heading into this season. They can be immediately erased by winning one of two games: this one or Alabama. Beating FSU in Tallahassee would pretty much guarantee Muschamp his job back in 2015, unless he’s done something unforgivable, like lose to Idaho or limp into this game at 6-5, and thus gets fired before the game even kicks off.
If Florida somehow enters this game in the mix for the college football playoff, it could be their golden ticket in. Since 2011, Florida is the only team to win a game on their home turf, and if they do it again, they have a leg up on everybody else up for consideration: they would have won on the home field of a team that’s almost certain to be in the discussion for the four team playoff as well.
This game cannot be a replay of the 37-7 beatdown that took place a year ago in Gainesville if only because it may not be possible for a team to be worse than the Gators were by last November. 2014 Florida will be leagues better than 2013 Florida on offense, and assuming the injury situation isn’t anywhere near what it was last year, this could actually be a dark horse national championship contender. Yes, really. Remember how the Gators came out of nowhere in 2012?
But asking for a win in Tallahassee is too much. As much as it hurts me to say this, FSU is just too powerful from top to bottom. I do think the Noles will take a slight step back in 2014, and by “slight step” I mean I believe they’ll lose the type of game they shouldn’t like they did to NC State in 2012 and escaped from against Boston College last year. But they’ll come into this game somewhere in the 4-8 range (since all I’ve done this offseason is make graphics like this one showing why Florida is historically better than FSU, I owe Seminole fans that one) and very much in the mix for the college football playoff.
Don’t worry too much about losing on the road to what’s almost certain to be a top 10 team, though. College football rivalries go in cycles. Remember how Florida beat FSU six straight times? That streak ended just five years ago. It wasn’t that long ago that the Gators were on top of the state, despite the fact that it suddenly seems like forever right now. The Noles are the dominant team right now, and it sucks. I have no doubt that the Gators will reclaim the state some day, just like I have no doubt that the Gators will give FSU their best shot this year. But barring nap time in Doak Campbell Stadium and an array of FSU turnovers like the ones Florida gave to Miami last year or Georgia two years ago- or, of course, Florida being worlds better or FSU being worlds worse than I anticipate them being- “some day” won’t be this November.
Projection: FSU 28, Florida 13