The last time the Gators took down their in-state rivals, it was in 2012, when the Gators took a very good team to Doak Campbell Stadium and ran away with a close game late.
This year, Florida is taking maybe its best team since that season to Tallahassee two days after Thanksgiving — and the FSU team awaiting the Gators is unquestionably the worst of this decade.
Florida has not had as good a chance to beat FSU in football as it does today in a while.
When Florida has the ball
You know Florida’s offense well at this juncture. The Gators prefer running to passing, and have a stable of able runners — running backs Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, and Dameon Pierce, wide receiver Kadarius Toney, and even quarterback Feleipe Franks — to allocate carries to, which has led to a five-headed running game featuring four players collecting more than six yards per carry and a fifth, Franks, whose six rushing touchdowns lead the team and whose 4.1 yards per carry as a quarterback after removing sacks are just fine.
Florida would and should be less sanguine about putting the ball in Franks’s hands as a thrower. He has cracked 2,000 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns, and no other Florida quarterback has hit both thresholds since Tim Tebow, but Franks is also completing just 58 percent of his passes on the year, and is often maddeningly inaccurate, missing frequently on deep balls and shorter shots by virtue of his prodigious arm strength not being accompanied by commensurate touch. Florida has several targets who can do work with the ball after the catch, and appeared to add two more to the mix last week, when freshmen Kyle Pitts and Jacob Copeland each made big plays against Idaho, but Franks getting them the ball remains a dicey proposition.
And Florida State has a decent defense that could present problems for Franks and the Gators. The Seminoles are fairly good against both the run (No. 29 in Defensive Rushing S&P+) and the pass (No. 40 in Defensive Passing S&P+), and have allowed opponents to complete just 54 percent of their passes on the year. Furthermore, an occasionally potent pass rush led by the lanky and ultra-quick Brian Burns (eighth nationally with 10 sacks) looms as a potential problem for a Florida line that has improved considerably under John Hevesy, but still leaks on more occasions than is ideal.
But FSU’s defense was better early on this year than in recent weeks, and allowing just 21 points to Boston College in an upset win a week ago came on the heels of giving up an average of 49.3 points per game to the Seminoles’ prior three foes.
Slight edge: Florida
When FSU has the ball
Fortunately for Florida, FSU’s defense is by far its best unit — and it’s hard to say which of the other two phases of football is the one where the Seminoles struggle more.
On offense, Florida State has adopted Willie Taggart’s spread-style Gulf Coast Offense system, which he has branded as excellent for its “lethal simplicity,” and mostly used it to mortally wound itself. The Seminoles are a woeful 106th in Offensive S&P+, and have not scored 40 points in a game this season despite a schedule larded with teams like Samford, Northern Illinois, Louisville, and Wake Forest. (Last year’s Seminoles, for perspective, mustered 40-point outings in their final two games, with Jimbo Fisher all but wearing Texas A&M gear and then no longer on the FSU sideline, respectively; the 2016 FSU team put up 40-plus five times.)
That is mostly thanks to the offense short-circuiting often, and having to rely on explosive plays to compensate for drive-to-drive futility. FSU is 125th in Offensive Success Rate, a measure of how well it stays “on schedule” on a play-to-play basis, but No. 14 in IsoPPP, a measure of explosiveness. And if you’ve seen a Florida State game this season, you probably know that this is reflected on the field, where the Seminoles often sputter for full quarters before a single big play from running back Cam Akers or wideouts Nyqwan “Noonie” Murray or Tamorrion Terry sparks a quick strike for six.
So it is worrisome, to an extent, that Florida’s defense is capable of coughing up big plays, ranking No. 70 in IsoPPP and still starting a mostly green secondary apart from lockdown corner C.J. Henderson.
But it is probably more worrisome for Florida State that its offensive line will be tasked with blocking Florida’s pass rushers and blitzes all afternoon. Jachai Polite has had a season good enough to garner legitimate first-round hype, and he has competent compatriots on the line in Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson. And Todd Grantham is likely to have some exotic pressures up his sleeve for the Seminoles after staying largely vanilla against Idaho.
Against a normal offensive line, Florida’s pressure would be a problem; against FSU’s, it may well be a problem so acute that nothing else matters. The Seminoles have been woeful at nearly every spot up front, giving up 31 sacks through 11 games and getting Deondre Francois and James Blackman more than their fair share of fierce hits.
And those problems get worse on third down, and worse still on third and long. FSU is 127th nationally on third down, converting just over 30 percent of its attempts, and almost 60 percent of its third downs are third-and-longs, per S&P+, with FSU converting on just under 20 percent of those tries. Seminoles fans hoping to be saved by the “third and Grantham” phenomenon of Florida’s defensive coordinator calling blitzes and getting picked apart might want to save their prayers for another year.
When both teams are kicking
And then there are Florida State’s special teams.
Kicker Ricky Aguayo has not lived up to the legacy left by elder brother Roberto at Florida State — unless we’re counting the legacy of getting a game-winning field goal blocked and returned for a game-winning score, which closer approximates Ricky’s career. The younger Aguayo is 11-for-17 on field goals this fall, making this his second season with at least six misses as a collegian.
Punter Logan Tyler, who has seemingly been at FSU since at least some Bowdens were there, is also not having a great year, averaging 42 yards per punt on a staggering 73 tries — for perspective, Johnny Townsend punted 83 times in 14 games in 2015, never topped 64 punts in another season, and is Florida’s all-time leader in punts — and has somehow only averaged 45 yards per punt in one game this year.
FSU also gives up about 12 yards per punt return and over 25 yards per kick return, among the nation’s worst marks in both categories.
The Seminoles’ special teams units are bad. And compared to Florida’s competent-to-excellent units, they are an area of significant weakness on this Saturday.
Major edge: Florida
The streaks, the seasons, and the state
Florida State having a five-game winning streak is a significant part of why many Florida fans are hesitant to be bullish about the Gators’ chances today — and I include myself in that accounting. FSU has been the better and slightly luckier team when the two programs have met on relatively level pegging this decade, in my estimation, and whether you think it was skill or luck that FSU got enough to squeak by in 2011 and 2014 against offensively inept Florida squads and has played against Florida QBs like true freshman Jacoby Brissett, Skyler Mornhinweg, Treon Harris (twice), and Austin Appleby, it bears repeating that Jeff Driskel went 1-0 as a starter against FSU on the road in a decade when no other Florida QB has gotten a win over the Seminoles.
Florida also has the opportunity to end two streaks that Florida State fans consider dear: The Seminoles have made bowls in each of the last 36 seasons — despite the NCAA not recognizing the fact that FSU made the 2007 Music City Bowl, where it fell to Kentucky, thanks to widespread cheating on an exam in an online music history class that resulted in NCAA violations — and have not had a losing season in their last 41 campaigns. A loss to Florida would consign FSU to a 5-7 record, ending both streaks.
And then there is the fact that this season suggests that Florida should rout these Seminoles. Florida has split its four matchups against S&P’s top 25, going 2-0 against the SEC West and losing consecutive games to very good Georgia and Missouri outfits, but it has gone 5-0 against teams outside the top 70 of that ratings system — and that is where we can find Florida State, at No. 74 entering Saturday, thanks largely to its impotent offense and decidedly pedestrian special teams.
Worse still for the Seminoles, Florida State has done well against the worst teams on its schedule and quite poorly against the best. FSU is 5-1 against teams ranked No. 60 and below in S&P+ entering Saturday, with its lone loss coming to Virginia Tech, but 0-5 against teams in the top 35 of S&P+, with its one-point loss to Miami skewing its margin of defeat in those games: Including that loss, FSU has lost those five games by 24.2 points per contest.
Take away the Miami loss, and FSU has four losses to top-50 S&P+ teams by an average of 30 points per game, none closer than the 47-28 drubbing NC State administered.
Florida enters Saturday No. 17 in S&P+.
And Florida also enters Saturday eager to take back the Sunshine State as its kingdom, something the Gators may have a rare opportunity to do over the next 10 months. This game in Tallahassee could be the first of three straight against in-state foes, with a win quite possibly pitting Florida against UCF in a bowl game and the Gators’ 2019 season opener coming against Miami in Orlando. With Florida trending up, FSU and Miami trending down, and UCF — which will be without quarterback McKenzie Milton for the rest of this season after a gruesome injury suffered on Friday — still thought of as an interloper not quite on par with the state’s Big Three programs, the Gators could have a unique chance to stamp themselves as Florida’s preeminent football program in addition to its flagship institution of higher learning.
But that all starts with Florida executing well enough to take care of these Seminoles on this Saturday. And I doubt that is lost on anyone who will don an orange helmet in a couple of hours.