Florida vs. Florida State preview: Trench warfare to determine Sunshine survivor

Al Messerschmidt

Somehow, Florida still has an outside shot at the national title despite the fact that the Gators haven't played well in a month. Can the Gators survive a trip to Tallahassee? And which offense has a better chance of making headway against a ferocious defense?

You do realize that Florida might be one win from the national title game, right? It's not clear, and it's not incredibly likely, but it's on the table that Florida, a team that misplaced its fifth gear somewhere in about the third quarter of the win over South Carolina (a month ago), could play for the national title, and against an SEC opponent, no less.

Florida currently ranks fourth in the BCS standings, and since No. 2 and No. 3 will play each other in the SEC championship on December 1, they are a de facto third. If Notre Dame loses at USC this coming weekend, then the second national title slot will either go to Notre Dame (depending on how far the Irish fall), Oregon (which needs quite a bit of help), Kansas State (which needs a lot of help) or Will Muschamp's Gators. That seems crazy considering Florida's dramatically diminishing returns (last four games: a loss to Georgia, a lackluster win over Missouri, a MORE lackluster win over UL-Lafayette, and perhaps an even more lackluster win over Jacksonville State).

But the good news is, if the Gators do make the title game, it means that they played well enough to beat a very, very good Florida State team in Tallahassee on November 24. There is no backing into THIS win.

Offensive lineman Carson York previews Florida-FSU

Oh, Florida State. The world opened up for you just right, and all you had to do was beat N.C. State. After upset losses to Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon these past two weeks, you would be undefeated and almost certainly No. 2 in the current BCS standings. Instead, you scored just one touchdown in six trips inside N.C. State's 40-yard line and watched a 16-0 halftime lead turn into a gut-wrenching 17-16 defeat. Sure, you've looked outstanding in almost every other game this season, but you lost the one that ended up mattering the most. And now, your goals have been limited to two worthy, if lesser, causes: Win the ACC title next week, and end Florida's national title hopes this week.

Previewing Florida-FSU on ESPNU || Gators' national title chances

Here's what we know about Saturday's Sunshine State showdown:

1. Jeff Driskel will play.

Florida's sophomore quarterback injured his ankle against UL-Lafayette and had to watch as backup Jacoby Brissett saved the Gators late. He missed last week's tuneup against Jacksonville State, and it is unclear whether he will start, but he will play.

Brissett is a perfectly competent backup, but Driskel has shown a bit more upside in 2012, and Florida will need all the upside it can find to move the ball on the FSU defense. Including sacks as pass attempts, Driskel has carried 68 times for a strong 634 yards and four touchdowns this year (Brissett: four carries for four yards); at his best, he can take pressure off of workhorse back Mike Gillislee, and he can give Florida a diverse rushing attack. (Nothing related to the Florida offense has been "at its best" in November, however.)

That is important, because…

2. Moving the ball on Florida State via the air will be damn near impossible.

The Florida State defense ranks sixth in the country in Passing S&P+. Florida's offense ranks 62nd, but that's taking into account some early, relative success. Since averaging 9.0 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) versus Tennessee and Kentucky in September, Driskel has averaged 3.6 versus LSU, 3.5 versus Vanderbilt, 3.6 versus South Carolina, 4.7 versus Georgia, 4.6 versus Missouri and 4.3 versus UL-Lafayette. That is dreadful. Against Jacksonville State last week, Brissett averaged a still-mediocre 6.7.

The problem for the Florida passing game is twofold: the receivers aren't carrying their weight, and Driskel gets knocked down a lot. Tight end Jordan Reed averages a healthy 9.4 yards per target (53 targets, 40 catches, 498 yards), but none of the next four targets (Quinton Dunbar, Frankie Hammond, Jr., Omarius Hines, Trey Burton) averages better than 7.6. There is no deep threat of which to speak, or at least there hasn't been of late, and Florida has been forced to grind out long, error-free drives to score. That has been an issue, not least because Driskel gets sacked … a lot. In 222 pass attempts, he has been sacked an incredible 29 times, a 13 percent sack rate. That number looks worse than it might perhaps really be because of the eight sacks Texas A&M logged on September 8, but that still leaves 21 other non-Aggie sacks. There is a reason why Florida is one of the most run-heavy BCS conference offenses in the country.

Even accounting for opponent, Florida still ranks 122nd out of 124 FBS teams in Adj. Sack Rate. Driskel shoulders some blame for not making quicker decisions (especially considering how many of Florida's passes travel about four yards through the air), but the line hasn't necessarily been able to protect Brissett either (three sacks in 38 attempts versus lesser competition).

Against Florida State, this is, to put it lightly, a problem. The Seminoles rank 12th in Adj. Sack Rate, thanks mostly to the devastating duo of ends Cornellius Carradine (59.5 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries) and Bjoern Werner (28.5 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, seven passes broken up). In the absence of star end Brandon Jenkins (who was lost for the season after just one game), the two have combined for 20 of FSU's 28 sacks and 13 of 28 hurries. With these two in the game, Florida State can generate significant pressure without blitzing, clogging passing lanes with any number of able bodies. As a result, opponents are completing just 49.9 percent of the passes they are able to attempt and are averaging just 4.0 yards per attempt overall. FSU turns every passing attack into Florida's, even when they aren't actually playing the Gators.

3. Florida State has to move the ball, too.



Considering how bad the Florida offense has looked of late, it bears mentioning that the defense has still been stellar. The Gators rank third in the country in Def. F/+ (they're also second in Special Teams F/+) and hold every major matchup advantage over a good, if not necessarily elite, Florida State offense. Like Florida, FSU's success could be dictated by the ground game.

The Seminoles do rank sixth in the country in Rushing S&P+ (the Florida defense is fifth), but a lot of that statistical goodwill was earned with Chris Thompson in the backfield (Thompson was lost for the season against Miami on October 20 after gaining 722 yards in parts of eight games), and despite some intriguing play from sophomore Devonta Freeman (46 carries for 392 yards versus Boston College, Miami, Duke and Maryland), the ground game was completely stifled by Virginia Tech earlier in November. Even omitting five sacks, FSU gained just 29 yards on 20 rushes against the Hokies, and the Gators' defense has been strong, and getting stronger, against the run. LSU's Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard, Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy, South Carolina's Mike Davis and Missouri's Kendial Lawrence combined to gain just 177 yards in 61 carries versus the Gators (2.9 per carry), and when Georgia's Todd Gurley rushed 27 times for 118 yards (a mere 4.4 yards per carry), it was considered an eruption.

One thing FSU may have going for it, however, is margin for error. Florida has a decent running game and a mediocre passing attack. FSU's run game is between decent and strong, and the passing game is, at worst, decent. Granted, the Seminoles have not faced an epic series of fantastic defenses, but each of quarterback E.J. Manuel's top four targets -- Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin, Rodney Smith, Kenny Shaw and Greg Dent -- averages at least 9.7 yards per target. Greene, Smith and Benjamin have basically served as co-No. 1's, and if you do not have sturdy depth in your secondary, FSU will make you pay.

Of course, Florida does have stellar depth in the secondary. And it should have enough of a pass rush to get to Manuel at times, especially considering that, like Driskel, Manuel also suffers from an acute case of holding the ball too long at times.

The defenses are running the show in this one, in other words.

4. Special teams hold sway.

Florida's Andre Debose has three career kick return touchdowns. Florida punter Kyle Christy is third in the country in Net Punting. Gator kicker Caleb Sturgis has made 20 of 24 field goals this year and is 7-for-8 on kicks 40 yards or further.

Meanwhile, FSU punt returner Rashad Greene has returned two for touchdowns this year and is averaging a stunning 15.4 yards per return. Seminole kick returner Lamarcus Joyner has a 90-yarder on his record. Kicker Dustin Hopkins is automatic from inside 40 yards (13-for-14) and has boomed in nine field goals greater than 40 yards (three greater than 50).

Aside from FSU's punting game (the 'Noles are just 101st in Net Punting), these are two nearly flawless special teams units, and with defenses likely dictating play, special teams, which always play large roles in large games, will determine even more in this one. One big return, one missed kick, one flipped field could make an enormous difference.


It feels like Florida State has the edge here, doesn't it? For starters, FSU hasn't played its worst ball of the season in recent weeks, though there were plenty of areas of vulnerability versus Virginia Tech. Beyond that, though, the Seminoles should be expected to completely shut down the Florida passing games (to the extent that the Gators have one), and if they are able to fight the special teams battle to a near draw, they should have enough offense to pull off the win.

But FSU has played in just two close games all season and collapsed in one of them. Close games, meanwhile, are old hat to Florida, which has now won four games by one possession and has won only two by more than 23. The longer this game remains in reach, the more favorable the circumstances get for Muschamp and his Gators. Florida may almost never seem like it is clicking on all cylinders, but this team is tough, physical … and 10-1.

I'm picking the Seminoles, 24-10, with the full acknowledgement that I may feel quite dumb about that on Saturday night.

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