GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 4 Florida and No. 10 Florida State meet Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles (10-1) have won two in a row in the series, after the Gators (10-1) won six in a row.
NoleNation’s Corey Dowlar and David Hale and GatorNation’s Michael DiRocco and Derek Tyson break down this weekend's game in a roundtable discussion:
Take out the fact that both are (somewhat) still in the national title race. Which program needs this victory more and why?
Corey Dowlar: Hard to say, really. Jimbo Fisher and Florida State need it to establish their validity and proof of progress. Will Muschamp, of course, would love to show his program is ahead of schedule and ready to compete on the big stage now. It's a tough call. I do think the stakes are higher for Fisher, though.
Michael DiRocco: Why will FSU be shut out of the national title picture even if it beats Florida? Because the Seminoles play in the weak ACC. Beating Florida, one of the SEC’s top teams, will lend a little more legitimacy to their argument that their record isn’t a result of their conference. UF obviously needs a victory to keep pace in the national title race this season, but in terms of the program, FSU needs it more.
David Hale: I have to think this game means more for Florida State. Obviously in a rivalry game, the stakes are high all around, but Florida's season will largely be viewed by its fan base as a success regardless of how this game unfolds. For the Seminoles, however, this week is going to be a defining moment. A win over Florida -- its second against a top-10 team -- would prove this season hasn't been simply a matter of playing a weak schedule. A loss only fuels the critics, and an ACC championship game win over Georgia Tech or an Orange Bowl victory over a Big East team would do little to assuage that belief.
Derek Tyson: In my opinion, Florida State needs this victory more than Florida for a few reasons. With the SEC dominating the top 10, a win against the No. 4-ranked team in the BCS standings would certainly put FSU among the elite teams in the nation. It would also prove that Jimbo Fisher can win a pressure game with so much on the line. No one expected the Gators to be here at this point in the season. A victory over FSU would just add to an already unbelievable year for Florida.
The biggest key to winning this game will be ...
Dowlar: Turnovers. Seems like it is always that way in big games, right? It would probably be more important for Florida to force them to help out an offense that has statistically struggled this season.
DiRocco: Whether Florida’s defense or special teams can create turnovers. The Gators’ offensive struggles are well-documented, and they’re not going to be able to put together more than one or two sustained drives against FSU’s defense. Getting a short field to work with because of turnovers -- such as what happened against South Carolina -- will make it easier to score points.
Hale: The quarterbacks. It's really splitting hairs trying to find an edge defensively, and both teams have their strengths on special teams. Obviously Florida and FSU are going to want to establish the run, but odds are the game is going to come down to which QB can make a big throw when he has to or, perhaps, which one makes the really bad throw at the worst possible time.
Tyson: Florida will have to get something from the passing game. Florida State is too talented to become one-dimensional in this game. Whether it's the screen game, or using tight end Jordan Reed more, Florida will have to get creative to establish some sort of passing game. If the Gators can't do anything through the air, this could end up being a long day for the Florida offense.
Which player is the biggest wild card in the outcome of the game?
Dowlar: E.J. Manuel. Sounds strange, probably, to suggest a fifth-year senior could be the wild card. But his ability to read the Gators' defense is going to be the key to the game. If he can't identify the blitzes, FSU's offense will have problems. If he can, Florida State's offense will have success.
DiRocco: Florida RB Mike Gillislee. The Gators still don’t know how much QB Jeff Driskel will play, and he’ll likely be limited to a certain degree. Gillislee might have to end up being THE offense, especially if the FSU pass rush is all over Driskel or Jacoby Brissett. It won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty, but Gillislee is going to have to do his best against one of the nation’s top defensive fronts.
Hale: Piggybacking off the last question, I'm going to say it's EJ Manuel. We're still not entirely sure how the reps at QB will be split for the Gators, but I think the expectations for either one will be tempered. For Manuel, however, this is something of a career game -- a top-10 showdown against an in-state rival with a legitimately great defense. Quarterback is the one area you'd think FSU has a real edge, but it's up to Manuel to make sure he takes advantage.
Tyson: I'm breaking the rules here and saying kicker Caleb Sturgis and punter Kyle Christy will have a huge impact on this game. Both teams have excellent defenses and it could come down to field position and field goals. Florida has two of the best in the country and they will certainly need both players to have big games in order to win on Saturday.
What’s the one matchup you will watch closely in this game?
Dowlar: Florida's front seven against the Seminoles' offensive line and running backs. I would be shocked if the Gators didn't try to bring pressure early and often. How will the Seminoles offense respond? Could be telling as to the result.
DiRocco: Florida’s corners vs. Florida State’s receivers. The Gators play a lot of man coverage with Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy and that puts a lot of pressure on those three to not give up big plays. That’ll be key against Rashad Greene (14.4 yards per catch, 5 TDs), Rodney Smith (14.5 ypc, 3 TDs) and Kelvin Benjamin (17.1 ypc, 4 TDs). All three are big, physical receivers. There will be some jump balls thrown. Let’s see who wins them.
Hale: The guys in the trenches are going to be key on both sides, but I think it'll be particularly interesting to see how the Gators offensive line holds up against FSU's front four. Florida wants to run the ball, but the Seminoles have allowed few holes up the middle and have the athleticism on the edges to keep up with the Gators outside. And if Driskel is forced to throw more than he'd like, it could be a long day with Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine on the prowl.
Tyson: For me, it's Florida State's defensive line against Florida's offensive line. After starting the season strong, the Gators have struggled up front in the last several weeks. FSU has two of the best defensive ends in the country in Werner and Carradine. Chaz Green and Xavier Nixon, who have both battled injuries over the last few weeks, will need to have their best games of the season for Florida to have a chance.
What’s your prediction?
Dowlar: It is pretty clear to me that Florida State has the more balanced team, but Florida has been in more high-profile battles this season. I think facing Bud Foster's defense just a couple of weeks ago will lend a huge benefit for Manuel, the offensive line, running backs and even Jimbo Fisher. I expect an absolute physical war in the first half, much like last year, and the depth on Florida State's defense to eventually take over. FSU 27, UF 14.
DiRocco: We’ve seen little over the past month to suggest that UF will be able to do much offensively against FSU’s defense. Driskel might not be 100 percent, either. Plus, for whatever reason, the Gators have not played well in rivalry games under Will Muschamp. All that points to: FSU 13, UF 7.
Hale: Given Florida State's veteran quarterback, improved offensive line and home-field advantage, it's hard not to see the Seminoles as the favorite here, but Florida represents a bigger test than FSU has seen all season. I'll be surprised if the Gators can't keep it close, but I think Manuel makes enough plays to give FSU a cushion, and the D eventually forces Driskel into a mistake. FSU 24, UF 13.
Tyson: I believe this will be a low-scoring game, with the team that makes the least amount of mistakes winning this one. With FSU being at home, I think the Noles will win a low-scoring game. FSU 13, UF 10.