TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For EJ Manuel and the rest of Florida State's seniors, the moment is emotional by design. They'll take the field Saturday knowing its the last time they'll do so at Doak Campbell Stadium, a mix of nostalgia and finality.
The same could be true for junior Bjoern Werner, too, should he decide to enter the NFL draft at year's end, but he's choosing not to look at it that way.
"I'm just going to finish the season and think about it after the season," Werner said. "If I start thinking about it too early, I'm just going to mess up my game. We have big games -- Florida, an ACC championship, and hopefully an Orange Bowl. I can't think about that stuff."
Werner is one of a handful of Florida State underclassmen who could forgo a final season with the Seminoles in favor of an NFL career, which could make Saturday's game all the more significant if they let the weight of the decision sink in.
So far, however, they all appear to be following Werner's lead.
"I never put that pressure on me," said safety Lamarcus Joyner, whose draft future is perhaps the most uncertain of any of FSU's potential early departures. "That's something that has to be evaluated definitely at the end of the season."
Werner figures to be a sure first-round pick if he departs early, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes could be as well.
A year ago, as a redshirt sophomore, Rhodes weighed the decision, too, but an injury during FSU's bowl game made the choice easy. This time around, he's acutely aware that the finality of a season and a career can sneak up on a player -- whether or not he's thinking of heading to the NFL.
"Every game to me is emotional," Rhodes said. "You've got to cherish every second of it. That's how I go into every game."
Rhodes, Werner, Joyner and linebacker Christian Jones could all choose to leave at year's end, but that's still a decision that doesn't need to be made for a few weeks.
In the interim, there's a game with Florida -- a team none of the four juniors have lost to as active players. Keeping that streak alive means a lot more at this point than a career that may soon be ending.
"Do I think about it? Everybody thinks about it," Joyner said. "That's why you do what you do. But it doesn't cross my mind as far as whether I'm going to declare or not. … If you worry about something like that, it breaks you down mentally. You already have things to focus on during the season."
Noles to watch:
A year ago, Florida State's offensive line was a shambles by the time it faced off against Florida's stout defense. This season, only center Bryan Stork remains a starter, and the line has been markedly improved. Florida still boasts a powerful front four and a pass rush that could give Manuel problems, but Watson and Erving provide a far more athletic edge capable of slowing down the Gators' attack. Still, FSU has allowed eight sacks in the past two games after giving up just 13 in the first nine games of the season.
2. Werner and Cornellius Carradine
If FSU's offensive line is going to have its hands full with the Florida pass rush, the favor should at least be returned by Werner and Carradine, who combined for three sacks against Maryland last week. The defensive ends have tallied 20 sacks on the season, the most by any pair of teammates in the nation. Meanwhile, Florida's O line has allowed the second most sacks in the SEC.
3. Cason Beatty
The freshman punter has one of the lowest punting averages in the nation, which Florida is counting on as a major advantage in what figures to be a game where field position matters greatly. Beatty certainly doesn't have the same leg as Florida's Kyle Christy, but as Fisher pointed out this week, he's largely managed to get the job done. He's booted a higher percentage of punts downed inside the opponent's 10 than Christy.
Gators to watch:
1. Jeff Driskel
Florida State still isn't sure how much of Driskel it will see after the Florida quarterback injured his ankle two weeks ago. Gators coach Will Muschamp said Driskel should play, and if he can stay on the field, he could offer some freedom for the Florida offense, which boasts relatively few real weapons. Driskel hasn't been great in the passing game, but he's more mobile than the alternative, and FSU has struggled at times this season against the likes of Logan Thomas and Tajh Boyd, two other athletic QBs.
The Florida running back ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing with 964 yards on the season, and he's been the focal point of the Gators' offensive attack. Gillislee is averaging 19.2 carries per game, tops in the SEC and 22nd nationally. His 4.57 yards per carry average, however, isn't exactly elite (25th among SEC players) and FSU's run defense has allowed just 70 yards per game, the best mark in the nation.
The strength of Florida's defense may be the secondary, where Evans and Elam have combined to be one of the most productive pairs of safeties in the country. They're 1-2 on the team in tackles, while Elam has chipped in with 9.5 TFLs, and they've combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble for the season.
By the numbers:
95.18. That's the average number of rushing yards allowed by Florida's defense this season, the sixth-best mark in the country and by far the best of any of FSU's opponents. In fact, Florida State's other nine FBS opponents have allowed, on average, 171.4 yards per game on the ground. Still, last week's opponent, Maryland, ranks as the second-best rushing D the Seminoles have gone against, and James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman combined for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.
7.27 and 3.67. That's the yards per play and the yards allowed per play, respectively, for Florida State this season. Both numbers are the best in the nation. FSU is one of just four teams averaging better than 7 yards per play on offense, and Alabama is the only other team in the country allowing fewer than 4 yards per play on defense. The 3.6 yards per play difference between what FSU is averaging offensively and allowing defensively is by far the best mark in the nation, with only five other teams managing half as much.
132.4. That's the number of passing yards per game Driskel has averaged this season, and Florida's passing game ranks a dismal 118th nationally. Driskel's 6.9 yards per attempt puts him 73rd in the nation among QBs, but if he could match that Saturday, it would constitute something of a breakthrough. Florida State's defense is allowing a best-in-the-nation 4.9 yards per attempt this season.
65. That's the number of passing yards Manuel accounted for in last year's win over Florida, the fewest he's had in any start of his career. Playing behind a dismal offensive line, Manuel had little time to throw and was only asked to pass 13 times in the game, but he still says the performance haunts him, and he's aiming to make up for lost time this week against a Gators' secondary that is allowing 186 passing yards per game -- 19th best in the country.
1,091. That's the number of days since FSU last lost to a team from the state of Florida, which puts this year's team in position to accomplish a unique feat. Florida State has never held a three-game winning streak against both Miami (Fla.) and Florida concurrently, but that could all change with a win Saturday. FSU has toppled the Hurricanes already this season (its third straight) and can make it three in a row against the Gators with a win this week. "That's something I want to tell my kids and brag about at reunions," Joyner said.