Florida at Florida State: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. TV: ABC
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida-Florida State game has an old-school feel to it this year for the first time in a long time.
Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden would approve.
For the first time in 12 years, both the Gators and Seminoles are ranked in the top 10 for their annual showdown. When this rivalry was college football’s best in the 1990s, the two programs were ranked in the top 10 every year from 1990-2000 when they met.
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The Gators have dominated the rivalry in recent years, but under third-year head coach Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles have won the past two, including a 21-7 win at The Swamp a year ago in Florida coach Will Muschamp’s first season.
Besides underwhelming production on offense from both teams, what made last year’s Sunshine Showdown seem out of place was that it marked the first time in 25 years neither program was ranked in the top 25 at the time of their regular-season finale.
That appears more of an anomaly than a norm, thankfully.
“Hopefully it’s back to where it should be; where it’s like this every year,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said Wednesday of the rivalry.
Florida and Florida State meet again on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium. They both are 10-1. They both remain in the national championship picture. When the BCS No. 4 Gators face the No. 10 Seminoles on Saturday, fans across the country will be watching.
Just like the old days.
“We didn’t play very well in this game last year, and we’re certainly looking forward to the opportunity that we have in front of us Saturday,” Muschamp said.
What do the Gators have to do to take advantage of their opportunity? Here are three keys to victory:
1. The Gators’ offensive line must stay healthy and cohesive
In one of Florida’s signature wins this season, the offensive line played a starring role in a 14-6 victory over LSU in October.
The Gators dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half and helped running back Mike Gillislee run for 146 yards. The Gators were so good up front that they used their final 25 snaps of the game on running plays.
Like LSU, Florida State features a deep and talented defensive line led by defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Florida’s offensive line hasn’t been healthy for much of the second half of the season, but the Gators appear relatively healthy entering Saturday’s game.
Starting left tackle Xavier Nixon and left guard James Wilson returned from knee injuries a week ago, center Jon Harrison has remained a rock despite playing portions of the season with an elbow injury, and right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Chaz Green — both slowed by ankle injuries recently — have improved and appear close to full speed.
For the Gators to move the ball consistently against the Seminoles’ No. 1-ranked defense, Florida’s offensive line will need to be healthy to win the individual battles up front.
2. Florida’s offense has to help out the defense
The defense and special teams have carried the Gators recently, pitching a shutout last week against Jacksonville State and blocking a punt in the final seconds two weeks ago to defeat Louisiana-Lafayette.
While Florida relies heavily on its defense and special teams, the Gators’ offense can’t be missing in action on Saturday in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are too good.
Muschamp announced Wednesday that sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed the Jacksonville State game with an ankle injury, is set to start against Florida State.
Driskel’s dual-threat abilities must be highlighted against a defense as talented as Florida State’s. He will need to use his athleticism on the run to make plays on the ground and in the passing attack.
The Gators can’t get one-dimensional. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease, known for his creativity, will need to devise some colorful play-calling to keep the Seminoles from stacking the box and keying in on Gillislee and Driskel in the running game like many teams have recently.
3. The Gators can’t lose the turnover battle
Florida’s most significant advantage over the Seminoles — at least on paper — is turnover margin. The Gators are plus-13 this season, and the Seminoles are minus-2.
The Gators turned the ball over four times in last year’s loss to FSU and forced only one turnover. Other than in the loss to Georgia — when the Gators turned the ball over six times — they have been efficient at ball security and allowed the defense to come up with enough takeaways to make a difference.
Florida will need to rely on a similar plan Saturday. If the Gators win the turnover battle, their chances of winning the game increase significantly.