Florida at Florida State: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET TV: ABC
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Flash back to 2009. Florida State lost to Miami, South Florida and Florida — in the same season.
Jimbo Fisher took over for Bobby Bowden in 2010, and the turnaround has been dramatic against Florida State’s rivals. Since then, the Seminoles are 6-0 with an unbeaten streak of nearly 1,100 days against Sunshine State teams.
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BCS No. 4 Florida (10-1) and No. 10 Florida State (10-1) face off Saturday in a game with significant implications. The Gators need a victory and a Notre Dame loss to USC to make a jump into the national championship game. The Seminoles need another win over a top 25 team to convince poll voters of their legitimacy.
Fisher fully understands the big picture of college football, having criticized the BCS and the computer rankings a few weeks ago. But he dismissed any such questions this week, insisting this was a matchup of Florida State vs. Florida and not Florida State vs. the rankings.
“If you need that for motivation to play Florida, then something isn’t right,” Fisher said. “We’re going to play Florida, and it’s nothing about the BCS or rankings or anything else. We know the importance of this game because it’s Florida. That’s why you’re here at Florida State: to play, compete and do well against Florida, and that’s our sole purpose.”
Saturday’s game will be one for the defenses: Florida State is No. 1 and Florida is No. 4 in total defense. Both are in the top 10 in points allowed per game; the Gators give up just 11, while the Seminoles allow 13.
The past two seasons, Florida State has beaten Florida with defense. The Seminoles, under defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, have given up just seven points in each game. And the 2012 defense is Stoops’ best group in his three seasons in Tallahassee.
Florida State’s offense is also motivated to have a better showing than last year against Florida. The Seminoles won 21-7 but received an interception return for a touchdown and two more interceptions set up the other touchdowns. Florida State managed just 95 offensive yards behind an injury-ravaged offensive line.
For Florida State to extend its streak against Florida, here are three keys to a win in Saturday’s game.
1. Minimize Florida’s ground game
We may know in the first few Florida drives how this game will play out. Will quarterback Jeff Driskel be effective running the ball on his injured ankle? Will he be able to run at all?
If he can, the Florida ground attack could wear on an FSU defense that is No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision (70.6 rushing yards per game). Florida averages 189.5 rushing yards per game, and Mike Gillislee (4.6 yards per carry) is just 36 yards shy of 1,000 yards this season.
Driskel is much more of a threat to run than to pass (he averages just 132 passing yards per game). So if Florida State can consistently stop the run and force three-and-outs — the Seminoles lead the nation by allowing teams to convert third downs just 25 percent of the time — it should lead to a victory.
2. Attack through the air
Florida State has had seven games in which it has rushed for 200 or more yards this season. But Florida is allowing just 95 rushing yards per game, and the Seminoles will likely face a tremendous challenge.
Florida State will try to run and will need to be effective in short-yardage situations with Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. But a consistent passing attack — and a few calculated shots down field — will be the best option to put some points on the board.
The Seminoles have too many talented receivers — five have caught at least 21 passes. Rashad Greene is a playmaker who leads the team in catches (38), yards (549) and receiving touchdowns (five).
EJ Manuel doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards. He just needs to be accurate, distribute the wealth and lead some efficient drives.
3. Win on special teams
With two very good defenses on the field, the game could come down to a mistake. And Florida State needs to make sure that doesn’t happen on special teams.
Florida State needs to field punts cleanly, something of a problem with previous returners like Greene and Tyler Hunter (receiver Kenny Shaw will handle punt returns on Saturday).
Freshman Cason Beatty needs to punt with consistency, and Dustin Hopkins needs to do what he has done all year and consistently kick field goals (he’s made 22 of 26 field goal attempts).
The Seminoles also need to be wary of Florida’s ability to block punts. The Gators defeated Louisiana-Lafayette with a last-minute punt block that was returned for a touchdown. Florida State also had punts blocked against South Florida and NC State, and the one against the Wolfpack contributed to Florida State’s loss.