Playing in what has become a conference afterthought in the ACC, the Florida State Seminoles have yet to be challenged this season like they will when Florida pulls into Tallahassee on Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. clash.
With both teams sitting at 10-1, and with ever so slight BCS national championship implications on the line, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher not only expects an electric atmosphere in Doak Campbell Stadium, but expects his Seminoles to take on what will certainly be their toughest test to date this season.
“They’re a great challenge,” Fisher said on Monday. “One of the top defensive teams in the country. … Very dominating run-pass defense. Great on special teams. They have playmakers on offense.”
With the Gators currently sitting at fourth in the nation in total defense and FSU at No. 1, there is little doubt that Saturday’s pivotal matchup will be a defensive battle. According to Fisher, not only will the stingy Florida defense be the best his team has seen all season, but they also remind him an awful lot of the stellar group that he’s assembled in Tallahassee.
“Scheme-wise [the Gators are] doing do a great job,” Fisher said. “Physically, they’re big, they’re strong, they’re athletic. They can cover, they can rush — play the run extremely well.”
Fisher said that Florida’s “dominating” front is the most reflective of his crop of defenders, but he saved some high praise for the back-end of the Gators’ defense as well.
“(Safety Matt) Elam’s a great, great football player,” Fisher said. “Very instinctive, very physical, plays the ball well. The corners — (Loucheiz) Purifoy, and (Marcus) Roberson, and (Jaylen) Watkins, they can play man, they can play zone — they tackle well in space.”
FSU starting quarterback EJ Manuel admitted that he hadn’t seen much of Florida this season prior to watching film on Monday, but the early returns from the film session indicate to him a tough challenge is ahead.
“They got a lot of fast guys, athletic guys that play smart,” Manuel said. “You gotta take what you can get from them. … They’re whole 11 is athletic.”
In Manuel’s first taste of this nasty rivalry, the then-redshirt freshman received a baptism by fire, facing off against No. 1 Florida’s vaunted 2009 defense in front of a raucous Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd. According to Manuel, the ensuing 37-10 drubbing was a learning experience.
“It was definitely an experience that I learned from,” Manuel said. “I think our first drive we got the ball on the one yard line. I remember getting out there — you know I used to watch the games. … So I can remember Saturday afternoons watching with my dad in the house and now I’m actually out here playing against these guys. Looking across and seeing Brandon Spikes, (Carlos) Dunlap, Joe Haden, it wasn’t necessarily being star-struck, but it was like, ‘Wow I’m actually in this moment.’ Back then it was extremely fast, crazy, but looking back at it now, it was a tough game. We didn’t win, but I learned a lot from that game.”
Manuel showed how much he learned from the painful introduction to the rivalry by notching two consecutive victories in the series since then. Despite last year’s 21-7 victory, Manuel said the FSU offense is especially motivated coming into this year’s contest after posting what he believes to be a poor showing in last season’s game, with FSU netting only 95 yards of total offense.
If anyone should be motivated, it should be the entire Gators team as last year marked the first time since the 2002-2003 seasons that they had lost consecutive games to the hated Seminoles. The ugly home loss in the regular season finale put the final stamp on a forgettable season for the Gators, leaving many to wonder what the fortunes would be for the 2012 squad.
With only one loss through 11 games, the Florida program has shown marked improvement in its second year under Will Muschamp, an outcome that has not been a surprise to Fisher, who has been a noted friend of the Gators’ head coach.
“He’s done a great job,” Fisher said of Muschamp. “They play great defense, dynamic on special teams. They’ve won games a lot of different ways. He’s got them believing. … Will’s a great coach.”
Manuel said that he too has not been shocked by UF’s success this year, especially defensively. When asked if he was surprised at their season: “Not at all,” he said. “I thought they were pretty good last year, at least on defense.”
Even though he hails from Virginia, Manuel said that it’s easy to tell what the Florida week means to players in Tallahassee, as players all day on Sunday were already talking about what a win would mean to the program and the importance of maintaining “bragging rights.”
However, to coaches and recruitniks, perhaps the biggest outcome they have worried about in the past was the impact of their team’s win or loss on a potential program-changing recruit — players of which are abundantly cultivated in the state of Florida.
Historically, this game has had an impact on such recruits, with last-minute decisions being made in favor of the “hotter” program at the time. On Monday, however, Fisher offered some interesting insight into the mind of a modern-day prospect in how a victory or loss by a team has a possibly lessened impact on a recruit and his decision.
Fisher said that recruits appear to have their minds made up on schools much earlier in the process these days. He believes that big games between two fiercely competitive programs such as this matchup don’t necessarily have an impact on guys that will be making their final decisions in the upcoming February, but rather, in February two or three years down the road.
“It has implications no doubt,” Fisher said. “Maybe down the road more so than this year. These [prospects], there are always two or three or four every year no matter what goes back and forth between. It’s important to win, but I don’t know how much kids weigh on that anymore as much as they used to.”
Besides the importance a possible victory may have on the future, both teams are operating with a sense of urgency this week knowing that a win on Saturday could possibly place one of them on the verge of hopping into the passenger seat on the bus to Miami for the BCS national championship.
While the Seminoles have opened the week as a touchdown favorite according to some in Vegas, they are fully aware of Florida’s penchant for pulling out close victories. The Gators have won ugly this season, but the bottom line is the team has found ways to win games. According to Fisher, their recipe for success has been simple.
“They believe,” he said. “They compete. And that’s what good teams do. When the running game ain’t going, pass it. When the passing game ain’t going, find a way to do it on defense.”