Four weeks into this season, the Gators were 3-1 and ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Poll. Their only loss was by just two points to then-No. 1 Alabama. The Gators and their fans were fired up about the possibilities of this season and were talking about winning out and getting a rematch with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, Florida State was 0-4 and the laughingstock of the country following their Hail Mary loss to Jacksonville State. Coach Mike Norvell was starting to catch some heat following a 3-10 start to his tenure.
Obviously, these two teams have gone in completely opposite directions since then. While Florida is still slightly favored to win Saturday’s battle for bowl eligibility in the Swamp, Florida State is the team with all of the momentum, and Florida is the team with the interim head coach.
UF has lost five of its last seven games, while the Seminoles have won five of their last seven games, including wins over Miami and Boston College over the last two weeks.
For the Gators to beat their rival and make a bowl game, they’re going to have to play with great focus and intensity. While Florida State still lacks talent and depth at some positions, they’re not incompetent pushovers anymore.
“They’re a good team,” Florida interim head coach Greg Knox said. “Good team. We had the chance to watch them on video. They are actually playing very well right now – very, very well. Doing things well on offense, playing hard on defense. So, it’s a challenge. But the biggest thing, it is a rivalry game, all right? It is a rivalry game, and we’re sending out a group of seniors, and we’re going to make sure it’s done the right way.”
Offensively, the Seminoles’ strength is their running game. Jashaun Corbin is a powerful between-the-tackles runner who ranks sixth in the ACC with 877 yards on 137 carries.
Treshaun Ward complements him with a smaller build and a shiftier running style. He’s carried the ball 77 times for 490 yards. Corbin and Ward are tied for the ACC lead with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average.
Quarterback Jordan Travis is also an integral part of their running game, as he’s rushed for 428 yards and six touchdowns on 117 carries.
Norvell likes to wear down defenses by going up-tempo and pounding them with Corbin several times in a row, so it’ll be important for the Gators (5-6, 2-6 SEC) to have the right personnel on the field, get lined up quickly and play with physicality up front.
“They’re a pretty good team,” UF linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing at practice – practicing hard and flying to the ball. As long as we do that, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Florida State’s offense has been held back by the lack of a passing attack. Travis, McKenzie Milton and Chubba Purdy have combined to complete just 61.6 percent of their throws for 201.5 yards per game, which ranks 99th in the FBS.
The biggest reason for their struggles in the passing game is their lack of pass-protection. Their offensive line has surrendered 33 sacks, which is tied for 110th in the FBS. Because they haven’t been able to protect their quarterbacks, they’ve had to scrap some of their more complicated, longer developing passing plays and go with some short throws to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands quickly. That formula hasn’t worked out great for them.
That makes it important for Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox, Khris Bogle and co. to win their matchups and get consistent pressure on Travis. They’ve got to continue to make FSU’s offense one-dimensional.
On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles are good at making impact plays with their front-seven. They’re tied for 21st in the country with 32 sacks, and they rank 11th nationally with 7.2 tackles-for-loss per game.
Georgia transfer defensive end Jermaine Johnson has been a menace to opposing quarterbacks this season. He leads the ACC and is tied for fifth in the country with 10 ½ sacks. He’s also forced a couple of fumbles and knocked down a pair of passes.
The Gators don’t have the luxury of sliding their protection his way all the time because Keir Thomas (6 ½ sacks) and Derrick McLendon (3 ½ sacks, 1 forced fumble) are also pass-rushing threats. That trio has also accounted for 33 ½ tackles-for-loss.
If Florida can keep those three guys from dominating up front, they should be able to have some success offensively. Florida State ranks 71st in the FBS in total defense (379.6 yards per game), 74th in scoring defense (26.7 points per game) and 75th in passing defense (234.5 yards per game).
The Seminoles (5-6, 4-4 ACC) have done a good job of bending but not breaking at times this season, as their 70 percent opponent red zone scoring rate ranks ninth in the country. That could be one of the biggest keys to the game given that UF only scored two touchdowns on four red-zone trips against Missouri last week.
While Gators fans and the media have shifted most of their focus to the coaching search and what might lie ahead for the program, UF’s players and coaches are focused on the present. They’d love nothing more than to beat their rival, play in a bowl game and walk away from this difficult season with something to smile about.
“I think it would mean a lot,” Knox said. “No. 1, we’d finish the season with a winning record. And No. 2, we’d finish beating our rival at home. I think it would mean a lot to these guys, and I know they want to go out the right way. Again, as I talked to them [on Monday] morning, I think they’ve got one goal in mind and that is to win this game.”
The Gators have plenty of motivation.
“You don’t want to lose to Florida State, and that’s just that,” Hopper said. “Like, you’re a Gator, you don’t want to get beat by them guys down there. We just want to come out and play hard.”