No. 4 Florida at No. 10 Florida State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ABC
Line: Florida State -7
For the first time in a long time, there will something more than pride on the line when Florida and Florida State get together on the field this Saturday. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10, and each has an opportunity to back-door their way into the National Championship Game with a victory here (for Florida State, they’d also have to win the ACC Championship Game the following weekend as well).
Still with injury concerns and inconsistent play from both teams of late, there are plenty of question marks for both teams entering this game. It also only adds to the intrigue and excitement of this matchup.
So what do you need to know as these two teams get set to tussle at Doak-Campbell Stadium this Saturday?
Let’s take a look.
For Florida to Win: They need to force E.J. Manuel into turnovers.
Look, the simple truth is that when evaluating this game it’s hard to see any scenario where the Gators put up very many points offensively. Not only are they going up against the No. 1 defense in college football (the Seminoles allow a meager 236 yards per game) but the health of quarterback Jeff Driskel is also a major concern. Driskel was cleared to practice earlier this week and will play Saturday, but his effectiveness will also be in question.
That’s also why for Florida to win Saturday they’re going to have figure out ways to get points from places other than their offense, and it starts with a defense which as forced 24 turnovers this season. Because of it, the Gators defense should give Seminoles signal-caller E.J. Manuel- a competent quarterback, who at times can be turnover prone- fits all day. To his credit, Manuel has only thrown two interceptions in his last four games, but is still the type of player that is one play away from making a really bad decision.
For Florida to win, they’ll have to take advantage of that.
For Florida State to Win: They need to limit the Gators’ run game.
Again, with Jeff Driskel limited, it’s no secret that Florida is going to try and keep the score as low as possible and run the ball to keep the clock moving. It’s also why Florida State has to take away the run with Mike Gillislee and force whomever is playing quarterback (be it Driskel or Jacoby Brissett) to beat them. As we all know, even when their quarterbacks were at 100 percent, Florida was hardly a team which passed the ball effectively; the Gators currently rank 118th nationally with just 143 yards per game through the air.
Stopping the run will be key for Florida State. If they can do that, they’ll basically stop the Florida offense all together.
Key Player, Florida: It has to be whoever the heck ends up quarterback, right?
Look, we just spent the last two paragraphs explaining how important the run game is, and how desperately the Gators need Mike Gillislee to step up. At the same time, if they can get even minimal play from whoever plays quarterback, the Gators will be right in this game. For all the talk about the Gators struggles on offense of late, it’s not like Florida State is some kind of offensive juggernaut either.
Like we’ve said in the previous paragraphs, the quarterback play here doesn’t need to be great, just competent. If Florida can get “competent” and rely on their run game and defense to do the rest, they could pull the upset Saturday in Tallahassee.
Key Player, Florida State: Devonta Freeman.
Again, I feel like we’re getting a little repetitive here, but if there’s one theme to take away from this preview, it’s this: Defenses will rule the day Saturday. Offense will be at a minimum. So every little bit from every single contributor will help.
That’s also why Freeman’s emergence the last few weeks has been so important.
With Chris Thompson out to injury, Freeman has provided a real run-threat for the Seminoles, and a real opportunity to take some of the pressure off of Manuel to do it all by himself in the pocket. In his last three games Freeman has rushed for at least 100 yards in two of them, and has gone for at least 70 yards in four of their last five.
As a matter of fact, if you want to know how valuable Freeman is, just know this: In the four games in which he rushed for at least 70 yards, Florida State has won by an average of 31 points. In the one game he went under 70 yards, though? It was against Virginia Tech, and FSU won by just six.
Key Stat: 12, which is the number of years since these two teams last entered this game with both ranked in the Top 10 (a stat which comes via our good friend Coley Harvey of the Orlando Sentinel).
If that doesn’t tell you just how big this one is, nothing will.
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football and beyond, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.