This is the biggest this rivalry has been in a decade. While the passion this game has been played with hasn't waned over the years, it's been a while since both of these teams were up. Today's game has national implications like a UF-FSU rivalry game should.
Florida, who boasts the best BCS computer average, could back into a BCS title shot with a win today and a Notre Dame loss. With either Georgia or Alabama set to knock the other out in the SEC championship game the Gators could sneak into a title shot without even winning their own conference.
Conversely, the BCS computers hate FSU like John James Fisher is really named John James Connor. The 'Noles actually out-rank the Gators in the coaches poll but an abysmal computer average has tanked their BCS ranking and kept them out of the national conversation. FSU needs a resounding win plus some help from the pollsters and other teams ahead of them losing to hope to neutralize their computer average.
That doesn't look likely for Florida State but it could also make them dangerous.
Florida has something to lose in this game, their shot is still quite strong. Florida State has nothing to lose. That could make this interesting...
Here are three things to watch for...
The Battle in the Trenches
Both Florida and Florida State boast two of the top defensive lines in the country. Last year, those units dominated the game in Gainesville, but that came with the caveat that the FSU line was held together by sinew and duct tape. Immediately following the game several players had season ending surgery and in the Champs Bowl a month later there were four new starters in front of EJ Manuel.
This year, as Devonta Freeman and Rashad Greene have told us, the 'Noles are healthier. A lot of that comes with improved depth, but it also has to do with FSU being a bigger, stronger, more imposing offensive line this year. What gives the FSU line even more confidence is the fact that all season, they have squared off against their own defensive front in practice. As Tre Jackson said on Tuesday, they're yet to see a better defensive front than they practice against all week. That should pay huge dividends today. If FSU can establish themselves in the trenches on offense and establish the run game, I'm not sure the Gators will have an answer.
On the other side of the ball the Florida State defensive front is rated the best in the nation. FSU is number one against the run and their ends have combined for 20 sacks this season. That means that UF will need to work even harder to protect Jeff Driskel and that if they can't establish their own run game early, that they'll be forced into a one-dimension offensive look with two first-rounder picks pinning their ears back all day.
This game will be won or lost in the trenches.
The emotion of this rivalry is always huge. From the time the bands take the field and face off against one another an hour before gametime all the way to the final gun, this game is emotional for all parties involved. Which team settles down first and harnesses that emotion will be the one who gets the early edge.
EJ Manuel has to have a career-game today, not from a numbers standpoint but in terms of the leadership he offers. Outside of Rodney Smith and Lonnie Pryor, there's a lot of youth around EJ Manuel and he's going to need to make sure those guys are keeping their heads on level and staying in the moment. Florida's defense is going to send plenty of pressure, if EJ can keep a cool head, make his reads and get the ball out quickly then Florida State should find its typical Doak-based offensive rhythm. But it's going to be up to Manuel to keep their emotions in check, or else mistakes can (and will) happen.
On the other side of the ball, Florida State has a very experienced defense that should be poised to play in this kind of atmosphere. FSU's defense hasn't missed a game all season (unlike the offense), they should come out amped up and ready to play. But just like with the offense, guys like Karlos Williams, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith will need to dial it back and stay within themselves emotionally. All three are just a little over-excitement from a late hit and that's what FSU cannot afford today.
The team that keeps its head will have the edge...
If there's one phase of the game that Florida State could give things away in, it's special teams. Specifically in the punting phase. While FSU can ill-afford any special teams mistakes today, a shanked kickoff or a hold on a return wouldn't be nearly as detrimental as a miscue in the punting game.
Florida has snuck by with wins this year thanks to their special teams. If they have to line up on offense and outscore FSU the traditional way, I don't know if UF has the firepower. But if Florida State gives the Gators good field position and momentum with a punting miscue, that's all irrelevant.
UF is highly opportunistic, they'll take advantage of mistakes and penalties and Florida State has proven they'll make them.
This season FSU has let a couple punts get blocked and both Rashad Greene and Tyler Hunter have muffed returns. That absolutely cannot happen today and unfortunately for the Seminoles, that probably means sacraficing one of their most potent weapons– the return game.
Unless the coverage team parts like the Red Sea, FSU needs to focus on fielding punts cleanly today (and not get caught looking downfield to set up the return). While it's true that anytime one of the Seminole returnmen touches the ball they could house it, there's about the same degree of probability they mishandle fielding the punt. You can play those odds against Wake Forest and BC, I wouldn't roll the dice with Florida...
I'll be back in a few hours with the pregame post...