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Special teams gives Gators distinct advantage over Seminoles in a close, ugly game

With two of the nation's top defenses butting heads Saturday, points and offensive production will be at a premium. And so will field position.

Special teams play is often overlooked by the casual fan, but Florida would not be where it is at this point in the season without stellar play in that phase.

The Gators have made a habit of "winning ugly" by coming up with big plays on special teams that helped overshadow poor offensive performances, like when Loucheiz Purifoy blocked a punt and Jelani Jenkins returned it for a touchdown in the final seconds to allow Florida to escape against Louisiana two weeks ago. The unit has blocked four kicks this season, and place kicker Caleb Sturgis is routinely referred to by coach Will Muschamp as "the best kicker in the nation."

Sturgis was named Monday as a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, and he is as close to automatic on field goals as there is in college football.

But the unsung hero is Gators punter Kyle Christy, who was named Monday one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award. Christy is averaging 46.29 gross yards per punt this season, which ranks fourth nationally, and Florida's net average of 41.6 is second-best nationally. He has 25 punts downed inside the 20, 24 punts of 50 yards or longer and 19 forced fair catches.

In a close game against LSU, Christy helped make the difference. He averaged 49.1 yards on seven punts with three downed inside the 20, including two inside the 10 after Florida's first two drives to help flip the field and bury LSU inside its own end.

In comparison, Florida State ranks 121st nationally with an average of just 35.87 yards per punt. With the leg of Cason Beatty, the Seminoles average just 34.5 net yards per punt. And the punt Beatty had blocked in the fourth quarter against North Carolina State was the deciding play in Florida State's only loss this season.

However, FSU wide receiver and return man Rashad Greene is one of the best in the country, averaging 15.35 per return with two touchdowns scored on punt returns this season. And Florida is facing some uncertainty at both return roles. Regular returner Andre Debose coming back from injury this week, but Muschamp said he will not immeditely resume the job. Plus, safety De'Ante Saunders, who filled in nicely for Debose, will miss the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury.

Both teams have shown the ability to force fair catches, as Florida and Florida State each allow fewer than 5.2 yards per return on average. The burden is on Christy and Beatty to hang it up there to prevent returns, and the gunners to get downfield and wrap up. By the numbers, and with how well Purifoy has played in that gunner role, it's hard to say the advantage here goes to Florida.

The difference between the two net averages doesn't seem like that much, but 7 yards of field position could mean the difference between making a 45-yard field goal to win the game late or missing a 52-yarder to lose.

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