After an embarrassing 7-6 record in 2011, Florida has made an incredible rebound in 2012 - going 10-1 with just one regular season game remaining. The SEC Title may be out of reach, but this weekend UF faces Florida State in the Sunshine State showdown with the winner declaring instate supremecy. Inside the Gators has the very latest on this weekend's match-up in this Game Week Breakdown. Guerry Smith breaks down FSU with his answers to five burning questions as well previewing five Seminoles players Gator fans should keep an eye on this weekend.
BURNING QUESTIONS: Guerry Smith provides answers to these
five burning questions
1) With the putrid state of Florida's offense, can the Gators do anything against FSU's top-rated defense?
Possibly. Florida won't drive up and down the field and will need its special teams and defense to create scoring opportunities, but the Seminoles have shown some cracks. Clemson, the only highly rated offense the 'Noles faced, put up 426 yards and 37 points. Virginia Tech gained 385 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second half a few weeks ago. The blueprint for a Florida victory is very similar to what happened against LSU, which has a defense on the same level as FSU: stay within one score during what has become an inevitable inept start offensively and wear down the Seminoles mentally and physically in the second half. There will be plenty of three-and-outs early, but FSU is not used to having to play four quarters. North Carolina State, after doing next to nothing in the first half of its shocking 17-16 upset of the 'Noles, gained 78, 59, 42 and 43 on drives in the second half while running 54 plays.
2) Can the Gators avoid killer turnovers against the Seminoles?
The numbers say yes. Florida would be undefeated if not for one uncharacteristic sloppy day in Jacksonville, when it committed more turnovers against Georgia (six) than in its other 10 games combined (five). Anything close to that would guarantee a tattooing in Tallahassee. But FSU is lousy at forcing turnovers, ranking in a tie for 81st nationally out of 120 FBS teams with 16-eight interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Backup strong safety Tyler Hunter leads the Seminoles with three interceptions. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is the only other player with more than one pick. No FSU player has forced more than one fumble. When explaining a particularly ugly victory against NC State about 10 years ago, former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said sometimes the best option on offense was to run three plays, punt and put his defense back on the field. As silly as it sounds, that approach might work for Will Muschamp. The Gators can win if they don't give the Seminoles a short field with offensive mistakes or blow scoring opportunities with red zone turnovers, like Jeff Driskel's interception near the end of the first half against Georgia.
3) What is the key to controlling FSU's offense?
If the Gators get E.J. Manuel out of rhythm, it will be long day for the Seminoles' offense. He is capable of outstanding throws and absolutely torched Clemson after FSU fell behind 28-14, completing 27-of-35 passes for 380 yards as the Seminoles roared back to win 49-37. His overall numbers are outstanding (68.8 percent completions, 21 TDS, six interceptions). He still has shaky pocket sense, though, getting sacked more often than he should, and has been shaky in two starts against Florida. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, he threw two interceptions as FSU lost 37-10 in Gainesville. Last year, he went 6-of-13 for 65 yards as the Seminoles won 21-7 in Gainesville despite finishing with fewer than 100 yards of offense. His longest completion in those two games went for 29 yards, and he was sacked seven times. If the Gators make him second-guess himself early, FSU will be in trouble. If he throws some darts for big gains early and grows in confidence, Florida will have a hard time keeping up.
4) Why will the Seminoles be in trouble if Manuel has a tough day?
Because they really should not be able to run on Florida, which is holding opponents to 2.97 yards per carry. Chris Thompson, who tore an ACL against Miami, was a difference maker as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, averaging 7.5 yards per carry and 11.8 yards per catch. His replacements, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., are nothing special. Freeman, a 5-foot-8, 209-pound sophomore, had a nice day against Maryland last Saturday (16 carries, 148 yards), but we're talking about a running game that produced minus-8 yards against Virginia Tech. Wilder, an upright runner, needs holes to do any damage, and the Gator D figures to outplay FSU's sophomore dominated line.
5) What is Florida's biggest concern?
It is keeping FSU's defensive ends off of Driskel and/or Jacoby Brissett. The Gators have allowed 32 sacks, an absurdly high number since they have attempted only 193 passes, and FSU's greatest strength is pass-rushing defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine, who have combined for 20 sacks. Florida will struggle enough getting first downs when it is not in unfavorable down and distances. It will be virtually impossible on second-and-19 or third-and-17. Field position will be important in this game, too. The Gators have a clear edge at punter, with Kyle Christy averaging 46.3 yards to Cason Beatty's 37.6. They don't want to throw away that advantage by going backwards on sacks.
FIVE TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Here's a list of five Seminoles players Gator fans will want to keep an eye on
1) E.J. Manuel, a 6-foot-5, 238-pound senior quarterback
Smith Says: Though having by far his best year, Manuel was sacked five times by Virginia Tech and four times by North Carolina State in FSU's two nail-biters. Much like Driskel (most of the time), at times he tends to hold on to the ball too long and does not sense pass rushers.
Smith Says: Werner may be the best football player ever from Germany. With 9.5 sacks and a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss, he is disruptive against the run and the pass. He has broken up seven passes, an incredibly high total for a lineman.
Smith Says: Very few ends lead their team in tackles. Carradine does, with 69, including a team-best 10.5 sacks. He was all over the field in the Seminoles 28-22 win against Virginia Tech, making 11 stops.
Smith Says: The game could come down to a field goal, and Hopkins, one of three Lou Groza Award finalists along with UF's Caleb Sturgis, has hit 22 of 26 with a long of 56. He did go oh-for-2 against Clemson, missing from 44 and 37 yards, in FSU's biggest game to this point.
FIVE FAST FACTS
1) This is the first time both the Gators and Seminoles enter the game with one or fewer loss since 2000, when one-loss FSU beat one-loss Florida 30-7 in Tallahassee on its way to a BCS national title game loss to Oklahoma. That victory also capped a three-game win streak against Florida, something the Seminoles have not achieved since but can do this Saturday after winning the past two years. Florida leads the series 33-21-2 and is 12-11-1 in Tallahassee.
2) The Gators and Seminoles are near the top of the nation in several defensive categories. FSU is first in total defense and rushing defense, allowing a nation's low 2.3 yards per carry. Florida is No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (16 interceptions, 4 TDs) and third in scoring defense. Offensively speaking, the quality of the defenses the two teams have faces is very different, though. UF has played LSU (No. 5), South Carolina (No. 13), Vanderbilt (No. 17) and Georgia (No. 20). The only top 20 defense FSU has gone against is Maryland (No. 15).
3) Defense is not the only area where both teams excel. The game pits two of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award -Hopkins and Florida's Sturgis. Sturgis is 20 of 24 and 7 of 8 from 40 yards or longer. Neither one of them is likely to win the award, though. Tulane's Cairo Santos is perfect on 20 field goals with more attempts and makes from long distances.
4) If turnovers decide the game, the clear edge is Florida's. FSU's turnover ratio is minus-2, with 16 takeaway and 18 giveaways. Florida's turnover ratio is plus-13, with 24 takeways and 11 giveaways.
5) This game should be very close, and the two teams' recruiting rankings the past five years indicate the talent is even, too. Starting with 2012 and going backward, Florida's Rivals.com ratings have been 3, 12, 2, 11 and 3, while FSU's have been 6, 2, 10, 7 and 9.