Florida football: 3 matchups that will define Florida vs. Florida State
Florida and Florida State will renew their bitter rivalry when they meet for the 65th time Saturday night in The Swamp (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).
It’s senior night for a special group of Gators seniors who deserve a great deal of credit for helping turn the program around in Florida’s first two seasons under Dan Mullen and the game will also mark the first night game against a Power 5 opponent for the Gators this season. Couple those factors with New Year’s 6 bowl implications for the Gators and the chance to vanquish a struggling in-state rival and you get a recipe for an emotional night in The Swamp.
For all the proud history of the Sunshine State Showdown, it has not been a game that produces many upsets — at least not in this century. Since 2000, underdogs have won just twice — Florida in 2004 and again in 2012, and the higher ranked team has lost only 3 times (Florida in 2002 and 2015 and FSU in 2004). And while the 1990s delivered some classics, many games the past 2 decades haven’t even been close. In fact, only 4 games since 2000 have been decided by 10 points or less. In other words, the team having the better season tends to win and win decisively.
Here are 3 matchups that will determine whether Florida continues that trend, and earns their first win over FSU in Gainesville this decade in the process.
FSU’s deep shot, explosive passing game vs. Florida’s secondary
FSU has a good offense.
The Seminoles ranks 42nd in S & P+ efficiency and 34th in passing offense efficiency, mostly thanks to an offense that hits a big number of explosive throws down the field. FSU ranks 2nd nationally, behind only LSU, in pass completions of 50 yards or more, and 4th nationally in completions of 20 yards or more.
The biggest reason is Tamorrion Terry, a bona fide All American caliber wide receiver who ranks 14th nationally in yards per reception at 20.27 yards a catch. Terry broke Ron Dugans and Peter Warrick’s shared career record of 3 70-plus yard touchdown receptions this season, with 4 such catches, and as seen below, he’s spent his whole career being a threat to go the distance every time the ball is thrown his direction.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 18, 2018
Terry isn’t a one-man show though.
DJ Matthews has had a solid season, showing the ability to consistently get open (33 receptions) and pile up yards after the catch.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) November 9, 2019
The Gators’ pass defense has struggled at times this season against talented quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Jake Fromm), but they have been good at limiting the big play. Florida has allowed only 11 completions of 30 yards or more this season (18th nationally) and the Gators are 23rd in pass efficiency defense overall. While no one will be confusing James Blackman with Fromm or Burrow, the downfield passing game against Florida’s safeties is the one area where FSU has a bit of an advantage and I’d expect Kendal Briles to take his fair share of shots down the field.
Kyle Trask and the Florida intermediate pass game against FSU’s secondary
The Gators aren’t likely to run the football against FSU, so let’s get that out of the way up front. The Seminoles rank 32nd nationally in opposing yards per rushing attempt and even without star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, the Noles have held up relatively well against the run.
Mullen said before the Missouri game the Gators “weren’t concerned about the run game” anyway, and that his team “would do what they are good at doing,” which, as it turns out, is the intermediate passing game.
See ya later, Freddie Swain ✌️ pic.twitter.com/ahAAyPlE3x
— Sports Daily (@SportsDGI) October 5, 2019
Florida has completed 130 passes of 10 yards or more this season, ranking 14th in the country. That’s paced a Gators passing attack that ranks 17th in pass efficiency rating and 11th in S&P passing offense.
Trask and the Gators will face a Seminoles defense that is solid at getting to the passer, averaging 2.64 sacks per game and ranking a respectable 51st in defensive havoc rating, but if the Gators can protect Trask — which they’ve done well over the last month for the most part — they’ll have chances to carve FSU up in the intermediate pass game.
FSU’s defense has allowed 116 pass plays of 10 yards or more this season, a number that ranks a woeful 113th nationally. It’s a glaring weakness on a defense that does make enough big plays in pass defense to rank 34th nationally in pass efficiency defense — and a weakness Florida should be able to exploit.
Cam Akers and Jordan Travis against Florida’s stout front 7
If you want to be successful against FSU, you can’t let Cam Akers beat you. Everyone knows that.
Transfer quarterback Jordan Travis, whmo Odell Haggins let off the leash at Boston College, is a wild card though.
Travis is electric with his legs, and has averaged over 20 yards a carry in the past 2 games, with rushes of more than 60 yards in each game. In fact, it was Travis’ touchdown run — on his first snap as a Seminole — that changed the trajectory of FSU’s game at Boston College earlier this month, a win the Noles needed to secure bowl eligibility before they arrived in Gainesville.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) November 9, 2019
Florida didn’t a nice job on Bo Nix, the young Auburn dual-threat quarterback. But Travis gives the FSU run game a wrinkle it has lacked, and he’s a good complementary piece to Akers, the do-everything junior who has had his best season as a Seminole in 2019.
Akers has run for a career high 1,042 ards, despite an inconsistent offensive line that ranks 98th in the country in tackles for loss allowed. He’s also been excellent in the passing game, with 28 receptions for 223 yards. His 17 total touchdowns ranks him 6th nationally, and if FSU is to pull the upset, he’ll need to have a monstrous game.
Travis should help make FSU a bit less predictable in their run schemes, but they’ll need to get a push against a Florida front seven that will be healthy for the first time since early in SEC play. Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard are expected to play, and the Gators have done a very good job against outstanding power run games like Auburn and Georgia this season even without being completely healthy.
Stranger things have happened, to be sure. South Carolina and LSU both gashed the Gators on the ground, proving that Florida can be beat up front. But for the most part, Florida should slow the traditional run game– which means FSU may need to use both Akers and Travis in creative ways to have a chance to win the Noles’ fifth straight game in The Swamp.