Florida vs. Florida State: 3 key matchups in the rivalry game and a prediction
Florida closes its regular season on the road Friday night at bitter rival No. 16 Florida State (7:30 p.m., ABC).
The Black Friday kickoff is a rare departure from the game’s traditional Saturday after Thanksgiving date, but it provides the two premier programs in the state of Florida with a primetime time slot and national television audience. The Seminoles and Gators used to command the national spotlight simply by playing each other annually, with national championship implications a subtext of every meeting between the 2 programs in the 1990s.
Those halcyon days in this rivalry are still fresh in the memory of older Florida and Florida State fans, who recall when Bowden and Spurrier strolled the sidelines, the teams met for 11 consecutive years with both programs ranked in the top 10, and College Gameday made more FSU-UF appearances than any other game over the span of a special decade. Florida State didn’t publicly confirm that they bumped the game to Black Friday to manufacture some of the national attention the rivalry used to draw organically, but that’s the best explanation for Florida State’s decision to break from tradition.
While Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin has said that Florida is unlikely to play on Black Friday when the game moves back to Gainesville in 2023, there’s nothing wrong with a one-off. The extra attention on two programs clawing their way back towards national prominence can’t hurt, and in a game that the data says has always influenced recruiting, a primetime ABC audience in a spectacular environment in Tallahassee can’t hurt either school.
Florida has won 3 straight games in a rivalry that has been dominated by two themes — long winning streaks and wins by favored teams. An underdog hasn’t won the Florida-Florida State game since Florida won in Tallahassee in 2012, and the teams haven’t traded victories back and forth since the early 2000s.
It’s also been a while since there’s been an instant classic Florida-Florida State game. Florida State’s 38-34 win in the 2004 “Swindle in the Swamp” is really the last to qualify, and we’re nearly two decades from that wild affair.
Could Saturday, between two teams the statistics say are relatively evenly matched, be different?
Here are 3 matchups that will define this installment of the Gators and Seminoles, along with a prediction.
The Mismatch: Jordan Travis vs. Florida’s linebackers
Florida’s young linebackers have struggled all season, and Travis, a savvy player who is one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, is a colossal mismatch in favor of the Seminoles. Just a season ago, it was Travis who helped FSU claw their way back into the game in The Swamp, throwing for 202 yards and running for 102 more in leading a furious FSU rally that fell just short. Travis froze Florida linebackers repeatedly in last year’s game, taking whatever the Gators gave him on his way to an outstanding afternoon.
The biggest difference with Travis this season is his improvement as a thrower. For example, a season after ranking 11th in the ACC in completion rate on passes of 20 yards or more, he now ranks 3rd in the ACC in that category, behind only Heisman candidate Drake Maye of UNC and Wake Forest star Sam Hartman.
WATCH: Jordan Travis hits Pokey Wilson for GAME WINNING Touchdown in Miami! ? pic.twitter.com/72f9wGW0DM
— KCamp (@kcampdesign) November 6, 2022
Travis has completed 65% of his passes in 2022, a 3-point jump from his 2021 numbers and a 10-point jump from his first year as a starter in Tallahassee. His ability to hit high-level throws, like this deep out, is a stark difference from his early season struggles with intermediate and deep throws.
It was another week where Jordan Travis didn’t have to do a ton in the passing game but he still did have a few absolute darts. pic.twitter.com/FxeJma06pj
— Curt Weiler (@CurtMWeiler) November 20, 2022
Travis is also a smart player and decision-maker, and he runs with great vision and patience, which is why he’s so dangerous even when teams drop 7 or 8 into coverage.
You see here Louisiana’s defensive gameplan, trying to take away FSU’s passing gameplan by bringing just three on third and medium.
Jordan Travis has a solid five seconds to sit in the pocket and then is able to run up the middle to pick up the first down. pic.twitter.com/6jM3Wms5Zo
— Curt Weiler (@CurtMWeiler) November 20, 2022
On a team without a dominant wide receiver, Travis has made smart choices, spread the football around (6 different Seminoles have 14 receptions or more this year), and of course he’s still the ultimate red zone weapon, capable of running you over if necessary or running by you if you fail to fit a run gap.
— Tomahawk Nation (@TomahawkNation) October 15, 2022
Travis will face a Gators team that has struggled all year to fit run gaps and has had 3 nightmarish games this year against mobile quarterbacks in Gerry Bohannon of USF (102 yards rushing, 1 TD); Jayden Daniels of LSU (393 total yards, 6 TDs accounted for); and Hendon Hooker of Tennessee (461 total yards, 4 TD accounted for). Travis (9th in the country among QB) grades out higher than all of those quarterbacks save Hooker (2nd), per Pro Football Focus, and will be an immense challenge for a young group of Gators linebackers who are talented but mistake-prone.
Compounding problems for Florida, the Gators may be without their best defensive player, star linebacker Ventrell Miller, who was ejected for a targeting penalty called late in the second half of Florida’s loss at Vanderbilt last Saturday. The Gators have appealed the ejection, but as of this writing on Wednesday morning, no ruling has come down on Florida’s appeal.
Miller is a natural candidate to spy Travis and having missed the FSU game a season ago due to injury, he has the skillset to help neutralize the things that made Travis such a problem for the Gators in Gainesville. Without Miller, Florida will need one of Shemar James, Derek Wingo, or seldom-used Scooby Williams to fill that role. None of those players have shown the consistency needed to provide any confidence in the absence of Miller.
This is the game’s largest mismatch, and if FSU exploits if effectively, a Seminoles victory is likely.
Evenly Matched: Florida’s excellent offensive line against FSU’s front
The Seminoles have built their 8-3 record, the program’s first winning season since 2017, on the backs of a terrific defensive line. Led by Jared Verse, the Seminoles pressure the quarterback constantly and are very disruptive, generating an average of 6.41 tackles for loss a game. FSU has feasted on anyone one dimensional, which has been the case the last four weeks, in games FSU has won by an average of 33.5 points. In those 4 contests, no Seminoles opponent averaged over 4 yards per play, and only Georgia Tech scored an offensive touchdown against FSU’s first team defense.
The Gators, however, may be the perfect antidote to a month of Seminoles dominance offensively. Florida’s offensive line grades out as the second best in the SEC, behind only Ole Miss, per Stats Solutions, and Florida ranks second nationally in yards per rush attempt, at 5.9. Florida keeps defenses off balance by running a host of different concepts, from pulling centers and guards in the trap game to counters to more traditional zone read plays. With 3 runners who have 15 or more explosive runs this season, Florida ranks 10th in the country in success rate offense, making them the most prolific offensive team FSU has played this season.
— OnlyGators.com: Florida Gators news (@onlygators) November 12, 2022
Florida’s best runs, like Trevor Etienne’s 85-yard house call above, tend to come behind O’Cyrus Torrence, who grades out as the top offensive linemen in the sport this season, per PFF. Torrence’s run blocking grade of 92.9 is the best in the country, and the best run block grade for a Power 5 offensive guard in 5 seasons.
But the Gators can also run behind the other side of their offensive line, thanks to Ethan White, another guard in the PFF Top 50, and center Kinglsey Eguakan, an athletic center who gets tremendous leverage as a run blocker, on plays like this Montrell Johnson Jr. touchdown run against LSU.
If Florida’s traditional run game works, it will ease the pressure on Anthony Richardson, who is explosive as a runner but bizarrely didn’t run the ball often in Florida’s loss at Vanderbilt. Billy Napier said this week Richardson needs to make better decisions as a runner, because his ability and willingness to keep on the zone read is essential to Florida reclaiming its success on the ground after struggling, and then abandoning, the run game against Vanderbilt. When Richardson makes good zone read choices, Florida’s offense is dynamic:
— Zach Abolverdi (@ZachAbolverdi) November 5, 2022
Can he do that again Friday?
Florida will be challenged by FSU’s outstanding defensive line, but the Gators will also be the best offensive line FSU has faced this year. Who prevails here will help decide the football game.
The Mystery: The FSU run game vs. Florida’s improving defensive line
Jordan Travis hasn’t had to put a game on his shoulders often this season. The biggest reason? A vastly improved Florida State offensive line that has helped FSU produce its most effective season running the football since FSU’s national championship run in 2013. In fact, this FSU team runs the ball better than those Noles did: the 2022 Seminoles rank 14th nationally in rushing offense, 9th in yards per carry (5.54), and 5th in explosive run plays generated (81).
FSU has been especially lethal on the ground in home games, averaging 233.5 yards per game at home at a 5.86 yard per carry clip. The Seminoles have two backs, Trey Benson and Treshaun Ward, with runs of 40 yards or longer from scrimmage this season, and Benson has been on a tear of late, gaining 100 yards or more in 3 of FSU’s last 4 contests.
#1 yard after contact
#6 rush grade
#6 missed tackles forced
#1 PFF elusive rating
6'1, 215 lbs
All while receiving just under 40% of the carries.
'23 eligible but I expect him to return pic.twitter.com/KsUyS9Opxr
— Cory P. (@FF_Guitarist) November 23, 2022
On the flip side, the Gators defense ranks 92nd against the run and 95th in yards allowed per rushing attempt, but those numbers were in the 100s after the Georgia game, a sign of modest improvement. The main factors? Increased snap counts for defensive tackle Desmond Watson, who graded out as the best run stopper in college football in Florida’s Week 11 win over South Carolina, and the emergence of Princely Umanmielen, who has played more since the dismissal of Brenton Cox and gives the Gators the best guy they’ve had setting the edge since Cece Jefferson. Florida’s ability to stop the traditional run game, and make FSU throw the football consistently, is a huge key to a Florida upset.
The Prediction: Florida State 31, Florida 23
Behind a jacked home crowd, the Seminoles will ride their run game mismatch and a few huge Jordan Travis plays to a big early lead. Expect this Gators team, that has fought back all season, to respond, especially when Ventrell Miller returns for the second half. But once again, Florida’s inability to start a game fast will cost them in a big moment. Billy Napier will close his first regular season at Florida 6-6 and 0-4 in rivalry games, and FSU will claim its first victory over Florida since the Jimbo Fisher Era.