Curt Weiler, Tallahassee Democrat
TALLAHASSEE – It’s not often football teams get bye weeks this late in the season.
This season is an exception, however as the early start time in the calendar afforded every team a second in-season bye week.
Florida State’s second bye came at an ideal moment as it gave the team an extra week to prepare for its second Top-10 opponent of the season.
FSU (6-5, 4-4 in ACC) travels to Gainesville to take on rival No. 8 Florida (9-2, 6-2 in SEC) 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
While FSU has an extra week to prepare, so did the Gators. And UF has far more to play for. While an FSU win would have a minimal impact on its postseason fate, a win for the Gators would likely land them a second New Years’ Six bowl berth in as many seasons under head coach Dan Mullen.
The challenge ahead of the Seminoles is one they’re embracing.
“They are really talented,” FSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said.
“Our guys will be ready to play. They’ll show up and look forward to the challenge.”
The strength of this year’s UF team is far and away its defense. The Gators are allowing 14.2 points per game (seventh-fewest in the country) and are also 19th among FBS schools in yards per play allowed (4.83).
The Gators have allowed more than 20 points just three times this season and have allowed a total of six points in their last two games, wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri.
“Their whole defense, they’re stacked, they’ve got really good personnel, they’ve got good depth and they roll a lot of guys in there to play,” FSU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said.
“They do a great job with their scheme, their guys understand their scheme and they’re not going to give you anything. They’re really, really well-coached up front. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
While the entire defense is strong, the strength of the Gators’ defense is their pass rush. UF has racked up 38 sacks this season, the most in the SEC and tied for fifth-most in the country.
Leading contributors Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga have both battled injuries this season, but when healthy, as they are now, they’ve led a lethal pass rush. Against an FSU team that has already allowed 36 sacks — as many as it did all of last season — this is a mismatch that will be tough to overcome, even with an extra week of preparation.
“You can do all you want to do from a schematic standpoint, but at some point, you’ve got to block them,” Briles said.
“They’ve got guys that get off blocks and that’s across the board. Linebackers, (defensive backs), they do a great job of getting off blocks. The D-Line is exceptional with it so we’ve got our hands full.”
The rare second bye week is also exceptionally timed for the Seminoles from a recovery standpoint. Even in a sport known for its physicality, the injury bug has hit FSU hard this season.
Starting running back Cam Akers and starting tight end Tre’ McKitty both missed the Alabama State game with injuries and are expected to be back for the UF game.
FSU has also seen its top two quarterbacks and a number of receivers and offensive linemen miss time with injuries this season.
On the other side of the ball, FSU is down three defensive starters to season-ending injuries and has seen multiple other contributors miss at least some time with nagging injuries.
The Saturday without a game during the bye week could mark the difference between a few players being able to play instead of having to sit out.
“It is different. This is my first bye week this late in the year,” FSU linebacker Leonard Warner III said.
“I think it’s good because late in the season, you guys know we get banged up. It’s a physical sport. I think the best part of this week off is the time to take care of our bodies, take care of our minds.”
FSU spent last week looking at some UF game film to begin preparations for the Gators. On the practice field, though, the focus was more on fixing the Seminoles’ issues.
Entering this week, however, the focus turns entirely to UF. While it’s a game with minimal stakes towards this FSU season, the Seminoles could play spoiler if they pulled off the massive upset in the Swamp. They enter as 18-point underdogs, according to Vegas Insider.
That being said, FSU is trying to push all the rivalry stuff to the side. The Seminoles are focused solely on ending the regular season on a high note that seemed all but impossible mere weeks ago.
“It’s the biggest game of the year because it’s the next game. That’s what you have to look at it like,” FSU offensive tackle Ryan Roberts said.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, it matters that you are doing what you need to do. You need to take every opponent as if it’s the most important game.”