Just a few weeks ago, Florida State looked like a sure win on the Florida schedule, maybe even a comfortable blowout for the Gators in The Swamp.
Well, the degree of difficulty has gone up. Significantly.
Since Florida State fired the struggling Willie Taggart and named former Seminole great Odell Haggins as interim head coach, the Seminoles have been a different team. They’ve played smarter, and with more energy, passion and confidence. And they’ve won two in a row.
So, this is no gimmie Gator win, like it looked like it could be three weeks ago. This will have to be earned against an arch-rival that is playing better and has no fear of The Swamp, having won the last four games here.
That being said, here are three things the Gators need to do to get the win and finish with a 10-win regular season:
Start fast, finish strong
The Gators have the finish strong stuff down, having outscored their opponents by a whopping margin of 116-20 in the fourth quarter. So, Florida knows how to finish.
What’s not known is whether the Gators start fast — because they haven’t for most of the season. Instead, they’re started slow. In the last four games (South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Missouri), Florida has combined to score only six points — two field goals and no touchdowns.
Here’s what happens if the Gators get off to a slow start Saturday: it gives the underdog Seminoles confidence that they’re going to be able to hang in there and find a way to win the game in the fourth quarter. The longer the Seminoles stay in the game, the harder it’s going to be to vanquish them.
The Gators need to take the lead early, establish control of the game in the first half and then put FSU away in the second.
Don’t get blown up
Explosive plays are like turnovers. They can turn a game around in a hurry. And that’s certainly a possibility with Florida State’s offense Saturday. The Seminoles have three explosive playmakers who can impact the outcome of the game in a heartbeat — dynamic (and fast) wide receivers Tamorrion Terry and D.J. Matthews and home-run hitter Cam Akers at running back.
Terry is one of the most explosive wide receivers in college football. He’s caught 44 passes for 892 yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 20.3 yards a reception.
Matthews has 33 receptions for 345 yards and three touchdowns. His spectacular 60-yard catch and run for a touchdown beat Boston College in the closing seconds two weeks ago.
Akers has rushed for 1,042 yards and 13 touchdowns and also is potentially lethal catching the ball out of the backfield.
So, the Seminoles have some real game changers, and they’ll be going up against a defense that has been susceptible to big plays at times this season. Certainly, the Seminoles will have some explosive plays Saturday. The key for the UF defense is to limit those to two or three. If the number rises much above that, the Gators are going to have a hard time getting off the field and preventing the Seminoles from putting up enough points to pull the upset.
Protect Trask — and the football
These two go together, because if quarterback Kyle Trask is sacked four or five times, and is stripped on two or three of those sacks, the Seminoles could change the complexion of the game with those turnovers.
FSU’s pass rush has been suspect this season. So has Missouri’s, but the Tigers sacked Trask four times in the first half two weeks ago.
Trask is a big, inviting target in the pocket because he has no support from a running game. The Gators can’t run the football, regardless of who they’re going against. Everyone knows it. The Seminoles certainly do.
Florida has to rely almost exclusively on the passing game, so Saturday’s game is in the hands of Trask and his talented pool of receivers. To find those receivers, Trask is going to need time to go through his progressions.
When the protection isn’t there — and it certainly won’t be at times — Trask needs to take care of the football. If he loses three fumbles on sacks like he did in the Auburn game, it could result in disaster for UF — and points and momentum for the Seminoles.
Who: Florida State (6-5) vs. No. 8 Florida (9-2)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850