Whitley: Beating FSU depends on what's in the Gators' heads

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Nick Saban was asked a question this week that had nothing to do with the Florida-Florida State game. But his answer sheds light on which team will win the “Sunshine State Showdown.”

That’s one of this rivalry’s nicknames, though it’s never caught on. It really sounds like a stretch this year. If top-notch football were warm sunshine, this state has become Minnesota.

What we have this year is two teams — one in particular — that have been consigned to the trash heap. Texas A&M was there after dropping two consecutive games before playing Alabama.

“Everybody says that team’s like done,” Saban said. “Really, it’s just the opposite.”

He was responding to a caller on his radio show who asked about fans being disappointed Alabama isn’t blowing everybody out. Saban said hurting teams are like wounded animals — opponents better watch out.

“Their guys have pride in their performance. They want to have a good team,” Saban said, voice rising with every sentence. “That makes them dangerous.”

Based on that, the team that shows the most pride will win Saturday’s game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. God knows they both certainly qualify as dangerous.

The once-great powers have 10 wins between them. Saturday’s loser won’t even qualify for a bowl. That makes this game dangerously unpredictable.

A lot depends on how UF and FSU respond to the notion they aren’t any good. So far, the “Oh yeah?” factor favors the Seminoles.

They were a national punching bag after starting 0-4. FSU hasn’t been overly impressive in going 5-2 since, but it’s certainly shown resiliency.

Then there are the Gators.

They sort of qualified as a wounded animal after an unimpressive 2-0 start. Oddsmakers expected No. 1 Alabama to blow them out, ignoring Saban’s dictum about wounded teams being dangerous.

Sure enough, Alabama was lucky to get out of Gainesville with a 31-29 win.

“It showed us we could play with anybody in the country,” Dameon Pierce said.

Then UF started showing it could lose to anybody in the country. That despite being favored in every game except Georgia.

And sure enough, Florida is a 2½-point favorite in the Gloomy State Showdown. That means oddsmakers had way too much wine with their Thanksgiving dinners or they believe the Gators have more talent and tangibles.

I’ll give them a slight edge in talent, and playing at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a huge tangible. It’s the intangibles that make this game so precarious to predict.

Notably — which punching bag is ready to show some real fight?

The question goes double for the Gators, who will be swinging for the first time without Dan Mullen. I see two scenarios:

FSU starts hot, takes the Senior Day buzz out of the stadium and the home team, harasses Anthony Richardson into a sloppy afternoon and wins by two or three touchdowns.

That assumes Richardson will be taking the snaps. Emory Jones rolled an ankle in practice Monday and his status is a state secret. If he plays, Jones could make for a fragile and inviting target for FSU’s sack-happy defense.

Scenario II — The weight of the Mullen saga is finally off the players’ shoulders. They are loose and pumped. Richardson plays more like the dynamo he was against LSU than the flailing freshman he was against Georgia, Pierce finally gets to run the ball more than a half-dozen times and the afternoon builds into a giant Swamp catharsis for a season gone bad.

(And in a secluded office in Lafayette, La., Billy Napier will click off a TV and say, “I think I can work with that.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Scenario II would validate this week’s fire-and-brimstone rant from Rev. Saban about disrespected teams.

“They’re competitors. They have moms and dads,” he said. “They have things they want to accomplish, things they want to do. And they want to be good. They don’t just throw in the towel.”

That describes FSU this year. As for Florida, not so much.

The Gators have had plenty of chances to compete, to accomplish accomplishable things, to do things they want to do. Whether it was due to bad coaching, bad playing, bad breaks or a broken culture, they threw in the towel.

“Did I ever expect this? No,” said Peirce, one of 27 seniors who’ll be honored before kickoff. “I don’t think anybody did. We were just blindsided by it, like everyone else was. We just couldn’t seem to find our groove.”

According to Saban, that’s not what teams like the Gators are supposed to do. Ready or not, they have one final chance to prove him right.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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