Gene Frenette: FSU has edge on Gators because Norvell rebuild is further along than Napier's

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union

One word can describe not only why the football programs at Florida State and Florida are in a different place right now, but will also likely be the deciding factor in Friday night’s matchup at Doak Campbell Stadium: timing. 

The No. 16-ranked FSU Seminoles are far better positioned in the third year of Mike Norvell’s rebuilding job than the Gators are in Billy Napier’s first season. 

Since FSU’s first year under Norvell was severely impacted by COVID-19, the 2021 season felt more like his coaching baptism in Tallahassee. That’s when the ‘Noles finished 5-7, were maddeningly inconsistent, and Jordan Travis showed only flashes of potential instead of being a seasoned quarterback. 

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Florida State football coach Mike Norvell has the Seminoles' program pointed in the right direction and further along in its rebuild than Florida with first-year coach Billy Napier, which is why FSU should win Friday night's matchup in Tallahassee.

That scenario would aptly describe the state of the Florida program right now with Napier. He’s trying to establish the right culture, making some definite strides in that respect, but the Gators are too immature overall and talent-challenged on defense to ignite the turnaround their fan base expects. 

Quarterback Anthony Richardson’s performance this season, much like FSU counterpart Travis once he took over in 2021 for McKenzie Milton, is a mixed bag. You see glorious potential on some explosive plays, both passing and running, but there’s too many instances of a lack of rhythm and instinctiveness from Richardson. 

Like how on the last play of the Vanderbilt game Saturday from the Commodores’ 34, trailing 31-24 and under minimal duress, does Richardson throw a pass 10 yards out of the back of the end zone? That’s just one small example where Florida and being focused go their separate ways.  

This season, the Gators and prosperity are like repelling forces. They’re good enough offensively to play with almost anybody, but lack discipline and in-the-moment awareness, both common issues for teams with first-year coaches. 

Consistent 'Noles vs. Inconsistent Gators 

Now you look at the Seminoles (8-3) on both sides of the ball and they have a flow about them during their current four-game win streak, albeit all against mediocre opponents hovering around .500. 

But it can’t be ignored FSU has been continuously dominant during this stretch, outscoring its foes 173-39 and outgaining them by over 1,000 yards. That’s the mark of a mature, ascending team to not play down to their opponent, which is a textbook trait of the Gators. 

Think about this: each time Florida has put together anything close to its best game, which happened against Utah and South Carolina, it followed the next week with a head-scratching performance. In Week 2, the Gators blew a 16-7 lead against Kentucky, a game that turned on Richardson throwing a pick-6 to Keidron Smith going 65 yards the other way. That was followed by a narrow 31-28 escape of a dreadful South Florida (1-10) team at home. 

Last week, on the heels of a 38-6 pounding of South Carolina, the Gators had an avalanche of self-inflicted errors, resulting in 14-point underdog Vanderbilt beating them in Nashville for the first time since the Reagan administration. Good teams don’t ride that kind of a roller coaster. 

Right now, and this better not be the case next season, Napier has a team that puts forth a commendable effort, but the Gators’ historically bad defense (408.5 yards, 27.3 points per game allowed) and lack of in-game maturity is sabotaging them.  

Napier had it right on Monday when he reminded a media corps, which can sometimes suffer from lack of perspective as much as the fans: “This is a process. You don’t just flip a light switch and the house is built.” 

By no means is FSU’s program completely rebuilt after a combined record of 8-13 the past two years, but momentum is finally trending in the proper direction. 

While everyone in the ACC still trails Clemson by a significant margin, you could make the argument the Seminoles have moved up to second-best or third-best in that 14-team pecking order. They were regarded as no better than middle-of-the-pack when the season began. 

That’s because Norvell, just like Napier at the moment, needed time to reshape the FSU program in his image. He endured questions about whether he had the acumen and recruiting ability to pull it off, especially after an 0-4 start last year and blowing a 17-3 halftime lead last month at North Carolina State in the middle of a three-game losing streak. 

Not so long ago, it was FSU’s defense that couldn’t get off the field. The Seminoles now have the nation’s No. 11-ranked defense and are 19th in third-down defense, getting opponents off the field 40 times in their last 51 third-down situations. 

As weakside linebacker DJ Lundy put it after Saturday’s 42-17 beatdown of Louisiana: “Every week, we say we got to dominate our opponent. We play with swagger. This is how it’s supposed to be.” 

Signs point to FSU redemption  

Even if Florida had survived Vandy — the program’s most inexcusable loss since getting trampled 38-17 by Missouri at home in Dan Mullen’s first season in 2018 — it would still feel like Friday’s meeting is FSU’s time to rebound from three consecutive losses to the Gators. 

The Seminoles have their act together on both sides of the ball. FSU is top-20 nationally in third-down offense, third-down defense, rushing offense, passing defense, sacks, total defense, total offense and points per game allowed (18.0). 

Florida is a dumpster fire on defense most of the time and a yo-yo on offense, though quite respectable when its 15th-ranked rushing attack (209.3 yards) is in a groove.  

Other than its dramatic edge on defense, FSU merits being almost a double-digit favorite because the game is in Tallahassee and Travis is simply a more reliable quarterback than Richardson, whose completion percentage of 55.7 is among the worst in the country. Plus, Richardson’s reluctance to run despite a 6.5-yards per carry average remains somewhat baffling. 

However, when you see South Carolina hanging 63 points on Tennessee right after managing just six points the week before against Florida, it’s a reminder how much the script can flip at this time of year. 

The Gators can certainly play with FSU, but a lot depends on which Florida team will show up. A sobering reminder: UF’s 5-11 SEC record the past two years is its worst since 3-9 in 1978-79. 

That doesn’t mean it can’t flip things in one week the way South Carolina did. Vanderbilt debacle aside, Richardson is convinced the program is on track for a major revival under Napier once he has his own recruits in the building. 

“I feel like he’s on point with everything,” Richardson said. “He knows what he wants. He knows what he’s going to get. So trust in him and understand he’s going to have great people around here, just so much time until great things start to happen.” 

Richardson may well be correct in the long-term. But for now, with Napier holding his breath every time his defense is out there and his rebuild nowhere near as far along as Norvell’s, the timing is better for the Seminoles to properly finish off a turnaround season. 

FSU 34, Florida 26. (904) 359-4540 

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette