In mid-September, when Florida was a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime against then No. 1 Alabama and Florida State was getting stomped at Wake Forest, few would have guessed that the two schools would arrive for the rivalry contest with the same record.
That'll be the case on Saturday as 5-6 teams meet with bowl eligibility and Sunshine State bragging rights on the line in Gainesville. Following their first 0-4 start since 1974, the Seminoles have won five of seven and are seeking to become the first team since 1986 to qualify for a bowl after losing their first four games. Florida, on the other hand, has fired head coach Dan Mullen and is hoping just to salvage the season by making a bowl after ascending into the top 10 earlier this season.
As a result of COVID-19 and the SEC playing a conference-only schedule, last season marked the first time that FSU and Florida did not meet on the gridiron since 1957. After losing the previous five, the Gators have won the last two matchups in the series. They've come by a combined 81-31 margin.
Florida State at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida -2.5
When Florida State Has the Ball
For Florida State, the offense seems to live and die with the play of quarterback Jordan Travis. Travis is a stellar athlete and has rushed for more yards than any FSU quarterback before, but over the last two weeks, he's been lights out as a passer. One week after compiling a career-high in passing yardage, Travis tied a career-best with three touchdown tosses in last week's 26-23 win over Boston College. Ontaria Wilson has emerged as the top target for the Seminoles with 332 yards receiving and four touchdown catches. Tight end Camren McDonald is a reliable third-down option and leads the team with 22 receptions.
When FSU is at its best, it is able to run the football. In addition to Travis, Jashaun Corbin, and Treshaun Ward are both solid complements. The two have combined for 1,367 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while each averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Corbin leads the team with 877 yards and seven touchdown runs. FSU's offensive line has improved as the season has gone on but will be tested this week against a talented Florida defense.
Florida bounced back from a rough defensive showing against Samford in last week's 24-23 loss at Missouri. The Seminoles will have their hands full as the Gators have compiled 31 sacks for the season. Zachary Carter leads the way with eight sacks, which is good for third the SEC. At linebacker, Brenton Cox Jr. does a nice job of getting after the quarterback, while Mohamoud Diabate is a tackling machine with a team-high 83 total stops on the season.
Where Florida is best may be in the secondary. Rarely thrown at, Kaiir Elam is the definition of a lockdown cornerback. Safety Rashad Torrence II is the second-leading tackler for Florida and leads the team with two interceptions. Linebacker Jeremiah Moon and safety Trey Dean III are two other players worth watching for the Gators on defense. Florida ranks seventh in the SEC in total defense (363.5 ypg) and 11th in scoring defense (25.5 ppg).
When Florida Has the Ball
For Florida, all signs point to quarterback Emory Jones being unable to go on Saturday after he reportedly suffered an ankle injury in Monday's practice. Anthony Richardson will likely get the nod, but he too has been banged up. For a large portion of the season, Richardson was the most popular man on campus. When healthy, he is an explosive runner and has shown the ability to stretch the field with his arm. Sometimes underutilized, Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce form a solid duo at running back. They have combined for 834 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. Pierce's 11 touchdown rushes rank third in the SEC.
Out wide, Jacob Copeland is the guy to watch for the Gators. A dynamic playmaker, Copeland leads the team with 36 receptions for 575 yards and four touchdown catches. Justin Shorter and tight end Kemore Gamble are both adept at moving the chains for Florida. However, the Gators have had their struggles in pass protection this season. Overall, Florida ranks third in the SEC in total offense (480.4 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense (32.5 ppg).
For FSU to have a shot on Saturday, the defensive line must dominate. Transfers Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas have been monsters from the defensive end position. Johnson leads the ACC with 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss. Thomas is coming off a monster performance against Boston College in which he tallied six quarterback hurries, two sacks, and three tackles for a loss. Linebacker play has been better for FSU than in recent years. Kalen DeLoach, DJ Lundy, and Amari Gainer have combined for 175 tackles this season.
The secondary has been a sore spot this season, but safety Jammie Robinson, another transfer, has been outstanding. Robinson was ejected for targeting in the first half against Boston College but will be fully available against Florida. Robinson leads the team with 66 total tackles, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Omarion Cooper has come on in recent weeks at cornerback while Akeem Dent had perhaps the best game of his career last week, which included the game-sealing interception. FSU is a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC in both total (379.6 ypg) and scoring defense (26.7 ppg).
Despite all the distractions for Florida, it is hard to believe that the Gators won't be motivated. A rivalry game on Senior Day in Gainesville should bring out the best in the team. Florida State will have to play mistake-free and get a big game from its defensive line to keep Richardson in check and uncomfortable in the pocket. The way that FSU has played over the last two months has been nothing short of impressive, but it will need an inspired effort to win on Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 31, Florida State 27
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.