Spurrier versus Bowden this isn’t. The 2012 game — with Florida headed to the Sugar Bowl and Florida State to the Orange — this isn’t.
Florida and Florida State will not play the most significant game between two Florida schools on Thanksgiving weekend. South Florida and UCF get that honor on Friday. This is not your father’s UF-FSU clash. Heck, it isn’t even your older brother’s Gator-Seminole showdown.
This is a game which will quietly come and go, as mediocre and modest a Florida-Florida State game as this series has seen since it became prominent on a larger scale in the 1990s. Under Spurrier and Bowden, these teams were always in the top 12 during the 1990s. Every single game between the Gators and Seminoles was a big deal. Every team was good, some of them great. The “worst” games between these teams still featured an underdog which had a chance entering the game to make a New Year’s Day bowl. The Citrus Bowl was usually Florida’s floor in the worst years the Gators experienced. The 1992 season — in which Spurrier’s offensive line needed to be restocked — marked an exception. A scrappy bunch which still overachieved had to settle for the Gator Bowl. In every other season, Florida never slipped lower than the Citrus. In Spurrier’s 12-season tenure from 1990-2001, the Gators lost more than two regular season games only twice. The 1992 campaign marked one instance, 1999 the other. Even in that disappointing 1999 journey — Spurrier’s worst coaching performance in Gainesville — Florida outmaneuvered Tennessee to win the SEC East.
When Spurrier lifted Florida to a great height, Florida State remained at a great height established a few years earlier.
It will remain one of the most astounding achievements in modern college football: From 1987 through 2001 — 15 seasons of Seminole splendor — Florida State never finished a season outside the top five of the polls. FSU’s worst season in those 15 years? 10-2 with a bowl victory, achieved in three separate seasons. A “normal” year was 11-1, and in two seasons, Bowden finally reached the national championship pinnacle which had eluded him for so long.
In the past 12 years, Florida and Florida State took on a different quality. From 2005 through 2009, this was Urban Meyer’s party. The Gators won all five games. Then, in 2010, Meyer burned out and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher led the Noles back to prominence. Florida State has lost only once (2012) since the start of this calendar decade, much as it has lost only once (this year) in its annual rivalry with Miami.
This year, of course, is something altogether different and unrecognizable.
The last time Florida State and Florida both lost five games in the same season, bowls included: 2002. Before that: 1981.
The last time Florida State and Florida did not finish the same regular season with records above .500: 1961, in the infancy of this rivalry.
State bragging rights are still involved, and Florida State can still make a bowl game, but beyond those prizes, this Florida-Florida State game is as obscure and meager as any edition of this rivalry since the 1981 clash. In 2002, despite five losses on both sides (suffered in a bowl game by each team), Florida State still won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The 1981 pairing featured two sides which failed to win eight games.
Florida State fans can’t wait for coaching staff shakeups (coordinators and position coaches) to happen. Florida hopes Chip Kelly will coach the 2018 meeting between these teams. While fans set their eyes to the future, let’s see what the Gators need to do to win this weekend, and salvage a small amount of respect.
1 — PUT FLORIDA STATE DEFENDERS IN NO MAN’S LAND
Florida State defenders have been undisciplined this season. Coordinator Charles Kelly has lost the plot. Accordingly, he is on a very hot seat. Jimbo Fisher will have a very hard time justifying continuity on his staff to Seminole fans. The season has been such a disaster in Tallahassee that Fisher can’t avoid firing Kelly. That is the price he and Kelly must pay for a season that has spun off the rails.
The fact that this is a rivalry game should mean that Florida State will display good effort and hustle, much as it did against ACC rival Clemson. Florida State did not quit in that game, and it won’t quit here. However, the Seminoles offered virtually no resistance to Boston College and could not display much of any discipline against Louisville. This defense has struggled to be in the right place at the right time all season long. Therefore, while rivalry game fires will imbue the Noles with considerable enthusiasm, this does not mean Florida State will play defense with vigilance and tactical acuity. This is a game for Florida to use a lot of misdirection concepts, banking on the idea that FSU defenders will eagerly rush upfield to get to the passer or take immediate, linear paths of pursuit. Throwback screens, end-arounds, reverses, and other change-of-direction plays should — if set up properly — give Florida’s running backs and receivers ample opportunities to bust big gains in open space. This should give the Gators a central line of attack.
2 — MAKE JAMES BLACKMAN WIN WITH PATIENCE
The story of Florida State’s season on offense is that if opponents force James Blackman to be patient for 60 minutes, he won’t be able to succeed, at least not in full. Blackman has had his moments, such as the two go-ahead drives he led late against Miami, and he has been a highly productive passer in fourth quarters of games, when the urgency of the moment has led Fisher and his staff to be less conservative with him. However, in first halves, when Fisher is more cautious with play selection, Blackman has struggled. Florida State died in the red zone against North Carolina State. The Seminoles watched many drives lose steam near midfield against Clemson. Blackman is a hit-or-miss quarterback who has not yet cultivated the consistency needed to be a next-Fillingrformer. Fillling in for Deondre Francois this season, Blackman deserved to be judged less harshly in the earlier part of the season, but he has not turned the corner in November, an indictment of the quality of coaching provided him by Fisher this season.
Florida can use selected blitzes, but dropping men in coverage and disguising looks to bait Blackman into making low-percentage throws will offer the better long-term plan for this game. Florida State doesn’t finish drives. Daring Blackman to engineer 13-play, 80-yard marches should work out well for Florida as a basic defensive plan.
3 — BE WILLING TO ADJUST TEMPO IF NEEDED
Florida State has the more potent offense in this game, so as a starting point, Florida should be interested in finding ways to successfully shorten the game without adverse consequences. If Florida can play a low-scoring field position game in which it keeps its defense fresh, that’s the Gators’ best path to victory, certainly the most realistic one.
However, if Florida State gets a lead — especially more than one score or especially at any time in the second half — Florida has to be willing and ready to change its plan.
Miami scored on Florida State in a hurry-up offense, and the Seminoles do tend to ease into a prevent defense when opposing teams need to pass the ball. If the Gators need a touchdown in the fourth quarter — outside the final two or three minutes — they should still be willing to use a hurry-up, no-huddle concept, because Kelly and FSU’s defense have not responded well to that fundamental tactic in 2017.
Florida should come out of the tunnel intending to play this game at a snail’s pace and limit FSU’s number of offensive snaps, but if Florida State begins to take control and the Gators need seven points in the worst way, adjusting to a hurry-up would not be a bad idea at all.