But now the feeling is that this is FSU's best chance to beat its rivals since that memorable afternoon. The combination of Florida's struggles and FSU's success this season, plus the home field edge for the ‘Noles, has many thinking that FSU can get back on track in this series this weekend. That may be true, but it's also true that it won't be easy.
FSU has the better record, but Florida has the better players. That's not a knock on the ‘Noles as much as a tip of the cap to the Gators, who have stockpiled a full cupboard of talent during the Urban Meyer era. Jimbo Fisher and his staff are recruiting well and will turn the talent tide — or at least even it out — in the next couple of years. But the story this year is that FSU has produced results on the field that are better than the sum of Seminole parts, while Florida has not tallied wins equal to its talent (mainly because of the inconsistencies on offense, specifically at the quarterback position).
As FSU heads into play this weekend, there is a chance for the ‘Noles to beat Florida and win a state championship, finish the regular season 9-3, and to make it to the ACC Championship game — if NC State loses to Maryland. Obviously that combination would be a home run for the Seminoles, even if they weren't to win the ACC title next week in Charlotte. But what if things go the other way and FSU doesn't get a victory this Saturday, and doesn't get help from the Terrapins in the ACC race? That would leave FSU 8-4 with a seventh consecutive loss to the Gators. That's a scenario that certainly would take some of the buzz away from Fisher's first year at the helm.
The reality is that the 2010 Seminoles are better than recent editions, regardless of the result this Saturday. The ‘Noles play much better situational football (i.e. two-minute offense), are very proficient on third down and in the red zone, handle clock management with more aplomb, and play better defense than they did a year ago (having improved 60-70 spots in total defense in the rankings).
So even if the Gators get the win, there is plenty to be pleased with for FSU and plenty to build on going forward — especially on defense, where there's a chance to go from good to great in a couple of years as all the talented underclassmen mature into experienced veterans. It may take a little longer for the offense to get to where Fisher wants and needs it, simply because the ‘Noles need more talented players almost across the board. The players are coming- some as soon as February 2011 when they sign letters of intent on National Signing Day.
But back to this Saturday. How can FSU get a win? Aside from the obvious keys to any game- turnovers, penalties, etc.- here are five Seminole keys for Saturday's showdown:
— FSU must get off to a good start, which will remove self-doubt and also keep the crowd at Doak Campbell electric from the get go. After the Oklahoma game, FSU went four full games (BYU, Wake Forest, Miami, and Virginia) without trailing. But starting with the Boston College game, FSU has now fallen behind in five straight games (BC, NC State, UNC, Clemson, and Maryland). Even though the ‘Noles have come back in all five of those games, winning three, they must reverse that recent trend this weekend so that the Gators don't gain confidence and momentum from the game's outset.
— Lean on Ty Jones and Lonnie Pryor. They are the biggest backs FSU has, and FSU must ride them from the start of the game. Florida's defense is a top 10 defense nationally, but has some young players and has gotten worn down by big backs like Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. Jones and Pryor aren't in the Lattimore class, but if FSU can pound the football early it will pave the way for the lightning fast Chris Thompson to eat up large chunks of yards as the game goes on. Even if Thompson doesn't spring free, if FSU can run the ball with any success, they can keep the chains moving and have a better chance at the win.
— Get Willie Haulstead back on the field and involved. Obviously the first part of this equation requires medical clearance, but if he is back...he is key. Haulstead hauled in 10 catches against North Carolina and leads FSU in touchdown receptions. He is the most physical of FSU's receivers and his play— both catching the ball and blocking downfield— can swing ball games.
— Get inspired, physical play from the defensive front. FSU can bend, but cannot break. They can't afford to give up the big plays like they did versus North Carolina. The Gators will likely mix quarterbacks throughout the game, and their offense is best when misdirection is involved. But the best way to beat any offense is to win the war at the line of scrimmage. The ‘Noles have led the country in sacks most of the year, but this isn't just about sacks, this is about controlling the line of scrimmage. FSU must do this to have a shot.
— Be creative. Fisher's fake punt was a perfect call last week against Maryland. The ‘Noles must have another trick or two up their sleeve this Saturday to help lead them to victory. Maybe it's a halfback or wide receiver option, maybe it's Greg Reid back on offense, maybe it's something with E.J. Manuel and Christian Ponder on the field at the same time. Whatever it is, it will help FSU score first downs or score points against a very good UF defense.
That said, this figures to be the most competitive FSU-Florida game in recent years. In fact, it's probably a game that comes down to the wire. Seminole fans should be used to that by now.
What they're no longer used to is beating Florida. Maybe that will change this Saturday.