In spite of the Gators' outstanding pass defense, Florida State came out throwing, just as they have all year, further illustration of the sky-high confidence level the FSU staff has in Jameis Winston and the FSU passing game.
That said, the difference between SEC and ACC officiating was on full display in Gainesville on Saturday, as Florida's defensive backs were permitted to grab and tug as they played the aggressive, pressing style widely practiced in the SEC.
Prior to the game, Florida head coach Will Muschamp had talked about how the Gator defense intended to get physical with the Florida State receivers after watching how most ACC teams had tried—and failed—with soft coverage in the secondary. Muschamp suggested Florida State would not be used to such physical play, giving the Gators an edge on the outside.
Through the first two or three possessions, it looked like Muschamp was correct, as the Seminole receivers initially struggled to create separation from Florida's elite corners as they grabbed and tugged Seminole jerseys in the early going. FSU receivers—most notably Kelvin Benjamin—also had a few key drops likely related to the extra effort needed to get free from the Gators' physical coverage.
Muschamp is correct that FSU is not used to facing this aggressive style of coverage in part because ACC officiating crews tend to call the game much more tightly on the outside. Several incompletions almost certainly would have been defensive pass interference in the ACC.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher commented on Monday that such physical play was exactly what the Noles had expected—and prepared for—all week leading up to the game, but it was clear that the FSU receivers needed a little time to adjust to the fistfuls of jersey.
That adjustment was clearly marked by Benjamin's first touchdown, as he returned the favor by grabbing and pulling the jersey of Florida cornerback Louchiez Purifoy to create five yards of separation for an easy score.
That play typified what makes Benjamin so difficult to defend—and another reason (in addition to officiating) ACC opponents have chosen not to defend the Noles that way all year. At 6'5 and with a wingspan closer to 6'10, Benjamin's absurd length means a 6' cornerback has no real chance of getting his hands on Benjamin's chest if Benjamin chooses to do the grabbing first.
Factor in Benjamin's 35–40 pound weight advantage over a 200-pound cornerback together with his outstanding speed and ability to make smooth breaks, and you press the jumbo receiver to your peril. After a little early success, Florida's corners began to struggle as Benjamin began to get his hands on them first, easily tossing them aside and creating lots of space.
Benjamin's ability not only to handle physical play at the line of scrimmage but to dominate in that environment is a big reason the FSU staff felt they could have success even against UF's future NFL cornerbacks.
That said, it's worth noting that smaller receivers Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw both had more difficulty creating space against Florida's press coverage, as Greene was limited to 25 yards on four catches while Shaw managed only one catch for 27 yards.
That said, it appears Florida was more concerned not to let Greene beat them, as they often "combo-covered" his side, with a safety over top the tight coverage. Nevertheless, this is one area that Greene could really benefit from another year in college to gain a little more weight and improve against press coverage.
It's also worth noting that if Florida State winds up playing Missouri in the national title game, the Tigers have three receivers over 6'4 who present similar problems for secondaries and would be a tough matchup even for FSU's bigger corners.