Analyzing Florida State vs. Florida

A full analysis of this weekend's rivalry matchup between Florida State and Florida.

In our preseason preview of the Florida Gators, I had UF finishing 8-4 (5-3). The Gators are an inexplicable late-game collapse against South Carolina away from matching those expectations (the cancellation of the early game against Idaho took away one sure win) and come into Tallahassee playing for their freshly-terminated head coach, who will not coach the bowl game.

This has become a bit of a mantra for Florida State’s opponents all season, but Florida is a better team than most seem to appreciate, having blown out a quality Georgia team and lost two games it clearly should have won (LSU and USC). This team is very close to an 8-2 record. In fairness, their 10-9 escape at Tennessee means they’re also close to 5-5, a further illustration of just how narrow the margins can be at this level.

That this is a rivalry game will also ensure that the Gators do not easily fold, so FSU should expect to see the same team that destroyed UGA rather than the squad that seemed to quit against Missouri. The Georgia win was no fluke, either, as the smallish Bulldog defense—which runs the same basic scheme under Jeremy Pruitt that FSU runs under Charles Kelly—simply could not handle Florida’s physical running game while the UGA offense struggled against Florida’s defensive personnel.

FSU Defense vs. UF Offense

Florida is marginally better on offense under first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper than it was in 2013, but a move from 99th to 80th in Football Outsiders’ offensive F/+ rating hasn’t been cause for celebration in Gainesville and has been the chief cause of Will Muschamp’s termination.

The Gator offense has been significantly better since true freshman quarterback Treon Harris took over the starting role against Georgia, averaging 6.11 yards per play in the month of November after a paltry 3.89 YPP in October. Harris is not a polished passer, but he throws a good deep ball and has done a much better job protecting the ball than previous starter Jeff Driskell.

Florida will run a very similar offensive scheme to what Florida State faced in its previous game against Boston College, featuring jumbo personnel packages and lots of power football with a quality running quarterback.

Like Boston College, the Gators’ offensive line is a big, physical group of upperclassmen. Florida’s line, however, is not as good as Boston College’s, as demonstrated by the Eagles’ better rushing numbers throughout the season. Florida has averaged 4.42 YPC vs. Power 5 opponents while Boston College has averaged 5.16 YPC against a comparable Power 5 slate.

Each team has had one explosion game against a quality opponent, with UF rushing for 6.97 YPC (418 yards) against Georgia and BC going for 8.37 YPC (452 yards) against Southern Cal. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted Rushing S&P+ ranks Florida 53rd and BC 30th, further confirming Boston College’s ground superiority.

Florida State had difficulty stopping the Boston College running game but still held the Eagles to 87% of their usual YPC coming into the game (4.71 YPC vs. FSU). If FSU does the same against Florida, the Gators would average 3.89 YPC in this game, just above FSU’s 3.57 average YPC allowed vs. Power 5 opponents.

Boston College also had a better quarterback than Florida and the advantage of poor conditions in their matchup against FSU, while Florida has better backs and one better receiver than the Eagles.

The Seminoles should also have true freshman NT Derrick Nnadi back from injury against Florida, though redshirt freshman LB Matthew Thomas is suspended for the first half after a targeting penalty in the second half vs. Boston College.

I expect to see Florida State use many of the same jumbo fronts on defense they showed against Boston College, putting three defensive tackles on the field along with Mario Edwards and either Chris Casher or Demarcus Walker at defensive end. Those packages should be a bit more successful with Nnadi available in the middle than they were with Justin Shanks at the nose.

Florida’s passing game is very simple at this point and runs through Demarcus Robinson, whose 43 catches are more than double the next highest on the team (Quinton Dunbar, 17 catches). UF basically depends on Robinson’s ability to get over the top of the defense and otherwise doesn’t present much of a passing threat.

Inside the 20, the Gators regularly put Robinson in the slot and run either a fade or corner route, counting on his ability to use that extra space to the outside, so FSU will have to make sure it’s prepared for that tendency. Jalen Ramsey’s coverage ability in the slot will be critical in those situations.

Ultimately, UF has a slight advantage in its running game against FSU’s rushing defense (73rd Rushing Defense S&P+), but the Gators’ inability to threaten the Seminoles through the air should offset that advantage. Given the clear conditions expected on Saturday, I expect FSU to have a slightly better outing than they did against BC, allowing around 4.5 YPP and 17–20 points.

FSU Offense vs. UF Defense

Neither unit has quite lived up to expectations this season, but the FSU offense seems to be right on the cusp of turning the corner after the move of Cam Erving to center and freshman Rod Johnson to left tackle. Before that move, the matchup against a quality Florida front seven was a scary proposition, but Jameis Winston has taken significantly less pressure in the last two weeks, and the Seminole running game has quietly improved to a startling 11th national ranking in Rushing S&P+.

The loss of defensive tackle Leon Orr (quit/dismissed) further takes away from what a month ago looked like a big Gator edge on the interior. With Orr gone and Erving at center, FSU may actually have the edge on the inside in this matchup. The injuries to starting linebacker Neiron Ball and reserve LB Jarrad Davis further hurt the UF front seven, though they do have depth at that spot.

Now that the Seminole interior has been shored up, the matchup on this side of the ball comes down to two things: 1) limiting the impact of Buck DE Dante Fowler, Jr. and 2) the FSU wide receivers’ ability to get off UF’s physical press coverage.

UF has moved Fowler all over the defensive front this season and does a terrific job using stunts and blitzes to get him in one-on-one situations. Fowler is sure to test Rod Johnson’s ability early and often, and FSU will likely want to chip Fowler early to slow him down. A screen or two to that side early in the game may be in the cards as well.

The FSU wide receiving corps struggled to get open against Florida’s physical press coverage in 2013 until 6’5, 235 pound freak Kelvin Benjamin decided turnabout was fair play and took over the game. Benjamin isn’t on the roster this season, so FSU’s smaller group of young receivers needs to step up and make plays down the field better than it has in the past three weeks against physical coverage from Virginia, Miami, and BC.

I expect to see Rashad Greene lined up in the slot and the #3 slot (farthest inside in trips formations) to give him advantageous matchups and keep him clean off the line of scrimmage at many points in this game. Florida’s safeties and nickel/dime corners are not as good in 2014 as they were in 2013, so I expect to see FSU spread the field and attack the middle of the field in the passing game.

Although it has some outstanding talent in guys like Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, and Jalen Tabor, the Florida defense did give up big plays against the two good offenses it has played this year (Alabama and UGA), and I expect to see another step forward for an FSU offense that is starting to hit its stride. The one big concern continues to be turnovers, but with Winston getting less pressure and FSU better able to run the football, I don’t expect those woes to continue in this one. I expect to see FSU average around 6.75 YPP and score between 31 and 42 points in this game, depending on the number of drives.

Special Teams

Florida State has the edge here, thanks to Roberto Aguayo (who does not seem entirely healthy right now) and significant improvement from Cason Beatty in the punting game. UF has had both a punt and an extra point blocked this season, neither of which is likely here but could provide an edge in a close game if the Seminole coaching staff can locate those weaknesses again.

Conclusion and Prediction

Our preseason preview concluded with the following:

The Florida State offense against the Florida defense is easily the most interesting battle of the year. Both units are elite, and FSU’s biggest matchup edge from 2013 (Benjamin) is now in the NFL. Rashad Greene struggled to get separation against UF’s physical corners last year, and the defensive front was able to pressure Winston until they eventually ran out of gas.

We do expect Florida State to have an advantage at the third and fourth receiver positions, as UF lacks elite depth at corner. FSU’s improved running game should also help as Florida will be able to pressure Winston more than any other team on the schedule.

But as with most of FSU’s schedule, if a team can compete on one side of the ball, it’s the other side where FSU has a major advantage. Florida State had the top-rated defense last year and suffocated a Duke offense that should look remarkably similar to Florida’s offense from 2014. Florida lacks the receivers to threaten FSU’s secondary, and the FSU defensive line should have the edge up front. It’s tough to project anything this far out, but at this point we expect the Florida defense to keep it close early, with Florida State eventually pulling away just like last season.

Jason’s Prediction: 34–16 (Win Probability: 80%)

That projection still largely holds, though neither team is as strong on the defensive line as expected, thanks to injury (FSU DT Nile Lawrence-Stample) and defection (UF DT Leon Orr). I think this one is close in the early going but FSU starts to run away with it by the third quarter and finally wins a game by a comfortable margin. I’ll amend my preseason prediction somewhat, however: Florida State wins, 34-17 (Win Probability: 75%).

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