The Florida State-Florida game is obviously one of the biggest rivalry games in the country; no other rivalry consistently had as much at stake during the late 1990s as FSU-UF. Even without the national implications, this game is critically important for both teams and their fan bases. As much as the in-conference Miami game means (especially for those like me whose class never beat UM), it still can't quite equal the level of hatred involved in the UF rivalry.
The Florida State and Miami programs have historically had pretty good relations characterized by a high degree of respect on both sides. Our athletic departments generally get along with very little bad blood between them. In the early 2000s, the one thing that both teams knew going into the FSU-UM game was that both teams were going to play hard, hit, and never back down. There was simply another level of respect that each team had for the fight and intensity exhibited by the other—we knew that when we hit them, they weren't going to stop, that they were going to hit back. They knew the same about us. That rivalry is fueled at least as much by that respect and similarity in team culture and attitude as it is by old-fashioned dislike of a rival.
Florida has been a completely different story. Our programs have never liked each other, even from the very beginning when UF first refused to play FSU and then would only play the ‘Noles at home. The two athletic departments have not had the best relationship—the non-relationships between Coach Bowden and the last two coaches at UF are but a microcosm of this. To top that off, the divide between the fans in the state—with so many being raised to hate either UF or FSU—is much larger than that between FSU and UF (everyone knows UM doesn't really have fans anyway, right?). This rivalry is fueled by hatred and distaste much more than the FSU-UM rivalry. Even our coaching staff would privately admit that this one means just a little more because of the bad blood between the programs.
As a result, you can be sure that the intensity and seriousness of practices have been kicked up to a new level this week, with the last two practices of the week involving a healthy dose of pumped-in crowd noise in Doak Campbell Stadium. Both teams will always a have few extra tricks in the bag and will hold nothing back—there's nothing to save for after this one.
As an aside, I hate to admit that I wish the fans at Doak were as involved as those at UF. I still remember sitting in the training room with another player (who has since played in the Pro Bowl) after returning from Miami (which wasn't quite as loud as UF) and hearing him say how much he wished our fans were as involved and loud as those he had seen in the Orange Bowl. Then, when I made my first trip to Gainesville in 2001 (though I didn't dress for the game, one of our OLs had given me a ticket), I was amazed to watch all their fans stand through every one of our offensive series, screaming at the top of their lungs from the moment the huddle broke. The noise was suffocating at field level—it was completely different from the relatively passive crowds we seem to have in Tallahassee. I'm not sure what it would take for us to change the culture of our crowd—more standing and shouting, less sitting on the hands and shouting "down in front"—but whatever it takes, it needs to happen.
The biggest story in this year's game is obviously how Florida State will try to contain Tim Tebow. Regardless of how many Seminole fans may hold Tebow in disdain, the reality is that he is an exceptional player that will provide our defense with as big a challenge as we've faced all year. (Put it this way, there isn't a single rational FSU fan that wouldn't love to have Tebow on our side.) That being said, he was ineffective in his few running attempts against us last year, and we will hit him as hard and as often as any team he's played all year.
The biggest concern I have on defense is actually less Tebow's running ability and more his ability to throw an excellent deep ball. Because he runs so well and so often, UF has a very effective play-action passing game designed to take advantage of aggressive safety play, so it is imperative that we get solid games from our secondary. In order for this to happen, our front seven will have to play extremely well, keeping our safeties from having to get involved in stopping the running game. It is critical that we not let Tebow or Harvin loose in the running game early—if we can win that matchup, we will be much more prepared to play the downfield passing game.
To do this, I expect us to play more zone coverage this week than usual—in part because we should be less susceptible to deeper passes, but mainly because man coverages allow running quarterbacks more lanes, since the coverage players' backs are typically to the quarterback. I expect a decent number of zone blitzes, and when we do play man coverage, I anticipate that we'll put a "spy" on Tebow (probably Geno Hayes or Myron Rolle, depending on the coverage) rather than running our usual "robber" coverage scheme (man-free coverage with a free player generally taking a zone in the intermediate middle). The biggest advantage we have defensively is that UF does not have a true tailback that can reliably get them the tough yardage between the tackles—to get that, they have to use Tebow, which will give us opportunities to take some shots at him.
The young Gators' defense has struggled all year, and with our offensive line finally seeming to hit its stride a bit at the end of the year, this game may end up a shootout. Look for Jimbo Fisher to attempt to control the clock and the game using a combination of Antone Smith and Preston Parker in the running game. I expect us to try to minimize how many times Drew Weatherford has to throw downfield—the key stat for the ‘Noles on offense will be yards per play on first down. I expect us to try to run the ball or throw short, quick passes (such as bubble screens) as often as possible on first down. If we can get 5 yards per play on first down, we should be able to control the football and win the game. If we're getting fewer than 4 yards per first down play, we will have to throw out of long-yardage situations much more often than we'd like, likely leading to turnovers and 3-and-outs.
Florida's corners have pretty good size, but they seem to put them in one-on-one situations more often than many of the teams we've been playing of late, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Greg Carr get a few more looks when we do throw downfield than he has recently.
The bottom line is that this game could go either way—especially if the ‘Noles are able to limit the Gator rushing attack early. However, in close games at this level it often comes down to quarterback play and home-field. Florida has the edge in each of these, and given Florida State's problems defending the deep pass, it's hard to think those struggles won't continue. I'm picking the Gators in a shootout (as much as it pains me to write that): 37-31.