Florida State vs. Florida: Preview

It's hard to think of things to say when one expects one's team to lose convincingly to a major rival. And yet that is the situation in which Florida State fans find themselves (again) as the 'Noles face the rival Florida Gators, who march into this game 11–0 and ranked #1 in the country.

It's hard to think of things to say when one expects one's team to lose convincingly to a major rival. And yet that is the situation in which Florida State fans find themselves (again) as the 'Noles face the rival Florida Gators, who march into this game 11–0 and ranked #1 in the country. That said, these games are played for a reason, and the Gators haven't been as mighty as their reputation this year, showing that they indeed have a few vulnerabilities.

If the 'Noles are to pull the upset, they must exploit these weaknesses, win the turnover battle, and score touchdowns when in the red zone, as field goals will simply not cut it against UF. So what must FSU do? Here are six things I would suggest:

6) Florida has had difficulty pushing the ball downfield in the passing game against better competition this game. The drop-off after losing Louis Murphy and Percy Harvin has been substantial; Riley Cooper is an outstanding receiver, but he simply doesn't scare defenses downfield the way UF's two marquis receivers did last year. This should allow FSU to focus on the UF running game and short passing game. FSU needs to commit to stopping the run game and challenge the Gators to beat them deep. It would be better to allow a deep pass or two (or even three) than to give up five-plus yards per carry. 5) FSU must avoid man coverage at all costs in this game; instead, they should mimic what Tennessee did against Florida: play a mixture of zone coverages that allow all eleven players to look into the backfield and react against the run. Again, this may result in a big play or two as the safeties fly up against play action, but that is preferable to allowing UF to run at will. The 'Noles' best chance to stop the run is to allow their players to look into the backfield and react to the run as quickly as possible.

4) Florida will likely go to trips formations (3 wide receivers on a side or two receivers and a flexed tight end) to neutralize these balanced zone looks and try to force FSU into man coverages with bad matchups, matching safeties against faster slot players. FSU should react against this by putting Patrick Robinson in total man coverage on the short side, letting the two safeties focus on the trips side of the field in a rotated cover-two scenario (a combination man-zone coverage, with one side of the field in man and the other in zone). FSU has one elite defender—they need to use combo coverages that allow him to affect the game by winning his matchup on one side of the field, giving FSU the advantage at other spots on the field.

3) Florida will likely start with a lot of tight man-free coverage to disrupt the bubble screens and shorter passing game the 'Noles used against Wake Forest. This will tempt FSU to throwing downfield—the offensive staff needs to stay disciplined and probably will need to use the QB in the running game even more than they did in Manuel's first two starts. The best package will probably include a lot of zone-read and various option looks to force zone looks, opening up the shorter passing game. Florida has shown some vulnerability to this type of run game earlier this year, and FSU should be able to do it better than anyone they've played.

2) This Florida team has struggled at times both protecting against blitzes and opening holes inside in the running game. FSU needs to defend the Gators "inside-out," pushing their defensive tackles inside a bit more than usual (or using odd fronts with a nose tackle and two "three technique" players), trying to redirect UF's running game outside, allowing the linebackers (who should be in zone) to flow to the ball. FSU is not as strong inside as several of UF's previous opponents, but if they can force the running game off the tackles rather than in the guard area, that's a win for the FSU defense.

1) Blitz, and blitz a lot of people, especially on passing downs. This may sound like the opposite of the above counsel, but the important thing will be to zone blitz whenever possible and to sell out, bringing the kitchen sink on the few occasions when going man. As mentioned above, the Gators have struggled in pass protection this year, and Tebow has struggled to get rid of the football downfield against the blitz. When the Seminoles blitz, they need to bring six and seven players, making sure they get there. But again, the key is to get shots on Tebow and force their suspect receivers to win the downfield matchups.

So, will these things happen? Some are more likely than others. I fully expect the 'Noles offense to have some success running the football against the Gators, with Jimbo Fisher pulling out a lot of option and read-option packages to utilize E.J. Manuel in the running game. As far as the defense is concerned, the last three weeks have been encouraging in terms of scheme adjustments, with the Seminoles using a lot of zone coverages and even a few (rare) combo coverages.

Unfortunately, FSU has struggled giving up big plays against play action this year, so even if they do the right things, there is little reason to expect them to consistently stop the Gators. And even when they've blitzed, FSU has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback—if Tebow has time to throw (especially against the blitz), Florida will have a field day. In the final analysis, I expect some combination of all these factors to result in a Florida win, though I don't expect the Gators to cover the 24-point-plus spread. This would naturally change substantially with a big special teams play or two, and a few Gator turnovers could turn the game into a surprise. But the smart money is on the Gators: I expect the game to end up around 38–24 in favor of the team from Hogtown.

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