[Premium site article] Premium site writer Aaron Sones takes a look at Florida and offers his opinion on what it will take for Mississippi State to upset Florida for the second straight year.

Well, it doesn't get any easier for Mississippi State. After suffering an unexpected home loss to SEC foe South Carolina, the Bulldogs enter the most important stretch of the season; a two-game road swing at Florida and Auburn. When dissecting the possibilities of State's '01 season, it is important to focus on the next TWO games, not just this one. In other words, a loss in Gainesville doesn't mean the Dogs are out of the hunt for the West title yet. They'll be on the edge, but not off. There is still a lot of football to be played, and MSU still has yet to play a single Western Division opponent. This scribe feels that a loss to Florida makes every game from this point out a must-win. A win in the Swamp, and things will feel back to normal.

But that is easier said than done. However, I feel like Saturday's game will be just a bit closer than the national prognosticators are predicting. This one will come down to who wins battles in a couple of key areas. We'll get to those in a bit. The mighty Gators are 65-4 at the Swamp since 1990, 37-2 versus the SEC. However, those two losses have both been to Western Division opponents (Auburn in '95 and Alabama in '99). Both of those teams beat UF by controlling the football and running clock. And if you look back at the Gators' losses under Spurrier, just about every one occurred to a team that played more physical and ran the ball like the dickens.

Also, I am not sure if I have ever seen a Joe Lee Dunn-coached defense have two poor showings in a row. And you know what they say about Sherrill-coached teams: they fight best when they have been knocked down. But doing that in Starkville is one thing, in Gainesville is another. Bulldogs are a bit ornery when ticked off. But I have a hunch Florida is still smarting from last year's debacle.

Everybody knows what to expect from Florida; the fun-and-gun. Things really haven't changed much this year. If anything, the Gators pass the ball more than they ever have. Florida has passed the ball 58.3 percent of its plays through three games this season, the most of any year that Spurrier has coached. Ninety-one percent of last year's receiving yardage returns to the squad and 15 receivers have already caught passes this year. The Gators lead the nation in passing (419.7 ypg), are fourth in total offense (569.7 ypg) and second in scoring offense (49.3 ppg). But keep in mind that UF's opponents thus far have been powerhouses Marshall, Louisiana-Monroe and Kentucky.

Who's Hot: The Florida passing game. The Gators are clicking on all cylinders through the air.

Who's Not: The Gators have a turnover margin of ­5. Spurrier has already tossed his visor a number of times because long drives stall because of turnovers.

Key Stat: Florida has outscored its opponents 89-9 in the first half.

Key Match-up: The nation's #1 passing offense versus the #1 passing defense (MSU) will garner the most attention. But for State to even think about slowing down the Gators, they have to snuff out Florida's rushing attack and make UF one-dimensional. Then State can go after Grossman.

QB Rex Grossman (6-1,223) returns for his sophomore season...65-100 passing for 1,008 yards with 10 TDs and 2 INTs...averaging 336 passing yards a game...is third in the nation in passing efficiency (178.67)...injured during last year's 47-35 loss in Starkville, opening the door for Berlin.

QB Brock Berlin (6-2,210) will back-up Grossman...17-24 passing for 245 yards and 3 TDs so far this season...Leads the SEC in passing efficiency (197.83).

TB Earnest Graham (5-10,215) will start at running back... 38 rushes for 225 yards (5.8 avg)...73.7 yards per game...6 TDS.

TB Robert Gillespie (5-9,190) will see equal playing time...32 rushes for 194 yards (6.1 avg)...leads the squad in all-purpose yards (121.3 ypg).

Look Out For: Grossman to challenge State with an air arsenal like you haven't seen since the Gulf War. Florida will stretch the field, throw it all day, and attempt to run it on occasion between the tackles with Graham and Gillespie. Also watch for the short screen passes to the tailbacks.

Key Match-up: Grossman versus State pass rushers who will try to make their presence known. If MSU can knock the snot out of him, disrupt his rhythm and give Spurrier a chance to chunk his visor, the Dogs will have a chance.

WR Jabar Gaffney (6-1,197) might be the best in the country...just a sophomore...already has 8 100+ yard receiving games...19 catches for 294 yards (14.9 avg) so far this season...has four TDS...great receiver in the clutch...note to MSU corners: WATCH HIM!

WR Rechie Caldwell (6-1,198) has 14 catches for 254 yards (18.1 avg) this season...105 receiving yards last week vs. Kentucky, a career-best.

WR Taylor Jacobs (6-0, 195) has 11 catches for 203 yards (18.5 avg) so far this season...junior is emerging as a go-to guy...had a 64-yard TD catch versus Marshall.

TE Aaron Walker (6-6, 257) has five catches for 54 yards (10.8 avg)...Spurrier likes to go to him in short-yardage situations.

Look Out For: A lot of crossing patterns. State will play a lot of one-on-one coverage due to the blitzing scheme, and the Gators will try to take advantage by going deep and running 10-15 yard crossing routes to free up receivers.

Key Match-up: Jabar Gaffney versus Korey Banks or Demetric Wright. These two juco-transfers will have ample opportunity to show what they are made of, no matter who they are covering.

Averages 6-5, 312-pounds a man...seven different players have started games on the o-line in the first three weeks...LT Mike Pearson (6-7,300) was first-team All-SEC and second-team All-America last year...unit has given up seven sacks already this year...can be exploited due to the fact that two sophomores start and this unit has yet to get physical this year...State chewed them up last year in Starkville.

Look Out For: State to put a lot of pressure on this unit with efforts to get to the quarterback. Watch early on and see if State is getting a lot of penetration. If MSU can penetrate, slow down the running game and get to Grossman, MSU will stay in the game.

Key Match-up: LT Mike Pearson versus RDT Kahlil Nash and RDE Conner Stephens. This battle will be fun to watch.

D-Coordinator Jon Hoke has by far the most experienced unit in his three years at UF. This year's squad has 205 combined starts among them. The secondary is a veteran unit that might be without the efforts of first-team All-American Lito Sheppard, who is nursing a hamstring injury. The linebackers are much-improved from last year's game in Starkville, as three linebackers are on the Butkus Award watch list. A weakness may be on the defensive line, where DE Alex Brown is the only lineman that returns with extensive experience. His mind might not be on the game, as his wife is expecting a baby any day now. If she gives birth, he will miss the game. So for the Gators have limited its opponents to 244 yards per game, a big improvement from last year. They have held opponents to 59.3 rushing yards and 185 passing yards, but this number could be skewed, due to the fact the Gators have been way ahead of all three opponents, and Marshall and Kentucky are pass-oriented teams.

Who's Hot: Alex Brown has 3.5 sacks, but other than that no one else has stood out.

Who's Not: The Gator defense has forced just two turnovers, both fumbles, through three games.

Key Stat: UF has allowed its opponents to convert just 14 percent 6-of-42) of its third down conversions.

Key Match-up: Florida's young defensive line versus State's offensive line. MSU will have to have some semblance of a running game to win this one.

Lost Gerard Warren, Buck Gurley and Derrick Chambers from last season...Alex Brown is only returning starter...not a lot of depth across the board...could be the Achilles hill of the Gator defense...DE Alex Brown (6-4,254) has 9 tackles with 3.5 sacks so far this season...leads team in big play category.

Look Out For: State to try to exploit this unit with the running game. Florida will counter by moving linebackers up to fill gaps and put 8 men in the box, forcing Madkin to throw.

Key Match-up: Alex Brown versus LT Derrick Thompson and TE Donald Lee. State must contain Brown to have success on that side.

Experienced group with seven different players having started a game...UF is one of only three schools to have three players (Andra Davis, Travis Carroll and Mike Nattiel) named to the Butkus Award watch list...Seniors Andra Davis and Travis Carroll are the top players at middle linebacker with juniors Bam Hardmon and Marcus Oquendo-Johnson returning at the strong-side spot... Junior Mike Nattiel returns as the starter at the weak-side position.

Look Out For: This unit will run up to plug the holes and stop the run. State will have to find a way to put a hat on everybody.

Key Match-up: Can the MSU running backs get by this unit? Dontae might have to run over them.

Very experienced, with 10 players who have started a game...If Lito Sheppard can not play, the Gators will rely on sophomore Keiwan Ratliff, who sees extensive playing time in nickel packages...SS Todd Johnson is among the nation's top safeties...FS Marquand Manuel brings athleticism to the secondary.

Look Out For: State to challenge Ratliff if Sheppard does not start. State will try to mix in the pass with the run, especially if Madkin can have some early success.

Key Match-up: UF's corners versus State's receivers in one-on-one situations. State HAS to make the catches when Madkin puts the ball where it needs to be.

Jeff Chandler is one of the nation's top place-kickers...Chandler has connected on 39-of-45 field goals since 1999, and has made his last 13, dating back to last year's Kentucky game...True freshman Matt Leach has taken over the punting duties and averaging 43.3 yards per kick... Lito Sheppard is their top returner, but he will probably be replaced due to his injury...opponents have averaged 13.9 yards per KO return and just 4.3 yards per punt return.

Look Out For: Chandler. You don't want him kicking against you when the game is on the line.

Key Match-up: UF's punting unit versus State's punt return. I know Leach has good stats, but he is a true freshman. And true freshmen make mistakes.

Consider these points: Florida is 103-6 when it rushes for at least 100 yards per game and just 12-19-1 when held to under 100 yards. The Gators are 62-2 when a back rushes for at least 100 yards. They are 90-2 when they out-rush their opponents and just 25-23-1 when they are out-rushed. In the 25 games that Florida has lost since 1990, the Gators were out-rushed in 23 of those games. Now consider this: In 20 of those 25 losses, the Gators have committed more turnovers than their opponents. The facts are clear. Saturday's game may pit the nation's top pass offense against the nation's top pass defense, but the storyline will be written on the ground. To beat Florida, you have to control to ball, not turn it over, and keep their offense off of the field.

If State can avoid silly turnovers and penalties, and force Florida to turn it over, things could get hairy in the Swamp. On the other hand, if State has no semblance of a running game and gives the ball to Florida on turnovers on the wrong end of the field, it will be lights out.

I think State will show up. Expect a good game. But I don't think I can predict a victory. Florida is too good and too tough at home. A late touchdown saves the day for the Gators. I hope that Jackie Sherrill and the Dogs can prove I'm wrong.

Mississippi State 27
Florida 31

Aaron SonesAaron Sones is a free-lance correspondent for Gene's Page. Aaron, who is a student at Mississippi State University, works part-time in the MSU Athletic Department. He is also co-host of WFCA FM 108's Gameday show which airs two hours prior to each football game. You can contact him by email at asones8@aol.com.

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