While there may be zero national implications to the Florida-Florida State game on Saturday, plenty of eyes in Florida will be tuned in.
That’s because regardless of the struggles of these two teams in 2017, there are high-level recruits in attendance who will choose between these two teams on signing day. That combined with the ill will that comes from these players knowing each other since high school always makes for an entertaining game.
The Gators last won against FSU in 2012. Since then, Florida has been outscored 119-41. The closest the Gators have come is a 24-19 loss in a game where 13 of Florida’s 19 points came from turnovers in FSU territory.
But FSU was in the middle of a run with quarterback Jameis Winston for two of those games. The Seminoles are no longer the offensive juggernaut that they have been in the past. Combine that with a mediocre defense, and FSU has struggled this year just as much as Florida.
Both teams are 4-6 and coming off of wins against inferior opponents. FSU is fighting for bowl eligibility, thanks to rescheduling its game against Louisiana-Monroe to Dec. 2. Florida is just fighting to avoid five losses in a row to its in-state rival.
The story on offense for both teams has been extremely similar. After the loss of starter Deondre Francois, Florida State has just been unable to move the ball consistently.
The same can be said for Florida as well. The Gators still have Feleipe Franks starting —just as he did in the opener against Michigan — but Franks is really a third-string QB at this point, playing only because of injuries to Luke Del Rio and Malik Zaire.
The biggest difference between the two offenses is that Florida has been able to run the ball better than FSU. The Seminoles have a little bit better passing game, but the loss of running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL has exposed significant limitations on the ground.
Of course, two weeks ago against South Carolina, Florida only gave 9 carries to its backs. This was despite a 6.5 yard per carry average. Running the ball is an advantage for Florida, but only if the Gators decide to commit to it.
And the Gators need to commit to the run because they are pretty bad throwing the ball. Franks has played better the past two weeks, but that has really just raised his level of play from unplayable to potential backup QB.
Franks has been outplayed by his FSU counterpart, James Blackman. While Blackman hasn’t set the world on fire, he has a higher completion percentage, yards per attempt and a better TD/INT ratio. If you had to pick a QB in this game, it might make sense to pick Blackman.
Except then you might look at his home/away splits.
James Blackman is no different. He has played significantly better at home than on the road. This is to be expected from a true freshman, and doesn’t say anything about his overall ability. But it does suggest that we should expect “road” James Blackman to make an appearance.
Blackman isn’t the only one who’s struggled on the road for FSU. Overall, the Seminoles offensive line has struggled, allowing 3 sacks per game. But the splits for the line are significant, with 2.6 sacks per game at home compared to 3.4 sacks per game on the road. This holds for tackles for loss as well, with 6.0 per game at home compared to 9.8 per game on the road.
Most teams only get 14-15 possessions per game. That means that on the road, Florida State has a negative play on two-thirds of its drives. Combined with a 30.3 percent third- down conversion rate, it’s easy to understand why the ‘Noles have struggled to score.
Florida hasn’t been much better, but the significant splits between home and away for FSU gives me more trust towards the Gators offense. The advantage here is slight, but if both QBs struggle, Florida should be able to put up some points just by running the ball.
Florida State started the year with what looked to be an elite level of talent and experience coming into the year (3.2 average years of experience with a 4.3 average star rating). However, that has not translated to an elite unit.
For as much criticism as FSU defensive back Derwin James has received from Gators fans, the defensive backs are not the problem with the Florida State defense. That unit has held up really well, ranking 14th in the country in yards per pass attempt.
The Seminoles have been just OK against the run, but not terrible. The reason FSU is giving up more points is because the Seminoles have allowed a 39.1 percent third down conversion rate, good for 67 in the country.
Conversely, Florida has been worse against the run and the pass compared to FSU. The only reason Florida’s defense ranks anywhere close to FSU is because of a 33.3 percent third down conversion rate. The Gators are playing a bend-but-don’t-break defense, which is why the offense has not had much of a field position advantage in any of its games thus far.
With the exception of the game against Missouri, Florida’s corners have done a good job on the outside. Where Florida is getting gashed is on plays where the opponent is able to isolate a running back, tight end or wide receiver onto a linebacker.
FSU running backs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick have a combined 29 catches out of the backfield, which could be a problem for Florida. But FSU isn’t able to run the ball well at all, which should allow Florida to keep only two linebackers on the field for much of the game.
Again, I think this is a slight advantage, more because the limitations of the FSU offense match well with what Florida needs to do to avoid mismatches in the passing game.
Advantage: Florida State
For perhaps the only time this season, the Florida offense is better than its opponent. But that doesn’t guarantee a victory because of the Gators struggles on defense.
Many of those struggles may be ameliorated due to the inability of Florida State to move the ball. Additionally, the home/away splits for Florida State paint a picture of a team that struggles to win at home and has very little chance on the road.
But that is a little misleading as well. While it is true that FSU’s home/road splits show a significant drop-off away from Doak-Campbell Stadium, that does include games against Alabama and Clemson.
The average ESPN FPI rating of Florida’s opponents at home has been 62, while the FPI rating of FSU’s road opponents has been 23. Yes, Florida State has been outscored by 10.4 points per game on the road, but that margin shrinks to 6.0 points if Alabama and Clemson are removed from the calculation.
And while Florida has outscored its home opponents by 9.2 points per game, that margin shrinks to 4.3 points per game if the UAB win is removed.
Both of these teams have warts. There’s a reason that they are both 4-6. For me, it comes down to motivation. Florida State is playing for a bowl game. Florida’s seniors are playing to avoid going 0-4 against FSU.
I don’t believe that Florida State’s players really care about a low-level bowl game. I think it would be natural for the players to want to avoid the extra month of practices, particularly for a season that had such high expectations at the start. If Florida can score early, FSU may pack it in.
We already saw that earlier in the year when Florida State lost in its visit to Boston College. BC is ranked No. 114 in the country against FBS opponents in yards per play. Based on that and the talent differential between the two teams, there was no excuse for FSU to give up 35 points.
I have my doubts whether Florida’s offense is going to be good enough to get up by a bunch early. But I think the game being in The Swamp gives them a better chance, particularly if running back Lamical Perine can get going.
FSU has played much worse on the road, and combined with the pride-factor driving Florida’s players, I think it is likely that the Seminoles will get the Gators’ best effort. If Florida State doesn’t bring its best effort as well, Florida should be able to control the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense.
Florida wins, 20-14.