What's going on in Gainesville?
The Gators are not the usual national power at the end of Florida State's schedule. They're unranked, on a six-game losing streak and fresh off a 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern. It's a far cry from the highly ranked team that upended FSU in Tallahassee last season.
That being said, the Gators still have a talented defense. Bryan Holt, senior writer for InsideTheGators.com, answers a few key questions and provides some insight into Saturday's matchup.
1. Nobody confused Florida for an offensive juggernaut under Will Muschamp, but the Gators' struggles have been downright painful this season. What's wrong with that offense? Will Brent Pease coach the offense this week against FSU or will there be an interim OC, and will that have a measurable impact on UF's offense either way?
To quote Muschamp when asked the first question Saturday, 'Where do you start?' Florida's offense is boring at its best and inept at its worst. Last season, the Gators had a reliable running game and a passing game that was asked only to not lose games. This season, there is nothing they are particularly good at. The offensive line shows flashes -- especially in the run game -- but too often there are inconsistencies that aren't furthered by the fact Florida has lost three tackles to season-ending injuries at a position where capable depth was already lacking.
The Gators' quarterback situation is a disaster, and the run game is almost completely in the hands of a talented-but-raw freshman. The staff tends to overreact to all these negative factors and coach a scared product that is there to do little more than facilitate the defense with field position and time of possession. Pease will be the offensive coordinator Saturday, but expect him to be gone shortly afterward. Florida has promised to throw everything it has at FSU in an attempt to pull the upset. I may be reading between the lines here, but to me that means getting creative with the quarterback position and using alternative methods aside from overmatched redshirt freshman and likely starting quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg to get production out of the backfield.
2. There's been plenty of talk through the year about how injuries have decimated UF - Jimbo Fisher even addressed that much during his Monday press conference. How big of a role have injuries played in Florida's struggles this season?
It's a complete disservice to the team to entirely shake off the impact injuries have had on Florida. The Gators will likely play Saturday's game missing 17 scholarship players who would have otherwise seen playing time. It's difficult to deny the severity of that if for no other reason than the sheer numbers the depth chart has had to overcome.
That said, the injuries shouldn't be a write-off for the entire season. Florida was loaded with unknowns before fall camp, and a successful season would have required a considerable amount of those unknowns developing into stars. The only player Florida has lost to injury who without a doubt would have made a legitimate difference in this season is defensive tackle Dominique Easley. The rest can be questioned. Jeff Driskel was less than impressive in his first two games of the season, and running back Matt Jones's hype was built mostly off one game against FSU last year. That's the most concerning thing about this season for Florida. There's no proof things would have been great without the injuries.
3. Heading into the season, UF looked like possibly the most formidable defense FSU would face all year. Do the Gators have the players in the secondary to match with FSU's passing game and possibly slow Jameis Winston down?
Well, you saw what Florida's secondary did to Georgia Southern, right? I kid, I kid. Florida's secondary is a tough group to figure out. Ignore the gaudy numbers that have the Gators as the No. 3 passing defense in the country. Florida has allowed 213 yards or more through the air three times during its six-game losing streak and hasn't recorded an interception since Oct. 19. The only teams that haven't had passing success against Florida during that span have been teams that instead decided to shred a UF run defense that suddenly became porous after Easley went down. LSU, Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern were 69.6-percent, 78.6-percent and 94.7-percent run, respectively.
The biggest advantage for Winston in this game is his ability to force the Gators to respect his running ability. Florida is talented but still fairly young at corner, especially when Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole are on the field. Add that to a linebacker group that is really struggling and you have a team that has difficulty in shifting between spying a mobile quarterback and identifying when to break into coverage. This was a major problem against Connor Shaw and South Carolina. Had he been on that night -- he went 14 of 28 -- he would have put up much more than 213 yards and one touchdown against shaky coverage.
4. It's a big rivalry game and that's all well and good. But with Florida's season going so poorly so far, is there a risk that the players would have trouble getting up for the game on Saturday? Or is the rivalry aspect enough to carry UF though?
If the Gators can't get up for a chance to ruin the national title hopes of the one team players admit in unison they hate the most, it would be a giant red mark against the entire locker room in a season where my red Sharpie is running out of ink. Florida is overmatched in this game, but it's still a proud team when it wants to be. The question is whether or not the Gators can sustain that intensity if they fall behind early. This is a team Muschamp has criticized for being mentally fragile, and that's certainly not a quality you want against a team that's routinely beating everyone by 40+ points. Florida will be up for Saturday's game, but it might only last until embarrassment sets in.
5. How do you see this game playing out?
This feels like the biggest mismatch this series has seen in a long while, and every bit of logic tells you FSU is going to cruise past Florida just like it has every other team this season. Let me start by saying I think the Gators have zero chance of winning Saturday, but I wouldn't be shocked if it's closer than expected. In many ways, Florida's style of play makes blowouts difficult unless the Gators are committing turnovers. With Florida's lack of a vertical passing game, it only takes 14-17 points to make a game feel almost entirely out of reach these days. The Gators will run the ball well enough to control time and limit chances but it will benefit for spread purposes only. Seminoles win in a game that rarely feels in doubt.