Wednesday, November 22, 2017

As FSU soars, Gators aim to regroup


The team has driven so far, so fast. These days, FSU moves as if it's playing in fast-forward mode, attacking the end zone like Huns, demanding the next touchdown and the one after that.

These days, the Seminoles are a blur of burgundy, fast-breaking through the ACC. They are in the passing lane of college football and, still, they are in a hurry to get back to where they used to be.

In the meantime, the eye-popping statistics of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston continue to pile higher. Blink, and you might miss a touchdown. Sneeze and you might miss another. But of all things, the most impressive things about Winston are these:

He has made FSU football matter again.

He has his team in the conversation for the national championship.

And he has snatched the momentum away from Florida.

Seven games into a career, that's a pretty good place to start.

That's the thing about college football. Things change quickly. Take Florida. Take Florida State.

Just a little while ago, weren't they wearing each other's cleats?

Last year, it was Florida that had all of the momentum in this state. The Gators had the hot young coach, and they had the relentless defense, and while they didn't quite play the way their fan base wanted them to play, they won 11 games. The future was so bright, it called for sunglasses.

Meanwhile, at FSU, everyone seemed unhappy. The coach hadn't convinced anyone he was the long-haul guy, and no one seemed crazy about the quarterback, and at the worst possible times, the defense seemed to have a soft underbelly. FSU still was a program that seemed to trip over its own yard lines too often.

True, FSU finished only one slot behind Florida in the final AP poll last year (The Gators were ninth; FSU 10th), but the truth of it was that the Gators were much closer to being a team that mattered.

Then someone hit the switch.

And everything changed.

Just for the record, when did FSU pass Florida again?

Suddenly, it is FSU that seems to own the energy in this state. It has the hot young quarterback. It has a coach worthy of reconsideration. It has a defense that seems better, tougher than the version of last year. Put it this way: At the Bovada gambling site, FSU would be a 17-point favorite over Florida. If it were a neutral-site game, FSU would be favored by 21.

Even now, across the country, they are arguing whether FSU or Oregon should be the nation's No. 2 football team. Even now, Winston's name is being mentioned in the Heisman voting. Oh, some still have to be convinced, because FSU plays its old nemesis Miami this week, and later, it plays Florida in Gainesville. But for now, at least, FSU is the hottest team in the state.

Yes, that is certain to make FSU fans nervous. In college football, nothing quite shakes the nerves like having a shot at a title, especially for a team that has stubbed its toe in recent years.

Still, at least FSU fans can see a way to the title game. If they keep winning, if LSU beats Alabama, if Stanford can beat Oregon, the Seminoles are riding high.

The odd thing? If Alabama and Oregon win out, it might be Florida's devalued season that costs FSU in the end. Yes, any win over the Gators is going to be a big deal for FSU fans, but if Florida has five losses or so by then, winning wouldn't be a great boost for FSU in the rankings.

So what has happened here to make college football in this state turn into a remake of Trading Places?

For one thing, Florida State happened. It has been a long time since a Seminole team looked this complete. For another thing, Winston happened. No one had any right to expect him to make the kind of impact he has made so far.

For another thing, Florida happened. You may be weary of hearing about the Gators' injuries, but they are real. And, yes, they have played a part.

Still, there are Florida fans who notice that the Gators are a couple of losses from Ron Zook territory.

And, as long as we're talking about it, they hate the plodding, dull way the Gators play these days.

Hey, this is the home of the Fun 'N' Gun, remember? This is a program that spent years speeding by the opposition, making opponents look slow and helpless in the process. In the past three seasons, however, Florida has ranked 109th, 103rd and 105th in the nation on offense.

That makes for a lot of teeth-grinding along the way. Put it this way: Football at Florida is no longer a NASCAR race. It's the traffic jam leaving the speedway.

Before anyone starts, let's say this. Will Muschamp isn't in any danger. He won 11 times last year, for crying out loud. Most of this year has been spent watching players limp away. Still, we can agree on this: Even if Florida hadn't lost a player, its offense wouldn't be very good.

As much as anything, you get the feeling that this is really what bothers Florida. Oh, no one likes the losses, but most of those can be explained away by the injuries. It's just when Florida fans look at the way FSU plays, there is a feeling that something greater has been lost along the way.

As for FSU, I think the Seminoles just scored again.

Sixth time today.

Not bad for a Wednesday.

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