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It’s a contender-or-pretender college football week in the Sunshine State

Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) gets sacked during the third quarter against the Georgia last season. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) gets sacked during the third quarter against the Georgia last season. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Oct. 25, 2018

Here in the Sunset State, far from the College Football Playoff rankings (for now), we have come to one of those pivotal weekends.

Most eyes will be on Jacksonville and the world's largest outdoor sobriety checkpoint, as Florida attempts to climb back into SEC and national prominence with a win over its best bud, Georgia.

In Tallahassee, Florida State will stare into the abyss, which on Saturday will be wearing Clemson uniforms.

In Houston, we'll find out if USF was just joking with this 7-0 start when it plays at 6-1 Houston.

Miami is at Boston College, no walk in the park Friday, while unbeaten No. 10 UCF has the weekend off, which gives its time to work on this year's national championship parade, which aims to go right over USF in late November.

First things first.

Florida-Georgia

There's something about coming over the Hart Bridge in Jacksonville and seeing that sea of tailgaters. Even after all these years, it gives me goose bumps, right up until the muscle-bound state trooper says, "I don't care what your pass says, you can't park here, you've got to go over there, but you can't get there this way, you've got to go around."

This is the first time in 10 years that the Gators and Bulldogs are ranked in the top 10 when they meet. This is a chance for Dan Mullen and his Gators to arrive in a big way. Beating LSU was one thing, but beating the Bulldogs would be a good housekeeping seal for Mullen and his team, a big step on the road to winning the SEC East and earning a spot on the sacrificial altar against 10-seconds-a-touchdown Alabama.

This feels different from those fake UF returns, when Jim McElwain's teams won a lousy division. The SEC East has bumped up, so much so that whoever wins Saturday still has to hope Kentucky loses again. That's how much better the East is this time around. How much better is Florida? We're about find out.

You can never tell with the Georgia game. Steve Spurrier went 11-1 against the Bulldogs and Urban Meyer went 5-1. But Ron Zook went 2-1, winning his first two Georgia games. McElwain won his first two Georgia games before losing 42-7 on his way out. But this is the game that matters.

Remember 2012, when we thought Florida was back, riding high at No. 3 and 7-0 under Will Muschamp? Then the Gators made about 219 turnovers and lost 19-7 to Georgia.

It has been a long time getting back to this moment. It would be a shame to waste it.

Clemson-Florida State

The serious underdog Seminoles kick off against the No. 2 Tigers at noon, only because there wasn't a 9 a.m. slot. I'm not sure we want to see this, Clemson against Willie Taggart's first-year Seminoles, an underwhelming 4-3 bunch.

Don't look now, but that thousand-year FSU bowl streak, the one that the Seminoles had to prop up by rescheduling the Irma game with Louisiana-Monroe for a puny sixth win, is in real danger again.

Going into Taggart's first season, I figured the Seminoles would beat someone they weren't supposed to beat. The problem is that game has already come and gone — FSU up 20 at Miami in the third quarter, only to lose by one.

Nothing in the Seminoles' remaining schedule (Clemson, at No. 22 N.C. State, at No. 3 Notre Dame, Boston College and Florida) suggests a turnaround. That six-win season might not be out there. Has it really been four years since FSU made the playoffs? Anybody know where Taggart will buy his Christmas tree?

USF-Houston

As our man at USF, Joey Knight, pointed out, USF's first six Division I-A opponents have a combined record of 12-31. The final five are 26-9. We're about to find out if the unbeaten Bulls have been living a lie. Believe it or not, USF could still end up losing four or even five games. At Houston, at Cincinnati, at Temple and vs. UCF will make or break the Bulls' season. And this is news?

Saturday is a chance to change that narrative with a flourish. For it was Houston that ended the Bulls' perfect 2017 at 7-0 with the upset in Tampa behind quarterback D'Eriq King, who hit on a fourth-and-24 completion to help win the game. The Fourth-and-24 Game. That should be burned into USF's brains. It might not matter. USF might not matter. We'll begin to get the answer Saturday afternoon. Contenders or pretenders?

Yes, there are questions all over the Sunset State.

Pull up a chair. No, not that one. You can't sit there. You have to go around.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029.

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