Their records are nearly identical. Napier visits No. 18 LSU with an 11-11 overall record at Florida; Cristobal heads to No. 4 Florida State at 11-10.
Both have recruited well while modernizing their programs. Both have been pilloried over game management blunders. Though neither is on the hot seat, both desperately need a marquee victory over a hated opponent to show progress to frustrated fan bases and skeptical recruits.
They need to pull a Mike Norvell.
Norvell was in a similar, if not worse, place two years ago when FSU headed into a mid-November matchup with rival Miami as a home underdog. His Seminoles were smarting after a two-touchdown home loss to North Carolina State. Though Norvell got a little more grace because of the mess he inherited and the fact that his first season came amidst the pandemic, there were legitimate questions about whether he could turn things around.
Before fourth and 14, Norvell was 6-12. After it, he’s 20-4.
He was speaking about his personal growth, but the same is true for his program. That shows up in another stat: The ‘Noles were 3-4 in one-score games before that Miami triumph and 7-3 after it.
Considering how much Norvell embraces and stresses the rivalries against Miami and Florida year-round, breaking through with a victory was a proof-of-concept moment for his program. The late-game heroics in a game near the end of the season vindicated his emphasis on finishing strong in everything. The line from fourth and 14 to playoff contender wasn’t straight, but the arc is unmistakable.
It’s a path Napier and Cristobal need to follow this week. Their big-picture progress in roster upgrades, improved facilities, larger staffs and name, image and likeness are important. But they’re hollow without the kinds of big wins that fans, boosters and recruits demand.
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Here’s their chance.
Though a rivalry win against a top-20 team can’t fix everything, it will be a selling point all offseason — not a bad thing, given the importance of having invested fans in the era of name, image and likeness. The recruiting effect matters as both schools try to protect (or bolster) top-11 classes. Florida’s bowl eligibility and the vital developmental time it provides is at stake, too.
Despite the two-touchdown betting lines, you can talk yourself into thinking both games can be close, aside from the inherent unpredictability of rivalries.
LSU’s defensive secondary is uncharacteristically weak, while UF’s Graham Mertz has thrown 188 passes without an interception — the second-longest streak in program history. Perhaps he can exploit the Tigers’ glaring weakness.
If LSU star quarterback Jayden Daniels (concussion) can’t play, then Garrett Nussmeier will be thrown into his first start. Nussmeier is talented with a great pedigree (his dad, Doug, was the Gators’ offensive coordinator under Jim McElwain and is now a Chargers assistant), but he’s not a Heisman Trophy contender like Daniels.
FSU has injury issues, too. If top receivers Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson remain sidelined or limited, Miami’s upset hopes improve. One of the Hurricanes’ recent bright spots (the run game) could match up well against one of FSU’s relative weaknesses (an average run defense).
None of this is meant to predict losses by LSU or FSU; both are deserving favorites. Instead, this means the opportunity is there for the Gators and ‘Canes to capitalize on — the way Norvell did when he faced a similar situation two years ago.
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