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Four random thoughts on this year’s Florida-Florida State game

No matter how down either, or both, programs may be, the Gators-Seminoles matchup is always intriguing.
Florida wide receiver Van Jefferson catches a 13-yard touchdown pass in front of Florida State defensive back Levonta Taylor during the teams' 2019 meeting in Gainesville. The rivals didn't play last year because of the pandemic.
Florida wide receiver Van Jefferson catches a 13-yard touchdown pass in front of Florida State defensive back Levonta Taylor during the teams' 2019 meeting in Gainesville. The rivals didn't play last year because of the pandemic. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press (2019) ]
Published Nov. 23
Updated Nov. 23

The regular-season finale between Florida and Florida State is not the biggest matchup in the series’ storied history. It is, however, interesting and important to both programs’ trajectories.

Here are four random thoughts on Saturday’s Gators-Seminoles game:

Interim coaches are becoming routine

Greg Knox has been an interim coach before when it came to filling in for an absent Dan Mullen.
Greg Knox has been an interim coach before when it came to filling in for an absent Dan Mullen. [ STEPHEN B. MORTON | Associated Press (2017) ]

This is the third time in the past four matchups that one team has been led by an interim coach. In 2017, Randy Shannon was replacing Jim McElwain as the Gators’ coach in their 38-22 loss. It ended up being Jimbo Fisher’s final game at Florida State. Shannon is now an analyst for the Seminoles.

Two years later, FSU’s Odell Haggins took over after Willie Taggart was fired. Haggins won his first two games in that role but lost 40-17 at UF.

And now running backs coach/special teams coordinator Greg Knox will lead the Gators in place of Dan Mullen, who was fired Sunday. Knox has been in this position before. When Mullen left Mississippi State for the Gators after the 2017 season, Knox coached the Bulldogs to a 31-27 win over Lamar Jackson and Louisville in Jacksonville’s TaxSlayer Bowl.

“It’s not his first rodeo,” UF running back Dameon Pierce said.

It’s a problematic matchup for Florida on both sides

If Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis has room to run Saturday, the Gators have a problem.
If Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis has room to run Saturday, the Gators have a problem. [ DENNIS NETT | Tribune News Service ]

FSU’s strength is its run game, especially when quarterback Jordan Travis is healthy. His running threat has helped open holes for Jashaun Corbin, who leads the ACC with 6.4 yards per rush. The Seminoles are No. 13 nationally with 22 rushes of at least 20 yards.

UF’s glaring weakness is its run defense. The Gators gave up 100 yards in the second half last week to Missouri’s Tyler Badie and were gouged by LSU and South Carolina. UF ranks No. 69 in explosive rushing plays allowed. If the coordinator change didn’t fix the problem, a head coaching change won’t, either — at least not in the short term. That means FSU’s run game should be in for a big day.

The Seminole defense’s streak of seven consecutive games with an interception is their longest since 2007. That, too, could be trouble for UF. The Gators have thrown 15 picks (No. 125 in the nation) and lost their quarterback guru and offensive play caller (Mullen).

FSU’s defensive front vs. UF’s offensive line could decide the game

Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson has made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson has made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | Associated Press ]

The Gators’ offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks all year (tied for eighth fewest in the nation). It hasn’t been perfect, which is why UF fired assistant John Hevesy after the South Carolina embarrassment, but it has been solid. FSU will test that.

Defensive end Jermaine Johnson has been the state’s best player and an All-American candidate. His 11 sacks are the most by an FSU player since DeMarcus Walker had 16 in 2016. Johnson and Keir Thomas have combined for 29 tackles for a loss (the most by an ACC pair).

The Gators — led by interim position coach Michael Sollenne — will have to stop them if they’re going to have a chance at earning a third consecutive win in the series.

Do not expect a close game

The last time Florida and Florida State played each other, in 2019, Gators quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-17 UF victory.
The last time Florida and Florida State played each other, in 2019, Gators quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-17 UF victory. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press (2019) ]

Unlike FSU-Miami or Florida-LSU, this series has not been competitive. UF has won its two games against FSU under Mullen by a combined 50 points. Since 2007, only one game was decided by a touchdown or less — FSU’s 24-19 win in 2014.

This one has the potential to be lopsided, too, if Florida continues its weeks-long descent and FSU continues its steady improvement. The chaos that comes with a coaching change makes this a hard challenge for the Gators, even at home.

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