Nov. 25, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The turkeys have been carved, the stuffing's been eaten and the apple pie is long gone.
With the Thanksgiving holiday in the books, it's time for another annual tradition: the yearly collision between the Seminoles and Gators on the gridiron.
Two of collegiate athletics biggest rivals clash Saturday night in Gainesville as Florida State (7-4) looks to bounce back from a disappointing one-point loss to Virginia last weekend against a Florida (6-5) team that is trying to salvage its season with a signature win.
In a rivalry that for so long carried national championship implications, the script has certainly been flipped this season. But for as up and down as FSU's year has been and for as bad as UF's has been at times, a win inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium by either team erases a season's worth of disappointment.
A win warrants bragging rights for a year, a leg up in the intense recruiting battles inside Sunshine-State lines and springboards the victors into the bowl season and 2012.
"It's a game that's played with a lot of pride on both sides," redshirt senior wide receiver Bert Reed said. "There's a lot of respect for each other and for each program. A lot of guys are playing against guys they grew up with or came out of high school playing against. This is just a really, really big tradition."
With a combined nine losses between the two teams, this year's edition of the rivalry doesn't generate the same national attention like seasons past, but for Florida State, there's the chance to accomplish a feat that is worthy of a headline or two.
Since 1993, the Seminoles have won just two times in Gainesville -- during the 1999 and 2003 seasons. The demons that have plagued the 'Noles on Florida Field have as much to do with the talented teams that the Gators boasted during that time frame as the atmosphere in the Swamp.
"It's probably the loudest stadium I have played in apart from the Georgia Dome last year," senior tackle Zebrie Sanders said. "They have great fans and great support so it's going to be a challenge."
With UF's well-documented offensive struggles this year (the Gators rank 91st in the nation with an average of 347.82 yards per game), the difficulty of the 'Noles' challenge in their rival's house can be elevated with a strong defensive performance. Outside of a 37-second, fourth-quarter drive last weekend that yielded the Cavalier's game-winning touchdown, the FSU defense -- ranked seventh in the country -- has played well since the October loss to Wake Forest.
But the Seminoles defenders must be aware of Florida speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. When UF's duo rushes for over 100 yards, its 6-1 this year but is just 0-4 when they don't hit the 100-yards mark.
FSU enters the game ranked No. 3 in the nation in rush defense with an average of 84.36 yards allowed per game.
As for Florida, the Gators are a much better defensively than they on offense and are generally as successful as their potent defensive line will allow. UF ranks 17th in the country in total defense, including a mark of 11th in the nation in pass defense that is aided by a strong pass rush.
Saturday's game could come down to one where the winner plays a better brand of football on the defensive side.
"You're never a great team until you're a defensive team," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who will coach against UF's Will Muschamp for the first time since they were coordinators together at LSU. "That's as an offensive guy and that's why I put such an emphasis on recruiting defensive players ... Defense is what keeps you stable and win you games and I'm an offensive guy whole heartedly."
Offensively, the Seminoles' line to play better than it did in the UVa loss and avoid penalties, which is something that both the Seminoles and Gators have struggled doing this year.
The pressure is also on EJ Manuel to bounce back after perhaps his worst game of the season in his last outing.
Manuel started a game in Gainesville as a redshirt freshman in 2009 as Christian Ponder's injury replacement so this will be his second opportunity to guide FSU to a win at Florida for the first time since Chris Rix's memorable touchdown pass to P.K. Sam stunned the UF faithful in 2003.
If he can lead the 'Noles to victory, it will wrap up the program's second-consecutive state championship. FSU has not swept both Miami and Florida in back-to-back seasons since the 1998 and '99 campaigns.
Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will air live on ESPN2. Bob Wishusen (play-by-play), Bob Davie (analysis) and Jeannine Edwards (sideline) will call the game.