Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher ended a six-game skid to Florida in his first season as head coach in Tallahassee, and now he has Florida State on the verge of its fourth win in five seasons against the Gators. In all three FSU wins under Fisher, the Gators have been held to seven points.
Adding to the rivalry this season has been quarterback Jameis Winston, who has goaded Gators fans seeking his autograph by signing his name and last year’s score, 37-7, on the Florida memorabilia.
However, Florida has the distinction of being the last team to hand FSU a loss, although it came all the way in 2012, 27 games ago.
ESPN reporters Edward Aschoff and Jared Shanker break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry:
Key to victory for Florida State: Jimbo Fisher said he will dial up the film of Florida’s win over Georgia because the Bulldogs employ former FSU assistant Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, and the Noles still run a similar scheme. Florida State has struggled to stop the rush all season, and Florida ran all over Georgia. What Florida State has to do, as it has all season, is stop the run in pivotal situations. Florida State is significantly better against the run in the second half, and if the Noles can keep Florida’s offense off the field in the second half, it will give Winston the requisite time needed for a comeback if it once again comes to that.
X-factor for Florida: While running the ball will be key for the Gators, you have to take Winston out of the game. Winston is very good against the rush, but you have to force him into bad situations if you want to beat him. Putting pressure on him will be key for Florida’s defense, and that’s where end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. comes in. The future first-round draft pick has been one of the SEC’s most disruptive players this season (credited with 15 quarterback hurries), and if he can force Winston to rush his throws it will be a major advantage for Florida’s defense.
X-factor for Florida State: There’s no point in ignoring the obvious. Anytime Winston suits up for Florida State, he is the Seminoles’ X-factor. He is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and college football’s premier prime-time player. No deficit to this point has been too large for Winston, who continually rises to the occasion in the game’s tensest moments. He leads the country with four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and has a QB rating of 194.26 when trailing by 15 or more points. For Florida to win, it will have to keep Winston out of the end zone for more than just the first half.
Aschoff’s favorite moment from the rivalry: Watching Warrick Dunn in this rivalry was fun, and so was having the game decide the national championship after the 1996 season. But two memories really stick out to me because I was actually there for them: Ron Zook getting carried off the field in 2004 (didn’t they rename the field “Ron Zook Field” after that?) and the 2008 Florida team’s impressive rain-soaked win in Tallahassee. The one thing about the 2008 game that really sticks out is how Tim Tebow, covered in garnet paint, taunted FSU’s student section after a touchdown because Seminoles fans cheered when Percy Harvin went down with an ankle injury. To this day, that 2008 Florida team is the best team I’ve ever covered.
Shanker’s favorite moment from the rivalry: No doubt those games were memorable ones and that 2008 image of Tebow will live on this rivalry’s lore for quite some time. However, I’m going with the 1994 “Choke at Doak.” I’ve watched it a handful of times over the last few years with the 20-year anniversary being this week, and it’s crazy how so many little plays added up to help FSU overcome a 31-3 deficit to tie it in the final minutes. That ’94 comeback makes this 2014 season look tame by comparison. This season’s renewal could go down in history, too, if Muschamp leaves like Zook did. I don’t know if Nole Nation would be able to take that a second time.
Why LSU wins: The game coming in College Station, Texas, worries me. So does that shutout at Arkansas two weeks ago. But in the end, I believe in John Chavis and the LSU defense. I think he's got Texas A&M's number. Without a strong inside running game, I expect the burden to fall on Kyle Allen's shoulders, and that's good news for an opportunistic LSU secondary. LSU 24, Texas A&M 20 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Texas A&M wins: Did you know Les Miles has never lost three straight games in his nine seasons at LSU? Crazy, right? Knowing that, the safe pick is the Tigers. But I simply don't trust this LSU offense. I haven't all season and I'm not about to now. Meanwhile, I think Texas A&M has too much firepower on offense, especially when you give Kevin Sumlin an extra couple of days to prepare. Texas A&M 27, LSU 24 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Alabama wins big: Maybe if Auburn receiver Duke Williams plays -- and it sounds like he will -- Auburn can keep this thing competitive. But it's difficult to imagine this struggling team going into Tuscaloosa and finding a way to win. Not with a defense that seems to have regressed over the course of the season. With Auburn's offense slowing down a bit, too, it seems like Alabama will win comfortably. Alabama 38, Auburn 17 -- David Ching
Why Auburn keeps it close: It's the Iron Bowl. Just because Auburn hasn't played so hot recently doesn't mean we should expect the Tigers to roll over and play dead. Expect Auburn to put up a strong fight in hopes of spoiling the Tide's season. Alabama 28, Auburn 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Mississippi State wins big: One team won 51-0, the other lost 30-0. So it seems fairly obvious which is headed in the right direction. Ole Miss still seems to be reeling from the Auburn loss and the Laquon Treadwell injury, while Mississippi State has bounced back and has the look of a team still playing for a future. Mississippi State 35, Ole Miss 17 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Ole Miss keeps it close: This is the Egg Bowl. For as beaten down as Ole Miss is -- physically and mentally -- the Rebels will be fired up to ruin the Bulldogs' season. Bo Wallace is ready to erase the images of #Wallacing, and Hugh Freeze wants the Egg back in Oxford. Both quarterbacks will turn it over, but Mississippi State's power run game will be the difference. Mississippi State 27, Ole Miss 24 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Florida State wins big: Florida should have the emotional edge entering the game, wanting to send its coach out on the right note. But that's a short-term proposition. On the road in Tallahassee, Florida State might have to weather an early storm, but I expect the Noles to take control of the game late and run away for a double-digit lead before the fourth quarter ever begins. Florida State 40, Florida 14 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Florida keeps it close: Florida has nothing to lose in this one. This is Muschamp's last game with the Gators, and those players want to send him out on their shoulders, a la Ron Zook in 2004. Florida's running game will keep FSU's defense in check, but Jameis Winston will prove to be the difference late, yet again. Florida State 24, Florida 21 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Arkansas wins: While watching Missouri's last couple of games, it became apparent that running east and west against the Tigers is not a recipe for success. But north and south? Ask Georgia how that works. If Missouri can stop Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Arkansas' downhill running game, it will win -- especially if Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen is unable to play. Gary Pinkel deserves a ton of credit for dragging a mediocre team to another SEC East title if the Tigers win. Arkansas 30, Missouri 27 -- David Ching
Why Missouri wins: This was easily the toughest game to pick. Arkansas is another team with nothing to lose and no pressure, while EVERYTHING is on the line and there's a mountain of pressure for Mizzou. Arkansas is hot and Mizzou has forgotten how to lose. It doesn't matter who I picked in this one, I'll probably be wrong, but I'm going to assume Mizzou takes advantage of being at home this time. Missouri 20, Arkansas 17 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Georgia wins big: No offense to Georgia Tech, but if nobody in the SEC has been able to slow down Georgia this season, I don't see an ACC team doing it. The Bulldogs lead the conference, averaging 43.3 points per game, and they've done it primarily without star running back Todd Gurley. I expect another big day from his replacement Nick Chubb and this offense against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 28 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Georgia Tech keeps it close: The frustration of having beaten Georgia just once over the past 13 seasons is without question a motivator for Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets are also playing their best football of the season -- and they can run the ball. Did you see Georgia's run defense against Florida? Georgia has too much firepower on offense to drop this one at home and has played better on defense the past few weeks, but Georgia Tech will keep it close with its option attack that gives everybody fits. Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 27 -- Chris Low
Why South Carolina wins: To be clear, I think Clemson has the better team here. I've thought that other times in the past five years, too, and South Carolina still won by double digits every time. Even home-field advantage hasn't helped the Tigers, as Steve Spurrier is 3-1 in Death Valley since taking over as the Gamecocks' coach in 2005. Until Dabo Swinney shakes his Spurrier curse, I'm riding with the HBC. South Carolina 31, Clemson 20 -- David Ching
Why Clemson wins: If the Tigers are going to end their losing streak to South Carolina, this is the team to do it against. South Carolina's defense has been its Achilles' heel all season and though it has had two good performances of late, they came against Florida and South Alabama. The health of Clemson QB Deshaun Watson is key here for the Tigers. Clemson 34, South Carolina 31 -- Sam Khan Jr.
More unanimous picks:
Louisville over Kentucky: This year's Governor's Cup features two teams trending in opposite directions. The Wildcats have lost five straight while their in-state rival has won three of its last four. Louisville 31, Kentucky 14
Tennessee over Vanderbilt: Tennessee's motto the "Power of One" has become the "Power of Six'" as in six wins and bowl eligibility. That's the goal now for the Volunteers. A win and they play in a bowl game. That's motivation enough. Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 10
Greg Ostendorf 84-18
Edward Aschoff 81-21
David Ching 80-22
Chris Low 80-22
Sam Khan Jr. 76-26
Alex Scarborough 76-26
Here are five who stood out and six more notables:
DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
What he did: In the Volunteers' loss to Missouri, Barnett finished second on the team with eight tackles, plus he posted half a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.
What it means: The freshman continues to be one of the SEC's most consistent pass-rushers, increasing his total of tackles for loss to 18.5 against Mizzou. He is second in the SEC in TFLs and his nine sacks are tied for third with teammate Curt Maggitt.
KOR Evan Berry, Tennessee
What he did: The little brother of Volunteers legend Eric Berry, Evan returned four kickoffs for 121 yards (30.3 yards per return) against Missouri, including a 58-yard runback in the second quarter that set up a field goal.
What it means: The freshman speedster took over the kickoff return duties around midseason and has handled the job extremely well. In 13 returns, Berry is averaging 30.9 yards per return with a long of 68 yards against Chattanooga. He has a return of at least 33 yards in each of the six games where he has returned a kick.
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did: Chubb's string of games with at least 140 rushing yards ended at five, but only because the Bulldogs didn't need to use Chubb after the earlygoing against Charleston Southern. He accumulated 113 rushing yards on just nine carries and scored on touchdown runs of 83 and 8 yards.
What it means: He piled up all of that yardage in the first half alone, so it's not like Chubb's production dropped off at all in the blowout win. In fact, the 83-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was Georgia's longest since 1985 and the eighth-longest in school history. Entering this weekend's game against Georgia Tech, Chubb has 1,152 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and is a full-fledged star who no longer sits in Todd Gurley's shadow.
QB Treon Harris, Florida
What he did: Harris suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky and sat out most of the second half of the 52-3 victory. To that point, he was 4-for-12 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus he had run five times for 8 yards.
What it means: The good news is that Harris' knee contusion will not keep him out of this week's game against Florida State. Harris has helped the Gators' offense become more effective since he entered the starting lineup four games ago -- a stretch where Florida is 3-1.
DL Gerald Willis, Florida
What he did: Willis recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown and also recorded five tackles and a quarterback hurry in Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky.
What it means: Willis was a huge recruit for the Gators, but has had a quiet first season for the most part. He has just 10 tackles in six games this fall. Willis and several youngsters on the defensive line had good games on Saturday, showing that the future should be bright along the line of scrimmage in 2015 and beyond.
DB Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee: Recorded a career-high six tackles against Missouri.
PK Aaron Medley, Tennessee: Made field goals of 38 and 39 yards and hit his only PAT try against Missouri.
DB Malkom Parrish, Georgia: Recorded four tackles and a tackle for loss against Charleston Southern.
PK Gunnar Raborn, Alabama: Made field goals of 20 and 28 yards and went 6-for-6 on PATs in a 48-14 win against Western Carolina.
WR Cam Sims, Alabama: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass for Alabama's first score and finished with three receptions for 33 yards against Western Carolina.
RB Roc Thomas, Auburn: Ran five times for 26 yards against Samford and scored on a 1-yard run, plus he made two receptions for 2 yards.
Honestly, the suspense is killing me, and we haven't even gotten to the games this weekend. See, here's the issue that these teams are facing: Who will have the best résumé after championship Saturday?
Mississippi State might not go to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, but if the Bulldogs beat Ole Miss on Saturday, they'll be in position for that fourth spot (assuming the top three win out). But if No. 6 Ohio State wins out, the Buckeyes will be Big Ten champions. Say what you will about the strength of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes would have a conference championship and the fourth-ranked Bulldogs would not. Both would only have one loss.
2. Tired of the “kick-six” yet? I promise this will be the last link. But if you haven’t already, I suggest you go and read Jon Solomon’s piece on how the effects of one of the wildest finishes in college football history are still being felt. It will be worth your time. The Iron Bowl rivalry itself is known for the passion and animosity felt between the two fan bases, but it’s not always that way. Earlier this season, I wrote a story on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and how he wore a bracelet in support of Kayla Perry, an Auburn student with a rare form of pediatric cancer. Well now, Perry and an Alabama student who has a similar condition will attend Saturday’s game thanks to Kristi Malzahn, wife of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Kristi surprised the two girls by inviting them to attend the game with her. Watch their story here.
3. Arkansas and Missouri might be cross-division foes that will meet every season unless the SEC changes its schedule. They might have a huge game this Friday with SEC title hopes on the line. But they’re not rivals, not yet at least. The two sides haven’t played in the regular season since 1963, and they have only met five times ever. Give it time, though. It’s already catching on with some of the players. “Arkansas, they have the word Kansas in it, so it’s got to be a rival,” said Missouri center Evan Boehm. One team who will be directed by Friday’s game is Georgia. If Missouri loses, the Bulldogs are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship. However, Mark Richt is not planning any Arkansas-Missouri viewing parties for his team.
Around the SEC
- Corey Grant gets his last crack at the Tide three years after leaving Alabama for Auburn.
- Gators’ Jeff Driskel returns to Florida State as the last quarterback to beat the Seminoles.
- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has a new name for rival Tennessee: “the team out east.”
Congrats to @15_DakP on being named a finalist for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien awards. Couldn't have happened to a better young man!— Brian Johnson (@BDJohnson3) November 26, 2014
And the SEC got another team bowl eligible, as Arkansas earned its sixth win with a 30-0 victory over Ole Miss. So that's 11 bowl-eligible teams and counting in the SEC, including the entire SEC West.
As we head into the final week of regular-season play ahead of the SEC championship game, two teams have a shot at claiming bowl eligibility that haven't already: Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky's task is tough, going to No. 22 Louisville, Tennessee's is considerably more feasible, as the Volunteers travel to Vanderbilt.
Georgia, if it wins this weekend against Georgia Tech, looks to be in good position for a New Year's Six bid. There's still much to be decided, with the Egg Bowl and the Iron Bowl on deck. Alabama and Mississippi State must win to maintain their spots, if they don't, chaos will ensue.
But assuming the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs prevail, here's how we think it'll pan out as of today, with 12 SEC bowl-eligible teams projected:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
College Football Playoff semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Ole Miss
TaxSlayer Bowl: Florida
Outback Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare 100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Tennessee
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Florida carried Ron Zook off the field in his final game, an upset that remains so memorable, people continue to point to that win 10 years later.
Especially this week.
Because everybody wants to know: Can the Gators win one for Champ, the way they won one for the Zooker?
The similarities between Zook’s last triumph over Florida State and the 2014 Gators headed into the Florida State game on Saturday are too similar to ignore.
Both Florida teams 6-4. Both heavy underdogs. Both playing for an outgoing coach.
“We were in the same position those guys are in this year,” said former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a captain on the 2004 team. “Our coach got fired. We hadn’t beaten them in Tallahassee in a very long time, so it made us want to go out there and play for Coach Zook but also win at Doak. It happened to be on the same day they were naming the field for coach (Bobby) Bowden, so we wanted to go up there and upset every celebration they had.”
In the days leading up to the game, nobody gave down-and-out Florida much of a chance against the No. 10 Seminoles. Florida State had one of the best defenses in the country and had shut down just about every running back that came its way.
But Florida believed it had nothing to lose. To the Gators, all the pressure belonged to Florida State.
“Nobody expected us to win, and that just mentally makes you feel like, ‘We can go out here and cut it loose. Don’t worry about mistakes. We can go for it on fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-3 because we’ve got nothing to lose and Florida State has everything to lose,’" Fason said. "As a Gator, we know we’re trying to keep them from get a national championship, and it being a rival game with nothing to lose that works to our advantage.”
Fason also believes the way Florida played in 2004 caught Florida State off guard. He ended up with 100 yards rushing in the game and was a big reason why the Gators won, saying the Seminoles were not prepared for their smash-mouth style.
After Florida took a 10-3 lead into halftime, Fason told his teammates he wanted them to carry Zook off the field if they ended up winning. They assembled around him in the final minute, a 20-13 win theirs to celebrate.
“As soon as that final tick went off the clock, everybody picked up Coach Zook,” Fason said. “It was the best moment of my life.”
And it still remains one of the top moments not only in Gators football history, but in Zook's career. Mike Degory, the starting center on the 2004 team, later coached with Zook at Illinois. Even there, Zook talked about the way the Gators won his final game there.
“He always used to say how much it meant to him, and how much he felt the commitment from the players was there,” Degory recalled. “Everybody knows after this week, Coach Muschamp is going to be looking for another job, but the players feel a lot of commitment to that coach. We wanted to send Coach Zook out a winner. What we had 10 years ago was a connection with Coach Zook. Deep down in my heart, that is the guy that I wanted to play for and we wanted to echo that by giving him that victory.”
Muschamp was even asked about it during his press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.
“That isn't going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that,” he said. “So we'll prepare well and we'll go up there and play well. That's what we need to do.”
Florida has a history of doing that under Muschamp. It was two years ago Florida went into Doak Campbell Stadium and forced five turnovers in a 37-26 win. Florida was a much better team then -- ranked higher than Florida State, in fact. But it also happens to be the last time the Seminoles lost.
Since then, Florida has not come close to another 11-win season, while Jimbo Fisher has won two ACC championships, one national championship and 27 straight games. But this season, Florida State has played in so many close games, the expectation is this will be another close one.
Especially if the Gators play as emotionally as they did for Zook in 2004.
“Emotion always counts, but I think at the end of the day, execution wins,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we'll be emotional. To play Florida, our kids will be high. Our kids will be excited. I think you'll see two teams that are emotionally and physically ready to play, and then who can go out and execute and win the battles in the physical and mental execution will be the team that wins.”
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Don't let the record book fool you. The 80,210 seated in Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 26, 1994, and the millions more watching from home will tell you the 31-31 tie between No.4 Florida and No. 7 Florida State belies the reality on the field that afternoon.
In one of the greatest installments of the longtime Florida-Florida State rivalry, the stakes were once again high as both teams were situated in the top 10 at kickoff -- just like the 13 other times from 1990-2000. The Gators, ranked No. 4, were also hoping to match FSU's first national title in '93 with their own in '94.
Florida coach Steve Spurrier, never one to shy away from offering a punch line at the expense of a rival school or coach, stoked the fire earlier in the year when he called FSU "Free Shoes University," referring to a report that agents picked up a $6,000 tab that Seminoles players rang up at a Foot Locker near FSU.
"You respect [Spurrier], but he's like a crazy uncle," Andre Wadsworth, a defensive end on that '94 Noles team, said. "I never did like Florida. Growing up in Miami, I only respected the Canes and FSU. The Gators didn't play [Miami]. I don't care about the excuse of being in the SEC and all that nonsense."
Spurrier has always been good at getting opponents' blood boiling, but up until that point, he had not beaten his cross-state rival in Tallahassee and was 1-3 overall against Bobby Bowden.
"We were aware at that point that Steve had not won in Doak Campbell, and, I don't know if that meant anything to the players, but it meant something to the coaches," said Mickey Andrews, FSU' defensive coordinator from 1984-2010. "Steve, part of his deal, was trying to get under the skin of another coach. Everybody thinks some things, but Steve thinks out loud. I'm sure some of the stuff bothered Coach Bowden."
Dr. Lou's Picks
12:00 PM ET South Carolina 21 Clemson 12:00 PM ET 16 Georgia Tech 9 Georgia 12:00 PM ET Kentucky 22 Louisville 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Florida State 3:30 PM ET 4 Mississippi State 19 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Tennessee Vanderbilt 7:45 PM ET 15 Auburn 1 Alabama