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November 27, 2009

Seminoles hope to end Florida dominance

When uttered by Bobby Bowden, even cliches come off like dad-gum words of wisdom.

That was the case earlier this week as the venerable Florida State coach told us all something we already knew. "Nothing lasts forever," Bowden said.

He should know, and not just because "forever" is his age.

Not that long ago, there was a 14-year period when Florida State was a fixture in the top five of the polls. The Seminoles' annual regular-season grudge match with Florida typically was a clash between elite teams. Both were in the top 10 every time they played in the 1990s; four times, both were in the top five.

Times certainly have changed. Well, in Tallahassee anyway.

The Seminoles haven't finished in the top five in nine years. Longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews is retiring after this season. Bowden - who is 80 - has indicated he isn't retiring, but it's a matter of time before offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher succeeds him as coach.

And Florida has beaten the Seminoles five years in a row, the longest streak in the series since the Gators won six in a row from 1981-86.

"We're just going to try to keep it going," Florida strong safety Ahmad Black said. "We've won five straight, so we don't want to be the team that loses the streak."

But nothing lasts forever. That's what the Seminoles (6-5) have to keep telling themselves as they venture into the Swamp to face top-ranked Florida on Saturday.

"There were times when we beat them four in a row and they beat us five or six in a row," Bowden said. "It will change."

There is nothing to suggest the change will come this season, though.

Florida State's usually reliable defense is ranked 106th in the nation. Star guard Rodney Hudson is out with an injury. Redshirt freshman quarterback E.J. Manuel, thrust into the starting lineup when Christian Ponder was injured, threw three interceptions last week against Maryland and will be making just his third college start.

The Seminoles can only glean minimum optimism from winning four of their past five games to become bowl eligible for the 28th consecutive season. But three of those wins were over N.C. State, Wake Forest and Maryland, which have combined for 10 victories.

Florida has allowed just 108 points, the fewest of any team in the nation. The Gators are ranked 10th in the nation in scoring offense. And they need to win to remain in national championship contention.

In addition, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has been a major thorn in the Seminoles' side. In two previous games as the Gators' starter, Tebow has passed for six touchdowns and rushed for three against Florida State. The Gators scored 45 points in both games.

At least Florida State can find solace in the fact that Tebow is a senior and the Seminoles won't have to face him again.

See, nothing lasts forever.

Who gets the edge?

Florida rush offense vs. Florida State rush defense:
Florida State is awful against the run, giving up 193.5 yards per game. The Seminoles' run defense hasn't been this bad since 1982, when they allowed 198.3 yards per game. FSU's defensive line is mediocre, with a severe lack of playmakers, and that puts way too much pressure on the linebackers to shut down the run. Florida is a power running team under Urban Meyer, and look for the Gators to have success right up the middle behind Gs Mike Pouncey and Carl Johnson and C Maurkice Pouncey. Florida loves the zone-read play, and if the Gators can establish the up-the-gut attack, RBs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey also are going to find a lot of running room outside.
Edge: Florida

Florida pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense:
FSU's pass defense also is bad. The Seminoles give up 240.9 passing yards per game and 14.9 yards per completion. True freshman CB Greg Reid has some playmaking ability and CB Jamie Robinson is solid, but the safeties are mediocre at best. Florida has struggled with its downfield attack this season, but the Gators likely will take a few shots down the field early because of FSU's problems in the secondary. TE Aaron Hernandez could have a huge day; he had two TD catches against the Seminoles last season. QB Tim Tebow has looked tentative in the pocket and Florida has allowed 26 sacks. But FSU lacks a consistent pass rush - Seminoles defensive linemen have combined for six sacks - and is going to need to blitz to apply consistent pressure. Blitzing, though, leaves a shaky secondary even more vulnerable.
Edge: Florida

Florida State rush offense vs. Florida rush defense:
This is where FSU must be successful if it is to pull the upset, or even keep it close. The Seminoles have run the ball well of late after struggling early. The big question: Is the recent success because of the opponents (N.C. State, Clemson, Wake Forest and Maryland) or has the running game truly jelled? Sophomore Jermaine Thomas has three 100-yard outings in the past four games and must be that productive against the Gators. Florida is seventh in the nation in rushing defense and has allowed just three teams to surpass 100 yards. At times, Florida has been susceptible right up the middle, but FSU will be without its best lineman, G Rodney Hudson. Florida has good depth in its front seven, and you can expect eight or nine linemen and five or six linebackers to see action.
Edge: Florida

Florida State pass offense vs. Florida pass defense:
FSU obviously would be better off if junior QB Christian Ponder were healthy and able to play. As it is redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel will be making just his third college start, and it comes against a unit that is No. 1 in the nation against the pass (139.3 yards per game) and No. 2 in pass efficiency defense (five touchdowns, 18 picks, 49.8 completion percentage). CB Joe Haden is playing at an extremely high level, and Florida's safeties cover a lot of ground. But FSU has good receivers, the deepest group Florida will have seen this season. Bert Reed and Rod Owens have 53 catches each, but they have combined for just three TDs - all by Owens. Jarmon Fortson is physical and a big-play threat, but he lacks consistency. Taiwan Easterling also can be effective. If Manuel has time, his receivers can make plays. But will he have time? Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong loves to blitz, and he'll send corners, linebackers and safeties from everywhere. Plus, DEs Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap are big-time pass rushers.
Edge: Florida

Florida special teams vs. Florida State special teams:
Reid, a one-time Florida commitment who changed his mind and signed with FSU, is a big-timer on punt returns. He leads the nation at 18.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a TD. He also returns kicks, but he hasn't been as explosive in that category. Freshman K Dustin Hopkins has a strong leg - he has had 23 touchbacks on kickoffs - but he's also erratic. He has made a 52-yard field goal but missed four extra-point attempts. FSU's coverage teams have been adequate. Florida senior Brandon James has been excellent on kickoff returns this season but has struggled returning punts. K Caleb Sturgis has made two 50-yard-plus field goals, but after making eight in a row - including a 56-yarder - he has missed each of his past four attempts. P Chas Henry is one of the best in the nation. He gets great height on his punts, and the Gators have allowed just 13 total punt-return yards this season. The Gators' kick-coverage unit has improved greatly in the second half of the season. Florida also has blocked two punts this season.
Edge: Florida

Florida coaching staff vs. Florida State coaching staff
Meyer's program has won two of the past three national titles and is line to play for the championship again. The defensive staff, headed by Strong, might be the best in the nation. The offensive staff has had some growing pains this season, with line coach Steve Addazio now doubling as the coordinator. FSU offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher has done good work with his charges. Ponder was playing at a high level before he got hurt, and Manuel has stepped in and led the Seminoles to back-to-back victories as the starter. Line coach Rick Trickett is given a lot of credit for the improved rushing attack. But a veteran defensive staff is overseeing a unit in shambles. The Seminoles' defensive line is barely mediocre, and there is no pass-rush threat at end, which is unbelievable considering FSU's run of great ends. The secondary isn't that good, either. The safeties, especially, stand out as being frequently overmatched.
Edge: Florida

X-FACTOR:
This promises to be an emotional game for Florida. It is Tebow's last home game, and the Gators know they must win to stay in the national title hunt. Will the Gators be on an even keel, or will they make stupid mistakes that could keep Florida State in the game? The Gators have played four turnover-free games in a row. They also have won five in a row over the Seminoles and haven't won six in a row since 1981-86.

FLORIDA WILL WIN IF:
Florida's biggest opponent is itself. If the Gators avoid turnovers and run the ball effectively - which they have done, really, in every game but one (Arkansas) - they should win quite comfortably. If they can shut down the run and go hard after Manuel, this could end up being a rout.

FLORIDA STATE WILL WIN IF:
The rushing attack is the key. If Thomas or a backup tailback has success on the ground, it will cause Florida to play more conservatively and should give Manuel time to throw. FSU has to be balanced offensively to win this game because it seems unlikely that its frequently torched defense can muster enough stands.

EXPERT PICKS
Olin Buchanan: Florida 34, Florida State 14
Tom Dienhart: Florida 49, Florida State 17
David Fox: Florida 49, Florida State 17
Mike Huguenin: Florida 38, Florida State 16
Steve Megargee: Florida 49, Florida State 17

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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