Florida Gators: Jameis Winston

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's not easy watching your arch-rival reach the highest of highs while your team suffers through the lowest of lows, but that's exactly what's happening in Florida. FSU won a national championship to cap a season in which UF posted a losing record for the first time in more than 30 years.

Talk about a programs going in opposite directions. It's not easy to even comprehend the mountain top when you're sitting at rock bottom.

But Florida can learn a lot from this year's champion and runner-up -- Florida State and Auburn.

Tigers bounce back

Auburn might have benefited from a miracle or two, but there is no doubting the way this program rebounded in one year.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel, once the nation's No. 1 QB prospect, gives the Gators -- and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper -- someone to build the offense around.
That should give everyone associated with Florida great hope. Auburn had a far worse season in 2012 than Florida did in 2013. The Tigers didn't win a single game in the SEC and were just seconds away from winning a national championship one year later.

Gus Malzahn's return brought a sense of connection to Auburn's success in 2010 when he was offensive coordinator. He was able to salvage a recruiting class that ranked No. 11 last February and featured a couple of recruits who were critical to the turnaround.

Defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation's No. 2 overall prospect in the Class of 2013, became a bookend to senior Dee Ford. But it was juco transfer Nick Marshall who made the biggest impact. His electric speed and ability to run Malzahn's offense made the Tigers nearly unstoppable.

Like Auburn a year ago, Florida must use its sub-standard season as a selling point to recruits. The message is simple: "You're needed here and you can play right away."

UF didn't change head coaches, but a new offensive coordinator is nearly as seismic. Kurt Roper, a veteran play-caller with an extensive SEC résumé, will install something very different from the unimaginative, clock-chewing, run-run-pass offense that so frustrated Gator fans the last three seasons.

There's much work to be done across the board, but like Auburn, the key to revamping the offense for Roper and Florida is to work from the quarterback position out.

Seminoles' ascension

Just over a year ago, Florida went to Tallahassee and beat the Seminoles. FSU hasn't lost since.

The difference? A transcendent quarterback.

Sure, Jameis Winston is a generational talent. He's a quarterback prodigy with the otherworldly talent to win both the Heisman Trophy and the national title in just his second year out of high school.

Florida doesn't have that kind of QB, but Jeff Driskel was once the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, just like Winston. And UF's incoming freshman Will Grier is rated No. 2 in the nation. Together, Driskel and Grier give the Gators a focal point from which to build around.

Florida State's success came as a result of a steady buildup of talent. Remember how many times fans and observers claimed the Noles were officially "back" in recent years? Now there is no questioning FSU.

If Florida is to return to college football's elite, it needs stability. Some fans might not love the idea of Will Muschamp sticking around, but he is being given the chance to finish what he has started. Florida has recruited some of the nation's best classes -- 12th, fourth and second -- in Muschamp's three years. The talent level is rising, and someone has to steer the ship.

Some people forget this, but Jimbo Fisher has only been a head coach for one more year than Muschamp. And while his run at FSU has seen the Seminoles steadily climb back to prominence, Fisher was there from 2007-09 as offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting when the Noles lost 16 games.

Florida's time with Muschamp has been more like a roller-coaster ride. After free-falling to the bottom, there is but one direction to go.

Manziel or Winston? Prospects weigh in

December, 29, 2013
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- There are many topics of conversation among prospects playing in the 2014 Under Armour All-America Game. One of them centers around the past two Heisman Trophy winners.

On Saturday, upon checking in for the prestigious game, a number of prospects weighed in on a hot topic involving Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston.

If they had to choose between the two, who would the players take as their college quarterback? Here are their responses:

[+] EnlargeMarlon Humphrey
Courtesy of IntersportNo. 9 overall prospect Marlon Humphrey likes how Johnny Manziel makes others around him better.
Five-star cornerback Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Al./Hoover High): Ah man, I think I’m going to have to go with Johnny Manziel. I just feel like he kind of made a team out of nothing. Jameis Winston is a great quarterback too, but he doesn’t have the scrambling skills that Manziel has. This year, you could tell that his teams defense wasn’t that good, the players around him weren’t as good, but he kept making his team better. He’s has the fight in him I would want on my team.

Florida commit and No. 20-ranked Dalvin Cook (Miami/Central High): I would say Jameis Winston. He’s really a pure quarterback, and I think he sets up things more for a running back than Johnny Manziel does.

Auburn running back commit Racean Thomas (Oxford, Al./Oxford High): I would probably pick Jameis Winston. The reason behind that is because he is more of a leader for a young quarterback, and I think he can make his team a more mature team. I really think he would be a great quarterback to play with.

Florida wide receiver commit and No. 28 Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla./Homestead Senior High): Whew, I don’t know. I think Jameis Winston. I look at how both of them played as a freshman, and I like how Jameis Winston leads his team. He is also more pro-ready than Manziel.

Texas defensive end commit and No. 78-overall Derick Roberson (San Antonio, Texas/William J. Brennan High): I guess I would say Johnny Manziel. I like how he plays with his swagger and confidence the most, so I would probably say him.

Notre Dame commit and No. 76-ranked Tyler Luatua (la Mirada, Calif./La Mirada High): I would take Manziel just because of the way he plays. If he doesn’t have a wide receiver open, he can make plays himself. He can get the ball to his players if and when he wants to, but can also do it on his own when he needs to.

No. 38 overall John Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Polytechnic High School): That’s a hard one. As of right now, I would go with Jameis Winston. Overall, he’s a great player. I think Winston has an awesome football IQ. Johnny had his year too, but I think Winston is just a great player. Outstanding.

Dylan Sumner-Gardner: Jameis Winston, man. I feel comfortable with Jameis Winston as my quarterback because he’s smart and accurate. Johnny is accurate too, but Johnny is Johnny. How he runs around, people may get nervous. I would just feel more comfortable with Jameis as my quarterback.

No. 22 overall Laurence Jones (Monroe, La./Neville High): That’s a hard one right there. Let me think ... maybe Johnny Manziel because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white boy get down like that. It would have to be Johnny Manziel.

Penn State wide receiver commit Chris Godwin (Middletown, De./Middletown High): I think Jameis Winston. I think overall he’s a better passer. I want a quarterback back there that can get me the ball on a consistent basis, but Johnny Manziel is a great player, too. I’m actually a big fan of both of them.

Five-star and Virginia defensive tackle commit Andrew Brown (Chesapeake, VA
Oscar Frommel Smith High)
: Dang, that’s a good question, man. I would go with Jameis Winston. His leadership qualities, coming in as a freshman and doing the things he is doing is definitely uncommon. It just foreshadows what he is going to do in the future, too. He’s already established a great foundation for himself, and I would definitely take him in the future.

Maryland commit Will Ulmer (Washington, D.C./Saint John’s High): I’m going with Johnny Manziel. I think he’s more dynamic, and more of a game-changer. Jameis Winston is a great quarterback too, but you have to think about all the dudes he has around him at FSU -- all the great receivers and good running backs. I would go with Manziel because if you put him on the Florida State team, or a stacked team like that, it would be a scary sight.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 10, 2013
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We're still 11 days from the first bowls, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about them. Here's some bowl chatter – and some other stuff – from across the SEC.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's only fitting that a season characterized by injuries and an ineffective offense would conclude with a whimper thanks to those same culprits.

But after losing 37-7 to No. 2 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) in the Swamp on Saturday, Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC) can take solace that its season of misery is mercifully over.

[+] EnlargeBurton
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDespite carrying the ball just twice, Trey Burton led the Gators with 47 yards rushing versus Florida State. Burton left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
"Very frustrating, difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season," coach Will Muschamp said. "That’s the best way I can sum it up."

Not even an inspirational pregame speech by Gators great Tim Tebow could do more than delay the inevitable.

"What he said to us was, 'Any man that goes down, he has the ability to get back up. But the difference is how that man gets back up, because a man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back up and is changed and is different from being down, that's who we are. That's who the Gators are. That's how we need to play and that's who we need to be,' " Florida left tackle Max Garcia recounted.

"So, I'm going to stick with that for the rest of my life. It really penetrated my soul."

With Tebow watching on the sidelines, the Gators were bouncing around and showing more emotion than they had in weeks. In front of a nearly full stadium, its fans at full throat, Florida's defense harassed Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston into one of his worst quarters (4-of-6 for 35 yards) of the season.

Winston threw his first interception in three weeks -- an excuse-me catch by Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who broke up the pass with his back to the ball but was able to find and reel in the deflection. It was the Gators' first interception since the second quarter of the Missouri game on Oct. 19.

The crowd roared its approval, and there was more energy in the Swamp than at any point in the season.

Florida outgained FSU 81 yards to 33 in the first quarter, but 50 of those yards came on one Wildcat keeper up the middle by senior Trey Burton. Two plays later, Burton injured his shoulder on another keeper and did not return to the field.

With Burton went half of the offense the Gators were planning to run.

"We were probably going to have 30-35 plays with Trey [at Wildcat quarterback]," Muschamp said. "Some of the misdirection runs now go out of the game plan, so you've got to make adjustments and you've got to change.

"I hurt for Trey because he’s a senior, his last game in the Swamp, so [it's] very difficult for him. He’s a great young man. It just kinda sums up what’s happened this year. Very frustrating."

With Burton's injury, Florida was missing 16 scholarship contributors in this game. And with cornerback Marcus Roberson dealing with an ankle injury in the first half, UF was missing 10 of its original 22 projected starters on offense and defense.

Winston and the Seminoles still led 3-0 after the first quarter, as FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo converted the same 49-yard field goal that his Florida counterpart, Austin Hardin, missed.

A 12-play, 96-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin might have put the game out of reach, but more importantly, it quelled the enthusiasm of the Florida defense and the crowd.

FSU had weathered the early storm of defensive pressure and taken a 17-0 lead into halftime. It tied the lowest first-half scoring output of the season for the Noles, which happened previously against Nevada in Week 2.

A game that looked on paper like a colossal mismatch inevitably turned out that way. The Florida defense couldn't get off the field, thanks to FSU going 9-of-15 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Florida went 1-for-11 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play on the day.

"You got to maintain the ball against an offense like that," Muschamp said. "You got to take time off the clock. ... We weren’t able to do that. Give them credit. They made plays on third down, and we didn’t. I think we were 1-of-10 or -11 on third down. You got to convert those, and we’ve struggled to make explosives, make third-down conversions. You name it, we haven’t done it.”

In a season of making all the wrong history, the only drama Florida could muster against Florida State was whether the Noles would shut out the Gators for the first time in the 58-game series.

The answer was no, but it was close. And now the Gators boast the nation's second-longest streak of scoring in consecutive games (322, second to Michigan's 374 games in a row).

With one score in the fourth quarter, Florida finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns. It's the fewest since 1989, the season before Steve Spurrier was hired as coach. On the other sideline, sitting out the Noles' final series to let his backup play, Winston had already broken Florida State's single-season record for passing TDs, with three more on Saturday giving him a total of 35.

"It’s been a tough year, difficult to deal with, but it is what it is," a somber Muschamp said when it was over. "Those guys have persevered through some tough times and certainly this season being the iceberg of it all."

Now that it's in the history books, however, Florida's 2013 season might be remembered less as an iceberg and more as the ship that sunk when it struck one.

SEC Week 14 primer

November, 30, 2013
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Finally, a full slate of SEC games after a couple of weeks of scattered byes and FCS opponents. And what a slate it is.

Seven games remain after Thursday's Egg Bowl and Friday's Arkansas-LSU game, none bigger than No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. One of the best rivalries in college football has a lot more juice this year, as it's only the second time Alabama and Auburn will play when both are ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall, Gus Malzahn
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and Nick Marshall lead Auburn past No. 1 Alabama?
Hundreds of RVs started arriving on the Plains last week in anticipation of today's battle for SEC West supremacy and the right to represent the division in Atlanta for the SEC championship game next week. Coming off a bye week, the Tigers have a chance to cap their remarkable turnaround season with an upset many thought improbable before the season began.

And while it might be a victory for AU to simply be in a game of this magnitude after going Oh-for-the-SEC last season, try telling Gus Malzahn or QB Nick Marshall to settle for a consolation prize. Alabama's Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron, on the other hand, look to extend their already loaded legacies with another shot at postseason glory.

The next biggest game on today's slate will decide who represents the SEC East in Atlanta, as Missouri plays host to Texas A&M. These Tigers have a turnaround season of their own brewing, having gone 5-7 with a 2-6 conference record in their first shot at the SEC last year. What better way to complete the 180 and win a division crown than to face the team they came into the SEC with last season?

When the two met for the first time as SEC foes last year in College Station, Texas, Johnny Manziel was 32-of-44 passing for 372 yards and three TDs while running for 67 yards and two more scores. The Aggies cruised in a 59-29 romp that sealed Manziel's Heisman Trophy résumé. This season, Johnny Football is again vying for the Heisman, but he's coming off the worst loss of his career and coach Kevin Sumlin's brief tenure at A&M. The Aggies will have to prove they haven't lost their edge as this season's goals have dwindled. Mizzou, on the other hand, expects to be on a high with a sold-out, black-out-attired crowd urging on what would be one of the biggest wins in school history.

Waiting in the wings for Missouri to falter is South Carolina, which plays at home in its annual game against in-state rival Clemson. This Palmetto State showdown is a star-studded affair that features two top-10 teams, but the recent history is lopsided in the Gamecocks' favor. Clemson's record-breaking senior QB Tajh Boyd has never beaten South Carolina and will have to shake off the nightmares of last season's game when Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney set USC's school record for sacks in a game with 4.5. The Gamecocks have a chance to do something they've never done before in a series that began in 1896 -- win five games in a row.

Another SEC-ACC showdown looks far less competitive down in the Sunshine State, where sad-sack Florida has the daunting task of trying to end its epic six-game losing streak against the powerhouse No. 2 team in the nation, Florida State. Aside from an unbeaten season, the prospect of a BCS championship game berth and a Heisman Trophy for redshirt freshman sensation Jameis Winston on the line, the Seminoles have a score to settle after last season's 37-26 collapse against the Gators in Tallahassee. Always one of the more physical and intense rivalry games in the nation, Florida-Florida State this year feels more like a mismatch, as the Gators have suffered enough injuries and humiliation to last decades.

The other two SEC-ACC games are also somewhat subdued by recent events, as Georgia visits Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt plays host to Wake Forest. The Bulldogs are still reeling from the loss of star quarterback Aaron Murray, who suffered a torn ACL last week. He will be replaced by Hutson Mason, a fourth-year junior who has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. The taller task for Georgia today will be stopping the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack.

After beating three straight SEC East foes, Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin have already made history with a third consecutive season that will culminate in a bowl appearance. Facing the Demon Deacons simply provides another opportunity to extend an amazing streak of wins in the month of November. The Commodores haven't lost in November since 2011 and haven't lost to Wake since 2010, before Franklin arrived.

Rounding out the conference schedule is UK's annual tilt with Tennessee, two of the league's bottom-three teams. Had they upset Vanderbilt last week, Butch Jones' Vols could have been playing for a feel-good bowl berth, but the Dores pulled out a last-second comeback and ripped UT's heart out on a fake jump-pass quarterback keeper. Mark Stoops' Wildcats, on the other hand, would be thrilled with any kind of SEC win. Kentucky is 0-7 this season after going winless in league play last year and hasn't won a conference game in its last 15 tries.

  • Florida State at Florida, noon ET, ESPN
  • Wake Forest at Vanderbilt, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
  • Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS
  • Georgia at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m., ABC
  • Clemson at South Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
  • Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Texas A&M at Missouri, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Five things: Florida vs. Florida State

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch as the Florida Gators (4-7, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to the Florida State Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) on Saturday at noon ET (ESPN) in the final game of the regular season.

1. Stopping Jameis: Florida's defense has gradually gotten worse with almost every passing week during a six-game losing streak. The Gators gave up 429 yards to FCS Georgia Southern last week, and while those yards were all on the ground, simply getting stops has become an issue. Injuries have continued to pile up, and the timing couldn't be worse with Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston in town. The Seminoles are a juggernaut on offense, having already scored a school- and ACC-record 607 points this season. Winston leads the nation in passing efficiency, has thrown the third-most TD passes (32) and is second in the nation in yards per attempt (11.1). "He can make all the throws and he does make all the throws," UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "He’s got great confidence in his arm and you can understand why. It’ll be our biggest challenge of the year."

2. Stopping the FSU running game: The Gators know Winston will be a handful, but it would be wise not to overlook the Seminoles' ground game. FSU actually runs (399 attempts) more than it passes (344). The Noles will look to challenge that suddenly suspect Florida run defense. FSU junior tailback Devonta Freeman has 808 yards (6.2 yards per carry) this season and appears on his way to being the Seminoles' first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996. James Wilder Jr. also has been coming on strong after missing FSU's game against NC State with a concussion. Wilder has run for six touchdowns and 285 yards on 22 carries (13.0 YPC) in his last four games.

3. Florida's quarterback: For the third week in a row, the Gators are preparing redshirt freshman QB Skyler Mornhinweg to play. Junior Tyler Murphy, who is listed as questionable, has thrown some passes in practice the last couple of weeks, but is clearly still feeling the effects of a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. The problem for Florida is the limitations Mornhinweg presents to an already foundering offense. If he makes his third career start, there might not be much that can be expected in the way of sudden improvement in Mornhinweg's arm strength or decision-making. He did, however, direct a pass-heavy two-minute offense in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to GSU. Perhaps with nothing to lose in the season finale, the UF coaching staff will allow the Gators quarterback -- whoever it is -- to take some shots down the field.

4. Can the Gators score any points? With Mornhinweg likely at the helm and the Gators' kicking game a season-long sore spot, there is a real possibility Florida could be held off the scoreboard. Factor in a Seminoles defense that is hungry for revenge after being gutted in last season's 37-26 home loss to Florida, and this game could be a feeding frenzy. FSU has the nation's No. 2 pass defense and leads the nation in interceptions with 23. As it did last year, Florida State has one of the nation's best run defenses, allowing just four rushing TDs in 11 games this season. Florida's beleaguered offensive line expects to have its hands full up the middle against defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has 43 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

5. Familiar faces: One of the reasons this series, which UF leads 34-21-2, is so special is the familiarity of most of the players. There are 36 players on both sidelines who were once high school teammates. FSU has 93 players from the state of Florida on its roster. Florida has 83. Many of these players knocked helmets in high school grudge matches, so the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is certainly fitting. For the head coaches, however, it's done nothing of the sort. Florida's Will Muschamp and his FSU counterpart, Jimbo Fisher, remain close friends after first working together under Auburn coach Terry Bowden in the mid-90s and again under LSU coach Nick Saban. They even share a beach house in Panama City, Fla. Bragging rights are on the line on Saturday, as their head-to-head record is 1-1.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the past two weeks, all the rumors and accusations and lawyers and headlines disappeared as soon as Jameis Winston trotted through the tunnel and bursted onto the field at Doak Campbell Stadium, as 70,000 of his most ardent supporters roared their approval.

On the field, life is still normal, and that’s provided some solace as the Florida State quarterback deals with the ongoing legal drama of a sexual assault case in which he’s been named a suspect but has not been charged.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJameis Winston knows he's likely to be a focal point of taunts from Florida Gators fans.
“The football field is our sanctuary,” Winston said.

But as the field in Tallahassee offered shelter on each of the past two Saturdays, it’s more likely to be the eye of the storm this week when Florida State travels to Gainesville to take on rival Florida.

The Gators (4-7) have little left to play for, but that doesn’t mean their fans are likely to be any more forgiving when Winston leads the Seminoles onto the field. Gone will be the rousing ovations Winston received against Syracuse and Idaho the past two weeks. For vocal Florida fans, he’ll be a lightning rod for taunts.

“Florida fans? Of course they’re going to be tough,” Winston said. “But when we get on the football field, clear the mechanism, we’re locked and loaded, and we’re ready to play football.”

Part of Winston’s legend this season was built on his resolve in the face of a vociferous opposition. In his debut at Pittsburgh, he was nearly flawless. Amid the overwhelming noise at Clemson, he told his teammates to soak in the atmosphere before they silenced the crowd with a dominant performance.

So far, at least, Winston has enjoyed the taunts as much as the cheers.

“We block all that out,” tailback Devonta Freeman said. “He’s heard some of the worst things before, and none of that matters when you’re on the battlefield. When we’re warming up, we just don’t pay attention to them.”

Still, this week is different. Against Pitt and Clemson, Winston’s sin was simply the color of his jersey. When he takes the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, the dark cloud of this legal morass offers far more stinging ammunition.

Jimbo Fisher doesn't expect his quarterback to be rattled by the barbs, though. In fact, Fisher’s quite certain Winston will handle The Swamp with the same confidence he used to tame Death Valley. But staying quiet in the face of such potentially damaging criticism is far from ideal, and that’s been the continued stance of Fisher, Winston and the rest of the Florida State football program.

As the accusations were made and the news stories followed, and Florida State has made just one unremarkable statement of support for Winston before closing ranks around him.

“We’ll let the facts come out,” Fisher said. “I don’t want to comment on it too much. Let’s just wait and see how things turn out.”

And yet, while Winston and the Seminoles remain quiet about the investigation off the field, they’ve provided emphatic statements on it. Since the news of the case broke two weeks ago, Florida State has won its games over Syracuse and Idaho by a combined 139-17.

It might not be quite as easy this week, but all season Winston has shown that the field is his playground, regardless of the chaos that surrounds it.

“I think he understands the whole circumstances when you go on the road,” Fisher said. “When you become the guy, one of the faces of the organization, people are always going to get on you. That’s part of it.”

Planning for success: Florida

November, 27, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida hit rock bottom last Saturday when it lost to a mediocre FCS team inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Or did it?

Don't look now, but there could still be a new low to come. The Gators' arch-rivals to the west are visiting this week to put an end to UF's season of misery, and the Seminoles have just the unbeaten juggernaut to inflict something even more painful than last week's loss.

"Very big game," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher on Monday. "Always a very difficult place to play there in Gainesville, one of the most difficult in the country. They’ll be ready to play. I know they will bring their 'A' game and we’ll have to bring ours."

[+] EnlargeWIll Muschamp
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIt's been a tough year for Will Muschamp and the Gators, but a win over the No. 2 FSU could salvage a losing season.
On paper, Florida (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has plenty to play for when it hosts No. 2 Florida State (11-0, 8-0 ACC) Saturday at noon. There are the 15 seniors who will be honored in a pre-game ceremony. There's basic pride. There's an opportunity to wipe away the bitter taste of a season gone wrong. And there's the chance -- however faint -- to ruin FSU's season and end the Noles' hopes of playing for the national championship.

The problem is this game will be played on turf, not paper, and the matchup tilts clearly in the Seminoles' favor. Florida State averages 55.2 points a game, while Florida averages 19.9. FSU allows 11.4 PPG. UF allows 19.6, which highlights the Gators' minuscule margin of error.

"Last one. Our bowl game," Florida senior guard Jon Halapio said. "We have a chance to go out there and resolve our whole season playing against the No. 2 team in the nation, and they’re a very good team.

"With everything we’ve had this year, I feel like a win against this group of guys would uplift our spirits as a football program."

Although it will be facing Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston and the Noles' high-powered offense, the Gator defense still provides a source of hope. Despite the team's struggles, Florida still ranks No. 7 in the nation in total defense and No. 3 in pass defense.

"Fifty-five points is a lot," said Florida senior defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, who was once an FSU signee before enrolling in junior college. "I honestly think they haven’t seen our type of defense all year in their league. We’ll be able to cut that down."

Florida may be down this year, but the Gators can expect no mercy from Florida State.

"If we let up they might hit us in the mouth, but we ain't letting up," Florida State running back Devonta Freeman said. "I know for a fact we ain't going to let up."

Led by their seniors, the Gators know they don't have a prayer of winning if they don't first believe it can be done.

"I think we have a chance," Halapio said. "If we go out there and play like we're capable of playing, I think we still have a good chance of playing a good game and possibly beating them. We've just got to execute."

Therein lies Florida's challenge -- execute or be executed.

One year changes everything for FSU, UF

November, 26, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Every year the most storied rivalries in college football add another chapter. On Saturday in the Swamp the steamroller squares off against the spoiler.

This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWill Muschamp hasn't had much to be happy about this season, as the Gators have clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979.
"Our guys understand the importance of this game," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "We'll work hard and we'll have a great crowd just like we did this past Saturday to support our guys. [It's] one of the great rivalries in all of college football. Florida State's got a good football team. They're having a great year. It would help us a lot to go get a win."

What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.

It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.

While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.

Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.

One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.

"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."

Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.

"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."

Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.

"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."

Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.

Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.

"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."

The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.

“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.

"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”

Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.

"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."

The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.

"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."

Fisher, Muschamp take diverging paths

November, 26, 2013
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The most obvious sign their paths would diverge appeared in the first week of September. Jameis Winston announced himself as a future Heisman candidate with a near perfect performance in Pittsburgh, setting Florida State on its way from afterthought to contender.

Five days later, Jeff Driskel and his teammates bumbled their way to five turnovers in yet another avert-your-eyes performance at Miami. A string of team-crushing injuries ensued, setting Florida on its way from contender to catastrophe.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SearsFSU's Jimbo Fisher (left) and Florida's Will Muschamp are good friends and have a lot in common, but this year they have seen their programs head in opposite directions.
The two best friends could not have more contradictory fortunes. Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp -- groomed in the same coaching tree and working their first head coaching jobs -- have had seasons for the ages but for opposite reasons.

Muschamp has had to watch his Florida team come apart so spectacularly, his job security has been a daily topic for weeks. Meanwhile, his close pal has brought Florida State together so completely, the gap between the two programs is as wide as the 150 miles that separate Gainesville and Tallahassee.

That dichotomy must be hard to swallow for Muschamp, especially when you consider how his team thoroughly beat the Seminoles physically and on the scoreboard just one year ago. How must Muschamp feel watching Fisher enjoy so much success, knowing it further amplifies his own problems?

“I worry about Florida,” Muschamp said Monday. “I worry about what we need to do and where we are and what we need to improve. That’s what all my concentration is on. Obviously the game each week, you focus on the other team and prepare for that team -- and they’ve got a heck of a football team and they are having a heck of a year. That’s how I view things.”

A look at the Florida roster reveals little in the way of the offensive talent or overall depth Florida State has this season. It is true the Gators have sustained more injuries to starters than just about any team in America. Of the 22 players who started against Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in January, only six were available last week in a horrendous loss to Georgia Southern.

But injuries cannot be the only excuse. Questions about the offense and depth have followed Muschamp since he arrived in Gainesville. Florida did win 11 games a season ago, but the Gators had one of the worst offenses in the country and their defense was exposed in the loss to Louisville.

Quarterback has been a consistent issue since Tim Tebow left. Driskel came in as the No. 10 player on the ESPN 150 in the class of 2011 but has yet to live up to his advance billing.

Contrast that with Winston, who was actually rated lower on the ESPN 150 in the class of 2012 at No. 14 overall. Fisher could end up with a third quarterback taken in the first round in his Florida State tenure, and has some of the best talent and depth at receiver in the country. Incredibly, his team in 2013 is better after losing a record 11 picks to the NFL draft in April.

Most impressive is how the Noles have performed despite a staff full of new coaches, hired to replace assistants who went on to bigger, better jobs this past offseason. And yet the one constant on offense remains Fisher, who works without an offensive coordinator and has called the plays since his arrival. Contrast that to Florida, which is likely to make offensive staff changes for the third time under Muschamp.

What seems clear now is that Fisher benefited from serving as coach-in-waiting under Bobby Bowden. As maligned as the idea was not only at Florida State but elsewhere, Fisher had the necessary preparation for his first head-coaching job. In Year 3, he won 12 games, an ACC championship and a BCS game. Not only has Florida State put together top recruiting classes over the last several years, Fisher has maximized the talent he has brought on campus and built a two-deep that rivals Alabama.

Muschamp also served as a coach-in-waiting, but under Texas coach Mack Brown. He got his first head coaching job at Florida, a surprise hire to many, and has seemed in over his head throughout his tenure. Now in Year 3, Muschamp has never won an SEC title or a BCS game and will post the first losing season at Florida since 1979.

After the loss to Georgia Southern, the calls for his job grew more intense. Muschamp was SEC coach of the year a season ago but right now, that feels like 100 years ago.

“We have no patience in this world anymore,” Fisher said Monday. “Everything is what have you done for me lately. It’s just the way things go. I don’t think it’s right. I think that’s some of the things as far as when you look at the history of organizations, ones that have had patience seem to be the ones that really have the best true teams over longevity than ones that don’t come to rash decisions very quickly.”

Fisher offered words of support, saying he was confident Muschamp would get through the trying times. “He’s a great guy and a heck of a football coach. Will knows this business, he’ll handle it very well,” Fisher said.

Indeed, it was not long ago Florida ruled the state, winning six straight in the series between 2004-2009. That, of course, was before Fisher and Muschamp started down their own head coaching paths. Where Fisher has succeeded, Muschamp has been left alone, trying to find the right way out.
1. Florida head coach Will Muschamp, assessing his team's offensive woes, said Monday that the first thing he would do is look at himself. And he's exactly right. The problem is that Muschamp is three years late. There's a difference between a) hiring an offensive coordinator and staying out of his way and b) establishing an offensive philosophy, then finding the right coordinator to execute it. Muschamp's offenses have looked like square pegs in round holes under both Charlie Weis (2011) and Brent Pease (2012-13). I don't think Muschamp can turn the offense around in one season, but he can do a better job of figuring out what he wants and get the Gators moving in the right direction.

2. In most seasons, the major awards announce their finalists, yet we know who is going to win. But I think this year there will some real suspense when the awards are handed out on ESPN next month. Take the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. The finalists announced Monday are: the guy who makes big plays and a few big mistakes (Johnny Manziel); the guy who wins and has done so for three years (AJ McCarron) and the guy who makes big plays and wins yet has a shadow over him (Jameis Winston). How do you handicap that one?

3. I love that Jerry Glanville, at age 72, wants to get back on the sideline. As USA Today reported Monday, Glanville sent an unsolicited application to Eastern Michigan, which has signed a long-term lease on the MAC basement. Glanville would get the school some curiosity pub. Most of the rest of the MAC has skewed toward being the proving ground for up-and-coming assistants (Rod Carey, Matt Campbell) or proven lower-division head coaches (Brian Kelly, Jerry Kill). EMU has to decide what it wants.

3-point stance: Rallying behind Muschamp

November, 14, 2013
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1. Florida fans are taking their frustrations out on head coach Will Muschamp when it’s plain to see that the Gators have suffered as many injuries as any team in recent memory. Athletic director Jeremy Foley and university president Bernie Machen went to bat for Muschamp on Wednesday. Even Steve Spurrier, whose No. 10 South Carolina team plays his alma mater on Saturday, endorsed Muschamp. They stated the obvious, as I am doing here. But the fans haven’t grasped it yet.

2. According to the reporting of Mark Schlabach and David Hale, Tallahassee police waited nine months to send to the state attorney a complaint of sexual assault that involves Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The complaint lists the offender as being between 5-foot-9 and 5-11. Winston is 6-4. Skepticism is justified. But here’s why it matters to the No. 2 Seminoles football team. University policy dictates that a student-athlete charged with a felony is suspended. Backup quarterback Jacob Coker isn’t available. He underwent knee surgery this week.

3. One ugly streak will end in the Pac-12 this week when Colorado, which has lost 14 consecutive conference games, welcomes California, which has lost 12 league games in a row. Both teams’ last Pac-12 victory came against Washington State last season. Both teams have first-year head coaches. This season, Cal came within a touchdown of one Pac-12 team (Arizona); every Colorado conference loss has been by at least three touchdowns. I still see a spark in Boulder that injuries have prevented in Berkeley.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 11

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All eyes were on Saturday's Alabama-LSU showdown, but there were plenty of storylines to take away from the rest of the conference, as well. Here are five things we learned from Week 11 in the SEC.

Alabama still king: For the first 30 minutes, it looked like it was going to be another epic clash between the Tide and the Tigers. However, the nation's No. 1 team imposed its will in the second half and rolled to a 38-17 victory. AJ McCarron threw three touchdown passes; T.J. Yeldon rushed for 133 yards and two scores, and the defense held LSU to 43 yards on the ground, sacking quarterback Zach Mettenberger four times. It was the first challenging game the Tide have played in more than a month, and it proved why they are still the No. 1 team. On a weekend when Oregon suffered its first loss, Alabama not only remained unbeaten but showed why it's the favorite to win a third consecutive national championship.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Dave MartinWith three touchdown passes against LSU, is AJ McCarron finally hearing some Heisman buzz?
Heisman hopefuls: With another solid performance in a big game, is it time we put McCarron back in the Heisman trophy race? It's safe to say that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has emerged as the front-runner after the weekend, but McCarron certainly helped himself against LSU. And don't forget about Johnny Manziel, last year's Heisman winner. The Texas A&M quarterback put up more ridiculous numbers Saturday, throwing for 446 yards and five touchdowns at home against Mississippi State. Manziel is on pace to surpass his numbers from last year, but the Aggies' loss to Alabama early in the season could influence voters. Both McCarron and Manziel have marquee games still left to pad their resumes.

Year of the Tiger: Who would've guessed Auburn and Missouri would be No. 2 and No. 3 in the SEC, chasing down Alabama? Both Tigers teams have had terrific seasons, and they continued Saturday with impressive road wins. Ninth-ranked Auburn went to Tennessee and blew out a Volunteers team that had been dangerous at home. Quarterback Nick Marshall rushed for 214 yards and two scores as the SEC's top-rushing offense put up 444 yards on the ground. Missouri also took care of business against a struggling Kentucky team. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit, caught seven passes for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams should remain in the top 10 when the BCS standings come out Sunday.

Trouble in Gainesville: Florida's season went from bad to worse Saturday. The Gators, who have been decimated by injuries, were on a three-game losing streak but hopeful they could turn it around at home against Vanderbilt. It didn't happen. Despite giving up nearly twice as many yards, the Commodores knocked off Florida 34-17 for their first win in Gainesville since 1945. The Gators turned the ball over four times. What does this mean for head coach Will Muschamp? He should get a pass because of all the injuries, but this is the type of loss that could lead to unemployment. Florida now has to win at South Carolina or at home against Florida State just to reach a bowl game.

Gaining momentum: It seems like a long time since Ole Miss lost those three consecutive games to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. The Rebels have quietly righted the ship, and they have a legitimate chance to win out. On Saturday, they looked impressive in a 34-24 win over Arkansas. Quarterback Bo Wallace finished 26-of-33 and threw for a career-high 407 yards. The win made Ole Miss bowl eligible for the second straight year under coach Hugh Freeze, but this team wants more. They want to finish with nine wins and play in a New Year's Day bowl game. That means the Rebels will have to upset Missouri at home in two weeks and finish the season with a win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. Neither is out of the question.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's never too early to talk Florida-Florida State, even if the game is still more than four months away.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SearsBoth Jimbo Fisher (right) and Will Muschamp have faced struggles against their rivals.
GatorNation's Michael DiRocco and NoleNation's David Hale discuss the Nov. 30 meeting at Florida Field. They posed three questions to the other:

Florida State questions

Q: What does QB Jameis Winston bring to the Seminoles' offense that EJ Manuel did not?

Hale: I think there are two distinctly opposite emotions in play here. On one side, Manuel always took a few more lumps from fans than were probably deserved. He finished his career 25-6, winner of four bowl games and the school's all-time record holder for completion percentage. That's a sturdy resume. On the other side, Winston is already getting so much hype that anything short of a Heisman and a national title during his tenure would probably be a disappointment. The truth on both guys is probably somewhere in between, which likely means Winston is going to have a hard time eclipsing Manuel's production this season.

Still, looking back at last year's Florida game, the bar is low -- and 12 games into the season, Winston should be clicking on all cylinders by then. Manuel was dreadful in that game (four turnovers) and I think it's his ugly mistakes in big moments that angered fans the most. Winston has a flair for the dramatic and a love of the spotlight, and that confidence might be his best weapon -- which is saying something, because the guy's got a ton of weapons.


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Rivalry Week: UF, FSU future stars, part 1 

July, 16, 2013
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The heroes and villains of the Florida-Florida State rivalry are well documented, and in the battle for state supremacy, there's no bigger stage to cement a legend.

But rather than look back at the players who have defined the rivalry over the years, we're taking a look ahead to the next three meetings and projecting which Gators and Seminoles could possibly land on that list.

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireJames Wilder Jr. could exploit some of Florida's defensive weaknesses in the 2013 matchup.
On Tuesday, we’ll highlight the FSU offensive players and the UF defensive players. On Wednesday, we’ll flip it.

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