It’s the end of the regular season, and a game that promised to be one of the year’s headliners when 2013 began is now more of a formality, with Florida State eying the BCS and Florida already guaranteed to miss out on a bowl for the first time since 1990. But if the Seminoles are to win big — or the Gators are to salvage some pride — these are five keys to watch.
1. Downfield success: The quarterback position has been a disaster for Florida this season. During its current six-game losing streak, the Gators have thrown for just three touchdowns — two of which came last week against FCS Georgia Southern. Even in that game, however, just one of QB Skyler Mornhinweg’s 25 pass attempts was completed for more than 20 yards. Florida State, meanwhile, has no trouble going deep. Of his 286 attempts this season, Jameis Winston has completed 84 for more than 15 yards — the second-best rate in the nation. Florida’s defense has allowed 33 plays of 25-plus yards this season, and the Gators rank 66th nationally in that category.
2. The ground game: Georgia Southern beat Florida last week without completing a pass, which certainly speaks to the fragile state of the Gators’ defense. Florida State, meanwhile, has averaged 11 yards per rush during the past two games. The Seminoles would love for those trends to continue, particularly because Florida’s secondary remains one of the better units in the country, and likely the toughest pass defense Winston will have faced this season.
3. Motivation on both sides: Winston summed up the stakes in this game well. “We have a lot to lose and they have nothing to lose,” Winston said. “They’re going to come out there and try to ruin our whole season.” Indeed, this is Florida’s bowl game, so the Gators will be out for vengeance against an FSU team that hasn’t needed its starters in the second half in nearly a month. It's worth remembering that Florida has controlled this rivalry of late, winning seven of the last nine. Florida State was victorious in its last trip to The Swamp in 2011, but it hasn’t won consecutive games in Gainesville since 1987 and 1989.
4. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: The key to Florida’s 37-26 victory last year in Tallahassee was takeaways. The Gators’ D forced five turnovers in the game, and that proved to be the difference. But since that game, the fortunes for both sides of shifted dramatically. Florida has just 17 takeaways this year — six of which came in one game against Tennessee. During its six-game losing streak, the Gators have had just six takeaways and a minus-2 turnover margin. Florida State, on the other hand, has gone 12 consecutive games without losing the turnover battle and the Seminoles lead the country in interceptions this season. The FSU defense has scored six times in the last six games — just three times fewer than Florida’s offense during that same span.
5. Style points: Few people are predicting an upset in this one, and Florida State is favored by nearly four touchdowns. For the Seminoles, who are still holding firm at No. 2 in the BCS standings, a close game might be cause for concern among voters already leery of their less-than-impressive schedule. For Florida, a blowout loss could be another push out the door for coach Will Muschamp, who has received support from his athletic director but can’t really afford another embarrassment like last week’s loss to Georgia Southern.