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Friday, July 19, 2013
Rivalry Week: Key questions for 2013

By Michael DiRocco and David M. Hale

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's never too early to talk Florida-Florida State, even if the game is still more than four months away.

Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp
Both 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.

Q: FSU lost its entire starting defensive line (Cornellius Carradine, Bjoern Werner, Everette Dawkins, and Anthony McCloud) from last season. That was a stellar group that really was the strength of the Seminoles' defense. How does the unit look for 2013 and can it be anywhere close to as dominant as that group was?

Hale: There's no question that FSU is taking a step back on the defensive line in 2013. It's impossible to replace that much talent (and you didn't even mention Brandon Jenkins) without losing some production. But particularly at defensive tackle, FSU is actually in pretty good shape. Timmy Jernigan was already the Seminoles' best interior lineman; he just didn't have the title of starter. Eddie Goldman and Demonte McAllister could've started for virtually any other ACC team last year, too. Add in talented sophomore Nile Lawrence-Stample, senior Jacobbi McDaniel, who is returning from a serious ankle injury, and a few newcomers and this is actually a really deep, talented group.

The real question comes at defensive end, where Mario Edwards Jr. has the potential to be a star, but there are no sure things at the position. Dan Hicks might have an inside track on a starting job after missing last year with an ACL injury, but at the end of spring practice, this was probably the position with the most question marks. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt could scheme around some of the deficiencies, but the pass rush -- particularly from the edge -- is going to be a real concern heading into fall camp.

Q: Now that Jimbo Fisher has won an ACC title, the next step is getting the Seminoles back into the group of teams that are annually in contention for a national championship. How close are they, and how much pressure will Fisher face if the Noles are out of the race by the time this year's UF game rolls around?

Hale: Florida State fans aren't known for harboring particularly realistic expectations for their team, but I think there's perhaps more of an understanding that this could be a transitional year for FSU. The biggest reason is Winston, who I think most fans understand will go through a few growing pains in his first year on the job, but his talent is so immense that there's long-term hope even if there are short-term setbacks. I think the eyes of a large contingent of fans are on 2014 as "the year FSU is back" but really, there's enough talent on the roster right now that the Seminoles should be able to compete for another ACC crown. And, given the timing of the Florida game, I think it's fair to expect FSU to be clicking on all cylinders by then. A loss certainly wouldn't doom Fisher to the hot seat, but falling short against both Clemson and Florida in 2013 would certainly turn up the heat a good bit.

Florida questions

Jeff Driskel
Jeff Driskel will have to take a larger role in the offense against the Seminoles in 2013.
Q: How much has Jeff Driskel grown since last year and how much of Florida's success in this year's rivalry game is likely to rest on his shoulders -- particularly with some concerns about the receiving corps?

DiRocco: Driskel has improved in several important areas since the 2012 season ended: pocket awareness, recognizing and changing protections, and reading coverages to find the open receiver. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Driskel proved to him during the spring that he had made strides. That being said, those are areas in which he still needs to continue to improve. His development has been hurt by the fact that he’s dealing with a below-average group of receivers and hasn’t had the luxury of multiple playmakers. It looks like the same problem again in 2013, so Driskel is going to have to shoulder more of the burden when it comes to making plays to win games. He was pretty much a game manager last year, making safe throws and concentrating on not turning the ball over. That’s no longer going to be good enough, especially against elite defenses.

Q: In last year's game, Manuel was sacked twice, picked off three times, fumbled once, and utterly punished by the Gators defensive front. It was a stellar effort, but a lot of the names at the forefront for the Gators have moved on. Will the defense that punished FSU's quarterback last year be ready to do the same in time for the 2013 game?

DiRocco: The Gators did lose some big-time players from their defense: DT Sharrif Floyd, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, S Matt Elam, NT Omar Hunter, S Josh Evans. But the good news for the Gators -- and bad for the Seminoles -- is that the Gators have the potential to be a better defense in 2013 because of a stocked secondary and an improved pass rush. UF’s corner duo of Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson is the best in the SEC. The young safeties struggled in the spring, but the Gators have the luxury of moving a pair of corners (Jaylen Watkins, Cody Riggs) to play on the back end. They’re solid players who rarely make mistakes, but they’re not big-time playmakers like Elam. However, UF’s pass rush should be the best it has been since 2009, thanks mainly to the return of buck Ronald Powell (torn ACL). Sophomore buck Dante Fowler, Jr., and sophomore end Jonathan Bullard were impact freshmen last season and both showed marked improvement in the spring. Even with some questions at linebacker and limited depth at defensive tackle, UF’s defense should again be among the nation’s elite.

Q: After two straight losses to FSU in the post-Tim Tebow era, including a particularly ugly one in Gainesville in 2011, how much has it meant to Florida to get back in the win column last year, and what's the significance of this year's game for Will Muschamp in establishing a firm grip on the state?

DiRocco: Last year’s victory was huge for Muschamp because it finally got him in the win column against the Gators’ two biggest rivals. Had he lost to FSU and gone 0-2 against both Georgia and the Seminoles, he would be feeling considerable heat from fans. It’s always a bit easier to recruit in state kids when you’re coming off a victory in the FSU series, and establishing a streak against the Noles would be even better. Former coach Urban Meyer dominated that series, and it’s no coincidence that he dominated as a recruiter in state as well.