SEC: Florida State Seminoles

Since late October, Tuesday has been reserved for speculation and anticipation over the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. But not this week.

Michigan reluctantly takes center stage hours before the committee releases its sixth set of rankings.

Next week, the four-team playoff will be set. If things fall right Friday and Saturday in each of the Power 5 leagues, next Tuesday could be epic.

TCU or Baylor? Will Ohio State remain a factor? The debate alone over the order of the top four, which determine the semifinal matchups, will make it a day like no other in college football history.

Sadly, though, we’ve seen plenty of days like this Tuesday.

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Gerald Willis, this is not the way to show your passion for the Florida-Florida State rivalry.

Willis, the Gators defensive lineman, took a cheap shop at Jameis Winston after a Winston run at the 4:33 mark of the second quarter, shoving the Seminoles quarterback on the Florida sideline well after the play.

Frustration among Florida coaches was visible afterward, as they sent Willis off to the locker room after the freshman was flagged. Winston, for his part, kept his cool, so the situation did not escalate.

"That's pathetic," ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit remarked on the broadcast.
The Florida-Florida State rivalry has been one built on runs. Only three times since 1968 have the teams alternated wins over a three-year period.

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:

[+] EnlargeWinston
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators know they can't allow Jameis Winston to be comfortable in the pocket.
Key to victory for Florida: If the Gators are going to win this game, they have to run the ball well. That’s how they upset Georgia, and that’s the only way Florida will leave Tallahassee with a win over the Seminoles. Florida averaged 201 rushing yards in conference games and piled up 418 on Georgia to open the month. FSU has allowed 416 rushing yards in the last two games, which means the Gators will have to heavily rely on running backs Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, who have the one-two-punch ability to frustrate a defense that has been far from elite this season.

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.

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.”
Whether recruits are attending games this holiday weekend or watching on television, all eyes around the recruiting world will be focused on several rivalry games. From the Iron Bowl to the Egg Bowl there will be recruiting implications throughout the conference this weekend. Here’s a closer look at how these game might affect the top remaining recruits.


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Remembering the Choke at Doak

November, 25, 2014
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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 '90-2000. The Gators, ranked No. 4, were also hoping to match FSU's first national title 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 '84-2010. "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."

When the time came to stop the talking and work it out on the field, the Gators looked as if they'd back up their words, jumping out to a 31-3 lead. Florida began resting its starters in the third quarter. Then, somehow, the momentum began to shift. Florida State made defensive play after defensive play and the offense did nothing but score touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

By the time to clock turned to zero, the scoreboard read 31-31.

It was a tie, but yet everyone involved remembers a Florida State win and a Florida loss..

"It is a pretty dang good win ... I mean tie," was Bowden's postgame Freudian slip.

Twenty years later, Florida State still beams with pride; Florida is still haunted with regret.

Here's the oral history of the 1994 "Choke at Doak" from the people who lived it.

To read the rest of Jared Shanker's full oral history, click here.

National links: Calm before the storm 

November, 25, 2014
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Let’s just get this out of the way: Last week in college football was kind of dull.

Unless, that is, you’re into watching the single-game FBS rushing record fall for the second straight Saturday. (So who breaks it this week?) Yes, last week was dull, unless, of course, you’re into Florida State’s weekly high-wire act, re-awakenings at Arkansas and Minnesota or UCLA’s continued stranglehold on Los Angeles.

My point is, the latest set of games didn’t significantly impact the College Football Playoff picture -- at least in comparison to the past few weeks. Barring some craziness at the selection-committee table, the top four on Tuesday night is going to look no different than last week’s edition.

But Week 13 was simply the calm before the storm. Not so sure? Check out first nine paragraphs Gene Wojciechowski’s BMOC column. The rocky road to Dec. 9 is enough to make a fan of any playoff contender choke on his or her turkey dinner.

And it starts in two days.


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Florida State SeminolesTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsLosing to Florida would surely knock the Seminoles out of the College Football Playoff conversation.
The story line gets regurgitated the last weekend in November, every single season. At this point, does it really need to be said just how badly the ACC has to beat its SEC rivals come Saturday?

Well, yes. Because the results carry even more significance now that we are in in the College Football Playoff era. Just look at the way the ACC has been dismissed as a conference. Unbeaten Florida State is ranked behind two one-loss teams in the only rankings that matter -- as much an indictment about the Seminoles’ close wins as it is about the perception of the ACC as a whole.

While it has been convenient for many to dismiss what Florida State has accomplished, it has been just as convenient to dismiss the accomplishments of No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 22 Louisville and No. 24 Clemson. But it may be less difficult to do so if all four teams come through and all win this weekend.

The last time Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson swept their SEC rivals was in 2000. The last time they posted a winning record against them was in 2008, when Georgia Tech and Clemson came out victorious. That also happens to be the last time both teams won their SEC rivalry game.

This might be their best shot at a sweep in years. With Kentucky-Louisville now added into the mix, the Cards, Florida State and Clemson are favored to win. All three are at home; all three are the only teams ranked in the matchup. Georgia Tech is the only underdog, though the Jackets go into their game off a bye, with a four-game winning streak under their belts.

To take it one step further, the FPI game projections show:

  • Florida State with a predicted 73 percent win percentage over Florida.
  • Louisville with a predicted 77 percent win percentage over Kentucky.
  • Clemson with a predicted 62.5 percent win percentage over South Carolina.
  • Georgia with a predicted 80 percent win percentage over Georgia Tech.

“Winning would help the league a lot but it’s going to be how does the media portray it?” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “When I was here in ’08, my first year, we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina … but nobody said much about it. It was like, ‘Oh.’ Now the next year when they beat us, it was a big deal so would it help the league? Sure. Anytime we can go head to head with the SEC and win a game it helps the league.”

Johnson brings up an excellent point. Will a potential sweep be diminished in value because they are all against SEC East teams? Georgia is the only ranked SEC squad in the group. Florida and South Carolina have been disappointments; Kentucky is not bowl eligible. Georgia is the only school among the four with a winning record in SEC play.

So the East is not even close to its counterparts in the West, creating a no-win situation. If the ACC does well in these games, people may not dish out as much credit as they should. If the ACC winds up with a losing record, get ready for more finger pointing and laughter.

If we are looking a little closer at the matchups, there are two teams that cannot afford to lose: Florida State and Clemson. If Florida pulls the upset, Florida State will be out of the College Football Playoff, the worst result imaginable for a league that only has the Noles in the mix.

The stakes are high for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, too. After beating South Carolina as interim coach in 2008, he has gone 0-5. For the first time since 2009, Clemson will be the only ranked team in the matchup. Clemson has the No. 1 defense in the nation; South Carolina has the No. 87 defense in the nation. While Deshaun Watson’s status remains up in the air, the feeling is that Clemson simply cannot afford to lose this game again, not when it has so many obvious advantages.

“The last five years, we’ve had 15 turnovers and they’ve had three,” Swinney said. “That affects everything. That affects your plays per game, it affects your time of possession, it affects the way things are called, field position, on and on and on and on. That’s definitely something we have to get changed for us to have a chance to win the game. There’s no doubt about it.”

Georgia Tech also has lost five straight to Georgia, and 12 of the last 13. Last season, the Jackets blew an early 20-0 lead and lost 41-34 in double overtime. Todd Gurley scored both overtime touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He won't play Saturday.

While Georgia Tech has a Top 25 ranking and spot in the ACC championship game, a win over Georgia would only add to an already stellar season.

“The atmosphere is different about this week because it’s a must-win game,” Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden said. “You don’t want to give them bragging rights for the next 365 days. You just have to hear it over and over again that you can’t beat them. It’s one of those games you look forward to playing.”

It’s one of those games that has to fall in the ACC win column this year.

National links: Who's No. 4? 

November, 24, 2014
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We’re inside of two weeks until Dec. 7, when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its four picks to appear in the sport’s first national semifinals.

There will be teams left out who can make perfectly compelling cases to be playoff participants. There will be voices raised and criticisms leveled regarding which program truly deserved the final spot in the playoff. This much is a certainty.

But which teams have the best chances of cracking the field? It still seems to be a matter of conjecture beyond the top three teams: Alabama, Oregon and Florida State.

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Even though USC still has the top-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12, things are a lot closer after Keisean Lucier-South picked UCLA over the weekend. Plus, Kansas is looking for positives on the recruiting trail and the Jayhawks have got a big one in quarterback Ryan Willis.

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This week, USA Today, in the latest of its fan index lists, catalogued the top 10 traditions in college football.

Among them, dotting the "i" at Ohio State, lighting the Tower at Texas and rolling Toomer's Corner at Auburn. All fine events, but no list of such customs in the sport is complete without the latest craze: the wait for Tuesday night.

I say that somewhat jokingly, so refrain from the angry tweets. No, I don't really think it's more fun to dream about the details of a five-minute interview with Jeff Long than to decorate an intersection with toilet paper.

But it's close.

So welcome to the fourth of seven Tuesday College Football Playoff poll unveils, where it finally gets real in the selection-committee room.

Why is this Tuesday different? Because after last Saturday, none of the remaining unbeaten or one-loss Power 5 contenders will meet in the regular season or in conference-title games.

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CFP committee evaluates the victories 

November, 11, 2014
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Entering the reveal of this week’s College Football Playoff Rankings, I was most interested to see how far Arizona State, Baylor and Ohio State would rise after big wins Saturday. So, naturally, the committee had to sidetrack this article by dropping undefeated Florida State behind once-beaten Oregon and forcing me to address that issue first.

For starters, it’s refreshing to see that the committee isn’t so married to the loss column that it would never put a one ahead of a zero. Whether it would do so at the end of the season is another matter, but at least for now, it would only mean that Florida State would wear white instead of garnet in a semifinal against Oregon. And since that would give the Ducks more uniform options, who’s really going to complain too much about this?

The bigger takeaway, though, is that the committee is really evaluating the wins. Even though FSU hasn’t lost a game, it has only two wins over the committee’s current top 25 -- No. 18 Notre Dame and No. 19 Clemson, both narrow escapes and both in Tallahassee. Oregon, on the other hand, has beaten No. 11 UCLA, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 23 Utah, all by double digits with two of those games on the road. The Ducks have the better wins, and they’ve looked better than the Seminoles over the last month.

I have Florida State at No. 2 and Oregon at No. 3 on my ballot but have no complaints about the committee flipping that order.

Other takeaways:

• TCU apparently passes the eye test against Alabama this week.

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National links: Bias on the committee? 

November, 11, 2014
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I have grave news to bring you. The College Football Playoff selection committee is biased.

Yes, the 12-member panel tasked to solve the nation's problems choose the sport's first four-team playoff includes people with real-life experiences, likes and dislikes.

Some of them, apparently, have ideas about the way the game ought to be played and coached.

Take a deep breath and remember, this is what we wanted.

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There will be subplots aplenty when Auburn visits Georgia on Saturday.

As is often the case, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will impact the SEC divisional races. It’s the rematch of last season’s “Miracle at Jordan-Hare” when Ricardo Louis caught the game-winning touchdown pass off a deflection from two Georgia defenders. It will be former Georgia cornerback and current Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s first game back in Sanford Stadium since Mark Richt kicked him off the team after the 2011 season.

And in case you hadn’t heard, Saturday night’s game will mark the return of Georgia tailback and former Heisman Trophy front runner Todd Gurley.


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Let’s say you’re a hot, up-and-coming head coach in a Group of 5 league. You have job opportunities in every one of the Power 5 conferences. If you’re picking solely based on title path -- the fastest way to the College Football Playoff -- which conference do you choose?

Here's my ranking of every division in the major conferences, going from the most ideal to join as a new coach to the most difficult. Easiest to hardest. (I’m counting the Big 12 as one 10-team division. It’s a reasonable way to view it since, as with the divisions in the other four leagues, everyone plays everyone.)

1. Big Ten West

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