TALLAHASSEE — Five questions about the Florida Gators with Orlando Sentinel beat writer Edgar Thompson:
1. How high is the wave the Gators are riding after the goal-line stand at LSU? Does an emotional game like that, especially with the lead-up after the hurricane, prevent UF from preparing for this contest?
The Gators were riding a tsunami-like wave of emotion after silencing the trash-talking Tigers and crowd of 102,043 with a defensive stand for the ages. Toss in the SEC East title and it is a lot to expect a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds to return to earth anytime soon. But there is nothing like a game against a heated and hated rival to refocus a team. The Gators sense the Seminoles are beatable for the first time in awhile. FSU has won five of six in the series, and the Seminoles’ 2012 loss was to UF’s best team of the six since Tim Tebow was in Gainesville. The fact a spot in the College Football Playoff remains in play for the Gators also should sharpen their focus to the Seminoles. But even coach Jim McElwain noted this week his team rarely backed up a strong performance with another one. UF’s two wins against Georgia were followed by a nailbiter against Vanderbilt and a thrashing at Arkansas. The 2015 Gators clinched the SEC East at South Carolina, and a week later needed overtime to beat FAU. McElwain will drive home the point all week, so I’d be surprised if the Gators come out flat Saturday night.
2. FSU has a chance to beat Florida for the fourth straight season. FSU's seniors also have a chance to go 8-0 against UF and Miami during their careers. How have the players responded when asked about the current streak?
I’ll let redshirt junior defensive end Jordan Sherit answer that one for you. “We owe these guys something,” he said Tuesday. It’s no surprise the Gators are tired of playing second fiddle to the Seminoles. Many of the players have known each other since they were kids and hear about it every offseason. “I don’t like them having bragging rights over me,” senior receiver Ahmad Fulwood of Jacksonville said. “I’m trying to go give it my all to get this W.” Being on the wrong side of the rivalry and on the outer fringes of the College Football Playoff race, the Gators have more at stake Saturday night. But whether the Gators can slow down Dalvin Cook, contain Deondre Francois and stem the Seminoles’ pass rush is going to determine their chances more than having a chip on their shoulder.
3. UF has been able to stick around enough to have an 8-2 record this season despite its offense. What will be the keys for the Gators to steal a victory in Doak Campbell Stadium?
Everything fell into to place last Saturday for the Gators to stun LSU. UF bent but did not break on defense, made the game’s biggest play on offense and was flawless on special teams. The Gators cannot expect the Seminoles to self destruct in the red zone or to burn FSU with a 98-yard touchdown pass - the longest play from scrimmage in the history of LSU’s Tiger Stadium. But during the second half against the Tigers, the Gators did deploy a punishing run game behind tailback Jordan Scarlett and an energized offensive line. Expect the smashmouth approach to serve as the foundation for Saturday night’s game plan. If Gators are able to grind out first downs, shorten the game and keep Dalvin Cook on the sideline, the game still should be hanging in the balance by the fourth quarter. If UF can force FSU to drop an extra man in the box to defend the run, the Gators’ play-action opportunities and downfield passing game will open up. Quarterback Austin Appleby does not have the accuracy to run a West Coast offense, but he has a big arm and a pair of receivers - Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland - who can stretch the field. A clock-eating touchdown drive, a couple of long passing plays, some big plays on defense and a few coffin corner punts by Johnny Townsend and field goals from Eddy Pineiro could send the Gators to Atlanta to face Alabama with a shot at making the four-man playoff. Not too much to ask, is it?
4. Jordan Scarlett has received plenty of praise from Jimbo Fisher and players on FSU's defense. How has he captured the first-team running back job, and how much will he be relied up offensively?
Scarlett's relentless running style has left his fellow tailbacks in the dust. Talented freshman Lamical Perine is a nice change of pace but is not quite as physical. Meanwhile, plodding junior-college transfer Mark Thompson is not nearly as a explosive as Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite seems to be exploring his transfer options. The Gators opened the season relying on all four tailbacks, but Scarlett began to assert himself with a 26-carry day Oct. 29 against Georgia. After suffering a beatdown at Arkansas, the Gators rode Scarlett's 134-yard day to a win against South Carolina and turned to him last week at LSU, where he ran for 108 yards on 22 carries. The formula is unlikely to change against the Seminoles. Scarlett's teammates are on board. "He's a physical back, so that makes us want to be physical," center T.J McCoy said. "That makes us want to run and push and pile and run with him. It's kind of exciting."
5. Will FSU get UF's best shot on Saturday? How healthy are the Gators, and who will UF miss the most due to injury?
The Gators have been severely shorthanded since the beating they suffered Nov. 5 at Arkansas. UF will enter this weekend without eight starters, including four of their five leading tacklers, and could be without left guard Martez Ivey, the SEC offensive lineman of the week after the Georgia and South Carolina wins. Several young players have filled the void. Linebacker David Reese had 12 tackles at LSU to earn SEC defensive player of the week honors, while third-string center T.J. McCoy anchored a superlative effort up front. Meanwhile, backup quarterback Austin Appleby's big arm and running ability have been an upgrade on injured starter Luke Del Rio. Despite the play of Reese and linebacker Kylan Johnson (eight stops at LSU), the biggest loss has been senior Jarrad Davis, the team's leading tackler, inspirational leader and a possible future first-round NFL draft pick. But fifth-year senior safety Marcus Maye might be missed just as much, if not more, this week. Maye was having a standout season when he broke his arm on senior day against South Carolina. A sure tackler with great instincts and a grasp of the defense, Maye limits defensive breakdowns and prevents six- and eight-yard runs from turning into touchdowns. This is critical against a player like Dalvin Cook.
Email Safid Deen at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @osfsu and like our Florida State Facebook page for the latest updates on the Seminoles.