Today we're thankful to be joined by Andy Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief at SBNation's Florida blog, Alligator Army. Andy tells us about Will Muschamp, Jeff Driskel, and his memories of the greatest inter-conference rivalry in college football.
TN: Will Muschamp has enjoyed success in his second year as head coach after a worrisome (to some) 7-6 campaign last season. What have been the major improvements seen in this Gators team and how has Muschamp progressed as a head coach? How would you assess the state of the Florida program as of this moment?
AA: Muschamp's brought discipline and depth. Urban Meyer left Florida after an average team in 2010 turned into a thinner, consistently luck-screwed team in 2011; his program wasn't "broken," as some have asserted, but Florida needed to rebuild its foundation, and Meyer wasn't up to that task. Muschamp appears to have been sent to Earth to program-build, and he's weeded out players who didn't want to practice hard or buy into his system and coaches who couldn't go as hard as he does. Exit Charlie Weis and Mickey Marotti; enter Brent Pease and Jeff Dillman. Exit Gators who can't close; enter Gators who relish the fourth quarter and try to run down their foes instead of throwing over them.
TN: The major story heading into this game, aside from Sharrif Floyd's adoption (which I will not ask you about), is the health of Jeff Driskel. There have been reports that he will play for the Gators on Saturday, though these reports are unsure if he will start. Do you have an update on his status? What are the key differences between Driskel and Jacoby Brissett and how important is it for Florida to have Driskel at its disposal against the ‘Noles?
AA: He's gonna start (note: You sent me this question on Tuesday, before we knew for sure that he'd start), and he gives Florida a much better chance to get a win at Doak because he's got more practice running for his life behind this Florida offensive line than Brissett does -- and he can run for yardage and big plays, which opens up a lot more for Brent Pease's offense.
By the way: None of us still thinks Sharrif Floyd's adoption is a major story. That's all on you 'Noles, who are choosing to see a story about a kid getting parents as an exploitation of an NCAA loophole without considering thehumanitarian aspects of it. And that's cool: Y'all can be unfair if you want.
TN: While Brent Pease has upgraded the Florida offense in 2012, the Gators have still experienced their share of struggles on that side of the ball, currently ranking 45th in offensive performance so far this season (http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/feiplus). It's no secret that the Gators offense has a run-first identity, but how will Pease look to attack a Seminole defense that features a stout defensive front? Is there a key match-up you'll be watching between the UF offense and the FSU defense?
AA: I think Pease looks to make long drives happen and take the pressure off the Florida defense, because that's something Muschamp wants him to do; I also think Muschamp and Pease both like the idea of grinding another team to death with a physical running game, which was why the LSU win was so satisfying for this Florida team.
That game was also the last time that Florida's offensive line was truly healthy (the injury bug bit next week at Vanderbilt), and the last time that Florida's definitively won the battle with the other team's line. And so I want to see how Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green, perhaps fans' two least-liked members of this Florida team, do against Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, who are going to test them repeatedly.
TN: We've seen Pease utilize some unorthodox formations, personnel groups, etc., including creative use of Trey Burton. What sort of tricks do you think he might have up his sleeve for the Seminoles on Saturday and does Coach Muschamp restrain some of his creativity, as has been speculated?
AA: I don't want to scoop something I'm writing for later this week on surprises I think Florida could pull, but I'll note that there's a player Florida hasn't utilized correctly all year, and a look that Florida's never done anything but zag out of that could be devastating if the zig is done correctly.
I don't think Muschamp restrains Pease's creativity as much as injuries and underwhelming talent have hamstrung his offense. It was a lot easier to do wacky things when WAC defenses weren't rushing Kellen Moore like SEC defenses are rushing Driskel, y'know?
TN: In contrast, the Florida defense has been one of the best in the nation in 2012. What are the strengths of this unit and what are the weaknesses of the group, if there are any?
AA: The strength of the defense as a whole is discipline: Missed assignments are vanishingly rare, and missed tackles are uncommon (though they sometimes result in a 76-yard catch-and-run, as one did on the first play against Jacksonville State), and Florida doesn't give up many big plays as a result. Florida also does a phenomenal job in pass coverage, allowing opponents to complete just 51.1 percent of their passes. That figure only jumped over the 50 percent mark because Jacksonville State took short passes all day, and comes despite Florida seeing more passes than any team allowing 55 percent completions or less.
That discipline is a team trait that exists because the players are all individually disciplined, from sure tackler Matt Elam to fantastic tackle Sharrif Floyd, and buying into the Muschamp/Dan Quinn system has made Florida very, very difficult to exploit on defense. The one thing I'm most worried about? Fades to Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene, because Florida's corners haven't gotten taller since they got beat one-on-one repeatedly in 2011.
TN: We at TN think/hope that EJ Manuel will see a significant amount of carries this Saturday from the quarterback position. How have the Gators fared against mobile quarterbacks this season?
AA: Johnny Manziel saw Florida before any other team this year, and he tore them apart in the first half of that visit to College Station: Manziel only ran for 37 yards in the first half, but they came on back-breaking plays and set up A&M's passing game beautifully. In the second half, though, Florida tightened the screws on both Manziel and the Aggies, and they genuinely haven't had the trouble I was expecting to them to against running quarterbacks since then: Jordan Rodgers and James Franklin have been able to get one or two carries for yardage, but not much on balance.
TN: Florida's special teams have been spectacular this season, currently sitting at second-best in the nation in terms of performance to date. Tell us a bit about this group and who ‘Noles fans should look out for Saturday afternoon.
AA: Florida's special teams are led by three players: All-around ace Loucheiz Purifoy, reliable kicker Caleb Sturgis, and field-flipping punter Kyle Christy. Purifoy was a stud on special teams last year, and has turned into a star in 2012, with superb punt coverage helping Florida nullify opponents' return games and occasionally force turnovers; he was also used on kick returns last Saturday, and looked very good in that cameo. Sturgis has a good leg, and is considered reliable by most from about 53 on in; it would be surprising if he missed more than one kick on Saturday. Christy, though, may be Florida's best weapon: He's got the leg to bury a team from anywhere beyond his own 35, and his kicking plus the Gators' coverage has been beyond solid in 2012.
TN: Florida-Florida State is obviously one of the nation's best rivalries. I'll give you an opportunity for some nostalgia here, which our readers probably won't like. What's your favorite memory from this series and what do you like about the rivalry?
AA: I'm 22, so I don't remember much earlier than 1996, but I really, really enjoyed that 1997 Sugar Bowl, even though I fell asleep midway through it, and loved 1997's "Greatest Game Ever Played in The Swamp" deeply. But while I remember all of the Tim Tebow games against FSU fondly, I liked the 2009 version, the only one I saw in person, best: Florida was unequivocally and thoroughly better than Florida State on that day, which culminated Florida's dominance of the state in the late 2000s, and 90,000 Florida fans got to chant "JUMP PASS, JUMP PASS!" as Florida attempted to score late in that game, see that jump pass get tried, and know that a game against FSU was never in doubt.
I love that this rivalry has meant as much as it has meant for most of my life. I got to look forward to it every year, and be lifted by victories and crushed by defeats. And this is the first time it's had national implications for both teams in a decade, so it's going to make this game incredibly hard-fought and, hopefully, resonant.
TN: Prediction time. Florida State opened as a 7-point favorite at home. How do you see this game playing out and what will be the keys to a Florida victory?
AA: I think I told someone 21-17 in favor of Florida State earlier this week, and, well ... I'm trending toward Florida, and will probably end up picking Florida by Saturday, but I haven't gotten there yet. If Florida can run effectively, and if Florida can avoid giving up big plays, I feel really good about its chances.
Thanks to Andy for his insight! Head on over to Alligator Army for all things UF and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.