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FSU football facing uphill field-position battle against Florida

Could special teams decide UF at Florida State?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

In the conclusion of the 2015 regular-season finale, the ‘Noles and Gators engaged in a low-scoring affair that saw Florida State pull away late to win by a 27-2 margin. As the final tally should indicate, neither offense was particularly sharp—and UF’s was basically nonexistent. But when points are at a premium, the importance of field position increases, and that could be a problem for FSU heading into its annual rivalry showdown against the Gators in Tallahassee on Saturday night.

Defensively, of course, UF is no slouch. In fact, Florida is third best, nationally, allowing just 13 points per game, whereas the Seminoles check into the final week of the regular season tied for 48th, with Memphis, Washington State, and Boston College, giving up nearly twice that (25.5 PPG).

How can the ‘Noles trim that gap? One answer is by limiting UF’s field position advantage and making the Gators drive down a longer field. But that’s proven problematic this year for FSU, especially compared to what Florida has done.

Hence the importance of special teams, which dictate the exchange of field position and have not been very friendly to the Seminoles in 2016. Regarding opponents’ punt return average, the ‘Noles have been nothing short of atrocious, allowing an average of 23.17 yards per return, better only than Louisiana-Lafayette among FBS schools. Florida, on the other hand, allows 7.14 YPR.

The return issue is compounded by, and largely a factor of, the reality that FSU has punted quite poorly this season, particularly compared to UF. Again, the Gators are third in the country, averaging 47.76 yards per punt, while the ‘Noles are 71st, at 40.7. That difference may not seem like a lot, but when you extrapolate it over a number of possessions, it can add up to change the scoreboard.

The difference has been underscored by big plays. Florida is tied for 31st in allowing long punt returns. Florida State is tied for 125th. Of 128 FBS schools.

Turning to the return game itself, UF holds a kickoff return average advantage over FSU by a 22.56-20.76 margin. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, that will probably matter less than the punting disparity, although it is worth noting that, unlike the ‘Noles, the Gators have returned one for a touchdown this season.

However, some silver linings nevertheless persist for FSU fans, as the Seminoles hold a distinct advantage in returning punts in 2016. The Seminoles average 9.94 YPR, while UF’s return game has produced just 6.56. Also, Florida State has a punt return for a score, while Florida does not. The down side? That ‘Nole return came from Bobo Wilson, who has been lost for the season, due to injury.

One final bright spot for FSU? Blocks. The Seminoles have blocked four kicks or punts this season, while the Gators have not got their hands on a single one. And in what could very well be a close game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday night, a finger or two just might mean the difference.