In my opinion, this is one of the best weeks of the year. Thanksgiving comes on Thursday, and I like to eat. Then, by the time you’re done sleeping off that first round of turkey, it’s time to grab a plate of leftovers and tune into the best week of the college football season, rivalry week!
This year’s edition of the Sunshine Showdown between the Noles and the Gators will feature some twists and turns as both teams will be turning to a new quarterback after losing their starter to injury. For the fifth-ranked Noles, there is an undefeated regular season, a 17-game win streak, and a playoff berth on the line. For the 5-6 Gators, this is their last shot to reach bowl eligibility. Of course, they would also love nothing more than to spoil the Seminole’s perfect season. The point is that there is a lot on the line, especially when considering that it is a pivotal time for recruiting in the state of Florida.
FSU will have to play in a tough environment as they travel to a sold-out Swamp for a night game this year. Even though they carry a 5-6 record overall, the Gators are 4-1 in the Swamp, but I would argue that record is not what it seems. The teams UF beat at home have a combined record of 16-38. One win was against an 0-10 FCS team, another against a 3-8 Group of 5 team, and they beat a 2-9 Vandy team at home. Their best win of the season was at home against now 7-4 Tennessee, who also happens to be the only team they have beaten this season with a winning record. However, the Gators also lost to a 4-win Arkansas team that was on a 6-game losing streak and had never won a game in the Swamp. Florida is currently on a 4-game losing streak.
Florida State has already had to navigate the difficult waters of playing in a tough environment when they traveled to a sold-out Death Valley and ended up being the only team to beat Clemson at home this season. Of course, that was with Jordan Travis, who has experience in big games. The Noles will have to overcome the emotions of a rivalry game, and so will Tate Rodemaker in his first start since the 2020 season.
The Gator offense has not been that bad this season and is by far their strength. A lot of that can be attributed to Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz playing better than many expected. However, Mertz was injured last week against Mizzou and will miss the remainder of the season.
The Gators will turn to freshman backup Max Brown, who came in to finish the game when Mertz went down last week. Brown played 25 snaps, the most he’s played this season by far. The former 3-star quarterback has a dual-threat ability, and at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he can be tough to bring down. Brown ran for 53 yards (8.8 YPC)(sack adjusted) against the Tigers last week, so FSU will need to focus on containing him on the ground.
The x-factor with Brown is that he has only attempted 12 passes during his college career. Getting your first start against the number 5 team in the country in a rivalry game is a lot to put on a freshman quarterback. Florida will likely run the ball a lot in this game. They have two quality backs and now an inexperienced but mobile quarterback. If the defense can force the Gators to throw the ball, it could play well into the hands of an FSU defense that has played well against the pass this season.
At receiver, there are two names to know that pose the biggest threat. Ricky Pearsall is a veteran player who leads the Gators in receiving yards with 948. He has an impressive catch percentage and will also run the ball in some packages. One thing that stood out in his stats is that Persall does not have multiple touchdown receptions in a game this year. I wouldn’t call Pearsall elite by any means, but he’s a quality college receiver that FSU must focus on stopping.
The other name to know at receiver is Eugene Wilson, a talented freshman. He leads in touchdowns with 6 and has over 500 yards on 58 receptions. No other UF pass catcher has accounted for over 300 yards this season.
Florida has two quality backs that give them depth. When you look at the numbers, there is no drop-off when they rotate. Both backs have 710 rushing yards. Both average over 5 YPC, and they are only a few numbers apart in missed tackles and runs of 10+ yards.
At the beginning of the season, I thought what UF lost in the trenches was better than what they replaced it with, and that seems to be the case. Of course, it hurts to lose a dual-threat guy like Anthony Richardson, but the Gators’ rushing offense has fallen from 24th in 2022 to 77th in 2023. They have also allowed 33 sacks this season, which is tied for 112th.
Florida State’s defense should be able to have a nice day against an offense that was pretty good but not great, and now must hand the keys to a freshman quarterback. If they can force Brown to have to throw the ball to beat them, I really like our chances. FSU will probably load the box and dare the Gators to do just that. I’m sure they will make some plays, but for the most part, I feel good about FSU holding them to around 20 points.
Florida’s defense was pretty bad in 2022. They finished 87th in scoring defense allowing 28.8 PPG, which led to them making a change at defense coordinator. In steps Austin Armstrong from Southern Miss, who has the 2023 defense allowing 27.9 PPG, which ranks 88th. So, things haven’t gotten much better for the Gators.
Two weeks ago, UF gave up 701 yards and 52 points to LSU. Jayden Daniels accounted for a mind-blowing 606 all-purpose yards and 5 touchdowns. Florida’s scoring, pass, and run defense all rank in the low 80s. This is one of the reasons why I think this is a good opportunity to break in Tate Rodemaker. You have a struggling pass defense for starters, and with a struggling run defense, FSU should be able to get the ground game going which would take some pressure off of Tate. Oddly enough, FSU rushes for 162 YPG and UF allows 162 YPG.
My main concern with Tate at quarterback is avoiding pressure and taking sacks. Fortunately, Florida hasn’t been great at creating pressure this season and is currently tied for 100th in sacks at less than 2 per game on average. They do have some massive bodies on the defensive line, but it’s not the most athletic group. Linebacker has also been a weakness for the Florida defense. If the Noles can give Tate time to make his reads, he should be able to take advantage of some mismatches like he did against Louisville in 2022.
It would be really nice to see FSU get the run game going this week and Tate could be part of that. As much as we think of Jordan when it comes to elite running ability, Tate has some wheels for a guy his size. He has plenty of ability to move the pocket and pull the ball on an RPO, which could open things up for the backs. If Tate can settle in, get into a rhythm, and avoid costly mistakes, this offense should be able to put up points on this defense and hopefully take the crowd out of the game.
Rivalry games are what make college football fun because you never know what will happen. They are high-intensity, emotionally charged games that you can typically throw the records out of the window for. On paper, FSU should run away with this one, but games aren’t played on paper, especially with two new quarterbacks at the helm.
FSU must do a good job of playing with intensity while also keeping their emotions in check. This is Florida’s Super Bowl, and they have nothing to lose. Their season ends here if they don’t pull off the upset, so they have no reason not to pull out all the stops. FSU on the other hand has a lot bigger to play for even as big as a rivalry win is. They need to remain focused on playing their own game and taking the opportunities as they present themselves.
Tate got off to a slow start against Louisville last year, but once he settled in, he lit up that defense. If FSU can get Tate in rhythm and just go execute like the fifth-ranked team in the country should, I like them to get it done in the Swamp. I have the Noles beating the Gators 31-20 to make it two in a row and end the regular season at 12-0. Florida will be ready for the challenge, but FSU is just the better team and in a battle of backup quarterbacks, I’m rolling with Tate Rodemaker to get the win. Thanks for reading, and Go Noles!
Michael has the Noles making a statement in the Swamp with a 38-14 win!
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