Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel recently wrote that this year's Florida State team is the best one Florida has faced since Urban Meyer took over in Gainesville. That's true. I would argue, however, that says more about the state of FSU's program than it does about the quality of this particular team.
It's tempting to compare the situation faced by this Florida team to the one surrounding the 2001 squad, Steve Spurrier's last. Both teams played bitter rivals for the last game of the regular season: the 2008 team will face Florida State and the 2001 club played Tennessee in a showdown pushed back from its normal early season date by the September 11 attacks. Both teams were two wins away from a berth in the national championship game. Prolific quarterbacks led both teams (Rex Grossman quarterbacked the 2001 unit) to repeated blowouts. And both teams had those otherwise great seasons ruined by heartbreaking losses to unranked SEC West opponents: Auburn was the early prototype for the 2008 Ole Miss team that haunts Meyer's dreams.
The 2001 team saw its national championship ambitions shattered by the Volunteers; many still argue that upset drove Spurrier to the NFL. As I said, it's tempting to worry about history repeating in 2008.
The one key difference between the two seasons, however, is that the 2001 Tennessee team was actually good. They would go on to lose to LSU in the SEC Championship Game, but the Volunteers came into The Swamp ranked fifth in the country and boasting a 9-1 record. Florida State, by contrast, is 8-3 in the mediocre ACC and doesn't even control its own destiny in the race for the conference championship game.
But it is worth acknowledging that this year's Florida State team is better than the clubs Meyer and the Gators whacked in 2005-07. The Seminoles rank 45th in the nation offensively, a hearty boost from their rankings the last couple years. The defense is revitalized too, if not to the level of those frightening mid-90's units that just kept producing first round defensive linemen and linebackers. The Seminoles rank fourth in the nation in sacks with 3.18 per game. A replay of UF's early season offensive line issues could prove disastrous for the Gators.
I expect the Seminoles to challenge UF's secondary (which, despite all its great work this season, has yet to fully earn my trust); Greg Carr, Preston Parker, Taiwan Easterling, Corey Surrency have all put up respectable numbers and are dangerous in their own ways. Parker is kind of an unemployed Lehman Brothers' analyst's Percy Harvin, and at 6'6, Carr presents serious match-up issues with UF's cornerbacks.
But the Seminoles still don't have a QB on the level of Tim Tebow, which would be fine, except they still don't have a QB on the level of Casey Claussen or Chris Rix. Christian Ponder was elevated to the starting position before the season began, beating out frequent punching bag Drew Weatherford, who frankly was too nice to a guy to deserve playing behind that offensive line four straight seasons. Ponder's a mobile guy and has picked up 390 yards on 106 carries, which is impressive considering the Seminoles are 59th in the nation at preventing sacks. But Ponder is also completing just 56.4 percent of his passes and has just 12 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
No, the Seminoles are going to try and make their hay running the ball. They rank 28th in the nation in rushing offense, and again, that's a massive improvement from the last several years. Antone Smith is finally living up to a portion of his high school hype, and back-up QB D'Vontrey Richardson has some nice numbers as a runner. The worrisome factor here is the status of Florida's defensive line. Freshman Matt Patchan is out with a knee injury and sophomore Lawrence Marsh is questionable due to a similar ailment. Patchan's loss is mainly a blow to depth, but Marsh is by far the best defensive tackle Florida has. If he's out, or even if he's playing at a fraction of his ability, the Seminoles might be able to find some holes in Florida's patchwork defensive line. That's the match-up to keep an eye on, I suspect.
On the other side, there's not much for Florida to change offensively. Considering FSU's ability to rush the passer and Florida's somewhat iffy passing game, I expect the Gators to again rely heavily on the rushing attack to move the ball. Percy Harvin played a huge role in both the 2006 and 2007 games, and there's every reason to expect he'll again be massive part of the offensive gameplan as a runner and a receiver. He'll be especially useful as a hot receiver when FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews dials up one of his blitz packages.
There is one x-factor (cliche alert!) I should mention. FSU's Graham Gano is evidently the Samuel L. Jackson of place kickers. Gano is 21 of 23 on field goals, perfect on anything less than 50 yards and five of seven on anything longer than 50 yards. Bizarre as it is to write this sentence, should the game come down to a field goal, Bobby Bowden has to feel pretty confident in his chances. (Florida's kicker, Jonathan Phillips, is perfect on his field goal attempts but gets used about as often as the condom in a Trekkie's wallet)
But I don't think it'll come down to a field goal. Doak Campbell Stadium is a tough place for the Gators to play, but they've pulled out the last two games they've played in Tallahassee. Florida State will fight ferociously in the early minutes and probably sack Tebow once or twice in the first quarter, but the talent disparity between the two teams is too great.