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Florida Gators-FSU football game can take a step back to national relevance

Tampa Bay Times 11/23/2022 Matt Baker, Tampa Bay Times

When the Florida-Florida State game was moved from Saturday to Black Friday in the offseason, it was a blow to the state’s college football ego. Once one of the biggest national games of the year, this fierce rivalry had to be relegated to a weeknight to avoid being completely overshadowed.

“This game,” FSU coach Mike Norvell told reporters, “is a game that deserves attention.”

The attention will be there by default; it’s the lone game in its prime-time slot. What takes place at Doak Campbell Stadium will give us another chance to see how close these programs are to deserving big-time attention again.

No. 16 FSU, clearly, looks headed on the right track, with a shot at a 10-win season and a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. The Seminoles have won four games in a row by at least 25 points — the longest streak in the country. Granted, the opponents (Georgia Tech, Miami, Syracuse and Louisiana) have been unimpressive. But crushing four consecutive teams? That is impressive, no matter who’s on the other side.

Especially when you examine how the Seminoles are doing it. The program-built-for-playmakers Norvell touted on Day 1 has arrived. FSU has more explosive plays (80) than any other team in the country, with receiver Johnny Wilson (15) and running back Trey Benson (14) both ranking in the top 40 nationally in rushes/receptions of 20-plus yards.

Quarterback Jordan Travis is tied for ninth in the country with 8.14 yards per play (slightly ahead of USC Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams). He needs only one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown to move into the top 10 in program history in both categories.

Defensive end Jared Verse is tied for the ACC lead with 14 tackles for loss after transferring from Albany. Safety Jammie Robinson continues to perform at an all-conference level.

Playmakers, all over the field.

It’s a long way from where the ‘Noles were a year ago in a messy 24-21 loss at UF. FSU failed to beat a mediocre team led by a lame-duck staff thanks to a litany of errors (penalties, a muffed punt, shaky blocking, missed tackles and a whiffed onside kick). Those mistakes were teachable moments all offseason.

“We didn’t leave the stadium without having a point of emphasis of some of the things that showed up that cost us ...” Norvell said. “It would be a disservice to our team if we didn’t address it and focus on that.”

The Gators were sloppy last year, too, just as they were in last week’s loss at Vanderbilt — a stunning defeat that wiped away much of the goodwill Billy Napier has built over his first year.

Napier, like Norvell, never promised a quick fix. The right foundation was more important than immediate results. Going 7-5 and showing progress seemed like reasonable expectations.

Losing to Vanderbilt was never part of the plan. It’s an ugly stain. Losing to FSU would be, too; it would end the Gators’ three-game winning streak in the series and make Napier the first UF coach ever to lose to his three primary rivals (FSU, Georgia and Tennessee) in the same season.

Winning, however, would make a statement across the state that last week was an aberration and that the Gators are moving in the right direction as they head into a pivotal offseason.

“When we win this one,” quarterback Anthony Richardson said, “it’s definitely going to build momentum for us.”

Forget what sounds like a gutsy guarantee and focus on the last part. As the state’s championship drought extends into another year, its biggest game will give us one more look at how both power programs are trying to build their way back into the national spotlight.

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