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Gators head coach Will Muschamp shakes hands with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher after last year's win in Tallahassee.

Friday November 29, 2013Gators Seek to Pass Test against No. 2-ranked FSU

Gators head coach Will Muschamp shakes hands with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher after last year's win in Tallahassee.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe former Florida State linebacker Geno Hayes was talking about Tim Tebow's NFL prospects instead of the looming Florida-Florida State game.

In retrospect, that is what Hayes probably should contend to escape eternal ridicule.

Flashback to 2007 and there was Hayes stepping up to a dais at Doak Campbell Stadium a couple of days before the Seminoles faced the Gators in Gainesville.

The Gators were favored by more than two touchdowns. Florida sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. The Gators had just won a national title the previous year.

Meanwhile, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher was in his first season as offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting.

Before anyone could ask Hayes a question about the game, he had something to say.

"Tim Tebow is going down ... Ya'll put that down,'' Hayes said.

Hayes is lucky Twitter was in its infancy six years ago. Tebow could have tweeted LOL back at him. Others may not have been as kind, including FSU fans uninterested in disturbing the nest.

The Gators won 45-12 and Tebow made Hayes whiff on a tackle on his 23-yard touchdown run early in the game. Tebow passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 89 yards and two scores as the Gators rolled.

That matchup and the two others (2008, 2009) against FSU with Tebow as Florida's starting quarterback had a similar feel to Saturday's matchup at The Swamp, only the roles are reversed.

This time the star power belongs to Seminoles redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, arguably the most dynamic player in college football and biggest star to come along in the Gators-Noles rivalry since Tebow.

The No. 2-ranked Seminoles are heavy favorites and for the Gators to pull a shocker -- Florida is 4-7 and coming off a 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern -- they have to at least get in Winston's way and slow him down.

No Gators this week pulled a Hayes at the microphone.

They know Winston is a special talent that doesn't need extra motivation in a season the Gators are on their third starting quarterback because of injuries.

"They're playing real good football,'' senior defensive back Jaylen Watkins said. "They do have a stable quarterback."

Gators head coach Will Muschamp knows a difference-maker when he sees one.

Winston, who has passed for more than 3,100 yards and 32 touchdowns, is a difference-maker plus more. He has rejuvenated an FSU program that took a punch to the gut a year ago when the Gators went to Tallahassee and outplayed FSU in a 37-26 win.

"He's a total package,'' Muschamp said. "I don't know where you start: his arm strength, he's got a big arm. He can make all the throws. He sees the field extremely well. He has athleticism. He has very good pocket presence.

"He'll go through his progressions, and if he feels like he needs to scramble, certainly athletically, he's a guy that can capitalize on it."

There's no perfect way to shut down FSU's offense. Winston has ample weapons around him and will face a Florida defense that surrendered 429 yards rushing in last week's loss to Georgia Southern.

One reason the Gators have been in most of their seven losses is because of their defense. While the unit has not been as dominant as in the first half of the season due to an array of injuries, the Gators are still ranked seventh nationally in total defense.

Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, after the Gators struggled against Georgia Southern's triple-option attack, is optimistic the Gators can return to form against FSU's more conventional offense led by Winston.

"It's really getting back to what our comfort zone is,'' Durkin said.

The place the Gators really want to return is to the win column.

Florida has not won since a 30-10 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 5. The Gators have lost six consecutive games and are assured of their first losing season since 1979.

Still, the upperclassmen remember the feeling of their victory at FSU last season. The Gators trailed in the second half before surging ahead with 24 consecutive points in the program's biggest rivalry win under Muschamp.

"It's motivating for everybody in that locker room,'' Watkins said. "You want to win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year. It definitely can swing the confidence for the future -- spring ball and going into next year.

"It would change the feeling around here by getting a 'W.' "

In Florida's victory a year ago, the Gators took control by being more physical than the Seminoles. That was Florida's blueprint for success on the way to an 11-1 regular season in 2012.

The Gators have been decimated by injuries and hamstrung by an inconsistent offense this season.

Meanwhile, as good as FSU's offense is with Winston at the controls, its defense is ranked fifth nationally and has not been tested in a tight game at the finish. The Seminoles have not trailed in 451 minutes, 49 seconds of game time dating back to the fourth game of the season against Boston College.

If the Gators can get an early Saturday and change the complexion of the game, maybe FSU reacts differently in a close game -- maybe not.

Senior offensive lineman Kyle Koehne sees a similar recipe to a year ago for the Gators to send ripples through the BCS standings.

"We need to bring physicality every play and we need to show who is going to dominate this line of scrimmage and that's how we're going to win this one,'' Koehne said. "It starts with belief. You have no chance unless you believe. I think if we all come together as a unit, that we can win this game."


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