University of Florida

Gators, Seminoles have more than bragging rights at stake in their matchup

‘They’ve caused problems for everyone they’ve played,’ Smart says of Gators’ defense

University of Georgia Bulldogs football head coach Kirby Smart talks about UGA's preparation for its game against the University of Florida Gators in Jacksonville Saturday.
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University of Georgia Bulldogs football head coach Kirby Smart talks about UGA's preparation for its game against the University of Florida Gators in Jacksonville Saturday.

The Florida Gators are within reach of a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Ranked No. 11 in the latest College Football Playoff Poll, the Gators are in position to play in one of the major bowl games awarded to the top 12 teams in the country.

They just need to win their regular-season finale against in-state rival Florida State.

That should be all the motivation Florida needs when it travels to Tallahassee to try to snap a five-game losing streak against the unranked Seminoles on Saturday at noon.

The Seminoles have fallen far short of expectations in their 5-6 season, but don’t expect an easy victory for the Gators (8-3), who are favored to leave Doak Campbell Stadium with a win.

“None of that really makes much of a difference with whatever the records are for either team,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “You’ve just got to go out there and you’ve got to play a great game. Guys that have grown up playing against each other, that know each other, is what makes rivalry games a lot of fun. The competition, neighbor-against-neighbor competition here in the state of Florida. It will be a great challenge for us.”

One challenge for Florida will be neutralizing defensive end Brian Burns, the Seminoles’ elite 6-5, 235-pound edge rusher.

Burns is part of a Seminoles defense that has been relatively pedestrian overall, ranking 76th in the nation in total defense and 116th against the pass.

But he has been a standout — leading the Seminoles with 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss this season.

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Florida State’s Brian Burns (99) has declared for the 2019 NFL Draft. Chris Seward AP

“He might be the best pass rusher we’ve seen all year,” Mullen said. “He’s got length, he’s got speed, he’s got size, can come off the edge, causes all kinds of problems for you. I don’t know that we’ve faced a pass-rusher like that this year.”

The Gators have a game plan in place for Burns, however, which includes knowing where he is on the field and mixing up their protection.

“Just trying to chip him,” running back Lamical Perine said. “Just do little things like that to get him off set. Once he gets up field we can just stop him and he won’t make a big impact on the play, on third down and stuff like that.”

That will be key in ensuring Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks carries over the production from the past two outings. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 274 yards and three passing touchdowns against Idaho last week and rushed for two touchdowns against South Carolina the week before.

“You can tell [Franks has] improved from last year,” FSU coach Willie Taggart said, “and I think Coach Mullen and his staff has done a great job of playing to his strength, and he’s doing that with the entire offense. That’s helping them be successful.”

The Gators have outscored their past two opponents 98-41 and have two consecutive games with at least 500 yards of total offense.

And their 13th-ranked pass defense will face a Seminoles offensive line that hasn’t been able to protect its quarterbacks all year. Starter Deondre Francois has been sacked 24 times, and his backup James Blackman has been sacked six times in three games. It could be an ideal matchup for Florida’s explosive defensive ends in Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga, who have combined for 23.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks this season.

Heading into Saturday’s rivalry with his team’s bowl game hopes still alive and a 36-year bowl streak on the line, Taggart will have the Gators on his mind even as he sits down for his Thanksgiving meal.

“My favorite side dish is gator meat,” he said.