For the better part of the last decade, here was the hierarchy of the Big Three in Florida college football: Florida > Florida State > Miami. On this Sunday, here is the hierarchy in of the Big Three in Florida college football: Florida > Florida State > Miami. And the three teams shuffled themselves back into that order on Saturday by getting back to what they did best over the last decade.
For Florida, that meant dominating on defense. The three Gators who got the lion's share of the credit for the two national championships were Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen, probably in that order, and that makes sense: those three were the most important individual actors in the Gators' brief dynasty. But Florida has been best in its history when its defense is at its most ferocious: the Gators gave up 30 points just once in 1996, 2006's national championship Gators depended on one of the best big-game defenses ever to win close game after close game, and 2008's Florida defense only held the highest-scoring offense in college football history to 14 points with a national title on the line. The 2012 defense is looking more and more like those predecessors with each passing week, this time after strangulating LSU's running game and whisking the Tigers off the field with alacrity in Saturday's 14-6 win.
Mike Gillislee and the Florida running game had a lot to do with LSU's inability to establish an offensive rhythm, but here was the average of LSU's 12 drives on Saturday: 4.3 plays, 0.5 points, 16.7 yards, and 1:53 of clock per drive. Take away the opening 10-play, 64-yard jaunt, and LSU averaged 3.8 plays, 0.3 points, 12.4 yards, and 1:40 per possession. Florida defense was stingier than that one neighbor you hated on Halloween, giving up 1.2 yards per carry and just one play of more than 20 yards — one that Matt Elam nullified with a fantastic strip.
This team didn't look like the Gators of Steve Spurrier's heyday, nor the ones of Meyer's best years, but I can tell you that very few of the around 90,000 fans in attendance on Saturday cared that Florida wasn't throwing the ball everywhere or breaking big play after big play. Winning, not winning pretty, is always the ultimate goal, the best thing that a team can do, and Will Muschamp has his Gators doing that. He's also got them looking like the team on top of the food chain in the Sunshine State.
Florida State aided and abetted Muschamp in that regard on Saturday by losing to N.C. State, 17-16, and blowing its best chance at a national championship since most of its players were in elementary school. All (well, "all") the Seminoles had to do to play for a title in 2012 was win out and hope for either an Oregon loss or no undefeated SEC teams, and winning out would have taken care of Florida in that SEC calculus, and they looked capable of doing that after raining lightning on Clemson in the second half and establishing themselves as one of the nation's most dominant teams.
But even the best Florida State teams in the post-Chris Weinke era have lost games they shouldn't have lost, and the 2012 version is now part of that list. The 'Noles jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the second quarter of Saturday's game, and though FSU settled for field goals three times after driving within the N.C. State 30 (and into the red zone twice), there was no reason to think that this would be a loss, thanks to a defense that allowed 68 yards in the first half and forced two turnovers.
After that came the collapse: Mike Glennon threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns against one of the nation's best secondaries, and the vaunted Florida State pass rush was nearly nonexistent, blunted both by good protection and the liberal use of a tactic known as holding by the Wolfpack line. Worse, Florida State's offense managed just 122 yards in the second half against an N.C. State defense that gave up 321 yards to Miami in the second half the week prior, with E.J. Manuel throwing for a pedestrian 218 yards against a secondary that Stephen Morris aerated for 566 yards.
This loss was very much a Florida State Loss, coming as it did against a middling ACC team on the road with the 'Noles high on the hog, but it's maybe the most ruinous one in the history of Florida State Losses because the stakes were so high this season. This was the ideal setup for FSU's return to glory: home games against Clemson and Florida, a fortuitous swap of West Virginia for an FCS team in the out-of-conference schedule, and a down Miami and Virginia Tech, and a senior-laden team with talent everywhere.
Jimbo Fisher couldn't get the greatest goal any team can have accomplished — and, make no mistake, Florida State is out of the national championship chase unless some screwy things happen — with his best team and the easiest path possible paved for him. Consequently, it's going to take more than the ACC title the Seminoles should still earn and a win over Florida that FSU might yet be favored to get for him to make amends to a fan base that will be scarred by this loss for a while.
At least, though, Florida State is not Miami. The Hurricanes are still, unbelievably, undefeated in the ACC, and might yet play for a conference title. All it's going to take for Miami to win the Coastal Division is for the 'Canes to beat North Carolina and Virginia Tech, both at home ... and beating just North Carolina and Duke while losing to Florida State and Virginia Tech might well do the trick.
That's completely incongruous with this fact: against Kansas State and Notre Dame, Miami has looked like a team that is nowhere near being ranked, and its defense has looked putrid beyond belief. Miami's defense is No. 122 of 124 nationally in total defense, No. 119 in run defense, No. 95 in pass defense, and No. 103 in scoring defense. And Miami has an FCS team on its schedule (Bethune-Cookman) and hasn't played a team currently ranked in the top 20 in total offense: the two teams lower than the 'Canes in the total defense rankings are Louisiana Tech, which has played Houston, No. 9 in total offense, and Baylor, which allowed 807 yards to West Virginia, No. 3 in total offense.
The Miami offense doesn't look all that bad: Miami should have scored twice on strikes from Morris to Phillip Dorsett on its first drive against Notre Dame, and Duke Johnson had 90 total yards against a rugged Irish defense. The problem is that the offense is going to need to look like it did against Georgia Tech and N.C. State to keep these 'Canes in games, as North Carolina and Florida State are the next two teams on the schedule.
The much better bet: Florida State recuperates against Boston College, then embarks on a rampage through the rest of the ACC schedule, but never quite takes back the lead in the state from Florida, instead allowing the Gators to hold the top spot at least until their November showdown. And Miami stays third.
Thus, things will be as they were, at least of late, and teams will be back, and nothing will really have changed.
One other FBS Florida team played on Saturday, though whether USF fans want to remember a 37-28 loss to Temple in which the Bulls were out-executed by Steve Addazio's bunch is up for debate. USF never lead after the Owls answered a Lindsey Lamar touchdown run early in the third quarter with one of their own, but kept nipping at Temple's heels, drew to 30-28 with five minutes to go in the game, and had a shot at a game-winning field goal with just over a minute to go.
Temple blocked that, though, and then Montel Harris took an off-tackle run for six points, and all hope was lost. This is where USF is: when it plays Temple almost even (USF gained 384 yards, Temple 383) and commits three turnovers, it loses by nine points on the road, and fans have to play the blame game.
In FCS action, Jacksonville improved to 5-1 with a 38-17 win over Morehead State after spotting the Eagles a 14-0 lead in the first quarter; Florida A&M fell to 2-4 after a 17-10 loss to Howard; and Bethune-Cookman scored a touchdown in every quarter to beat North Carolina A&T 28-12 and move to 4-2.
Sunshine Snapshots runs Sundays and recaps Saturday's college football action concerning Florida football teams. Andy Hutchins runs SB Nation's Alligator Army and considers not writing "LOL FSU" in this post until this point an accomplishment.