By BRENT KALLESTAD
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Two of the nation’s best team, with national championship hopes on the line. Now this feels like one of those classic Florida-Florida State.
In recent years, the rivalry hasn’t been quite what it used to be when Bobby Bowden was coaching the Seminoles and Steve Spurrier was leading the Gators back in the 1990s.
For the first time since 2000, both the Gators and ‘Noles are ranked in the top 10 for their regular-season finale.
Defense is each team’s signature, so expect points and yards to be tough to come by.
The Seminoles (10-1, 7-1) lead the nation in total defense and rank among the top five in four other defensive categories.
Florida (10-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) isn’t far behind, sitting fourth nationally in total defense.
Both will need the help of at least an upset or two this weekend, but it’s certainly possible that the winner could play in the BCS championship game.
Florida’s only loss was to third-ranked Georgia. Florida State, which plays Georgia Tech week in the ACC title game, was upset at North Carolina State.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease is well aware the Seminole defense has held Florida to a single touchdown in each of the last two years.
“They’ve got all the ingredients to be what they want to be,” Pease said. “They’ve got it all in place.”
Florida State is giving up 13.1 points and 236.3 yards a game this season and has 28 sacks with defensive ends Cornellius “Tank” Carradine and Bjoern Werner combining for 20 of those.
“They’re going to win some battles,” Pease said. “You’ve got to have some man beaters and got to hold up in protection.”
The Gator front will need to keep the Seminole rush away from quarterback Jeff Driskel, who returns Saturday after missing last week’s game with a sprained ankle. Driskel, who didn’t play in last year’s loss, has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,324 yards and 10 TDs and is a threat running the ball with 424 rushing yards.
Gators running back Mike Gillislee is just 36 yards shy of 1,000 yards this season.
“Containing him will be a key factor,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Containing the other team hasn’t been a problem for either defense this season.
Florida kept LSU, Kentucky, South Carolina and Jacksonville State out of its zone and limited Missouri to a lone score.
But the Gators have had to rely on that defense more with an offense that had had plenty of issues.
Florida State has had those problems this year, with quarterback EJ Manuel leading the way.
Manuel will be making his 29th career start Saturday, though he had perhaps his poorest performance last year at Florida. Manuel was sacked four times and passed for just 65 of his team’s 95 (not a misprint) total yards in the game and if not for punter Shawn Powell kicking his team out of trouble, the outcome — 21-7 Florida State — could have been different.
“We didn’t do our part on offense,” Manuel said this week. “We have to do our part this year.”
Manuel, 23-5 as a starter, may also find himself in the shotgun formation more often where he has seemed to be more comfortable and productive as he winds down a sterling final season. Manuel has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,785 yards and 21 touchdowns with five interceptions.
The Florida defense that has allowed 11.8 points and 328.8 yards a game is easily the best Manuel has faced this year.
“We will have to be ready to go,” Manuel said. “Getting scores on the board and not three and outs.”
A bit of turnabout from last year’s Florida State win comes in the punting game, which could be especially important if offense is sparse.
The Seminoles had the edge a year ago with Powell. This year the Gators have it with Kyle Christy, who leads the SEC an average of over 46.3 yards a punt.
Florida State has gone with freshman Cason Beatty, who has struggled some at times. Beatty averages 37.6 yards a punt.
Both teams also have outstanding field goal kickers.
Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins is already the most prolific kick scorer in NCAA history with 448 career points and two field goals shy of the NCAA mark of 87.
Florida’s Caleb Sturgis has 66 field goals and is just one shy of the school record. Both are finalists for the Lou Groza award, symbolic of the nation’s top placekicker.
Fisher hasn’t lost yet to any Florida schools, standing 3-0 against Miami, 2-0 against the Gators and 1-0 over South Florida. And he says there’s no way his players are looking ahead to their Dec. 1 game against Georgia Tech for the ACC championship.
“It’s Florida,” Fisher emphasized. “We know them very well and they know us. It’s just about that game.