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Florida State looks to keep rival Florida on freefall

The SportsXchange

Florida State and Florida may be headed in opposite directions this season -- making Saturday's regular-season finale in Gainesville a bit of a ho-hummer to some -- but that didn't stop one Gator from doing whatever he could to fan the flames of one of college football's nastiest rivalries this week.

Meet safety Jaylen Watkins -- new Public Enemy No. 1 for the Seminoles come Saturday.

When asked if it was gut-wrenching to watch their arch-rival Seminoles steamroll to an 11-0 record and No. 2 BCS ranking, Watkins took the best shot that he could at Florida State during a season in which the Gators, at 4-7, are coming off a loss to FCS Georgia Southern and won't be headed to a bowl game for the first time in 23 years.

"Yeah (it's been tough)," Watkins told reporters before pausing and adding: "It was probably like that for them last year."

Let the games begin.

It's Florida State-Florida week, and there usually isn't much needed to spice up the battle for the Sunshine State trophy. But with Florida State soaring and Florida on a rapid descent -- complete with rumors swirling about its head coach Will Muschamp possibly being fired should the Seminoles come to The Swamp and hang 50 points on the woeful, banged-up Gators -- it's fair for Watkins to point out that just one season ago, the Gators were 11-2 and won the rivalry game on the road in Tallahassee.

But it won't make a Florida State team that's scored 40 or more points in all 11 of its wins this year take it any easier on a Florida team hasn't hit 40 once in 2013.

"They came here and beat us (last year), so we definitely remember that," Seminoles junior DE Timmy Jernigan said after FSU scored a school-record 80 points on Idaho in last week's 80-14 romp on Senior Day. "They are going to come out and play us hard. Probably harder than any other team that we play."

And that's what makes this game so dangerous in the eyes of Seminole fans. Not only is FSU 2-4 in its last six trips to Gainesville, but the Gators have nothing to lose and will certainly go for broke Saturday -- especially if it means saving their head coach's job.

Florida also knows it is one of just two teams left that's standing in the way of FSU's date with the BCS national championship game. And there's nothing they'd like more than to play spoiler to the Seminoles' first unbeaten season since they last won the national title in 1999.

"Our guys understand the importance of this game," said Muschamp, who considers FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher one of his "best friends" after the two worked together over the years and rose in the head coaching ranks at nearly the same time. "(It's) one of the great rivalries in all of college football. Florida State's got a good football team. They're having a great year. It would help us a lot to go get a win."

FSU running back Devonta Freeman, a native Floridian who hails from Miami, already helped the Seminoles smash one hated rival this season when Florida State kept its foot on the gas and routed the then-No. 7 ranked Hurricanes, 41-14, by shutting them out in the second half.

And come Saturday, that's the plan again.

"If we let up, they might hit us in the mouth,'' said Freeman, who has rushed for 808 yards this season and is close to becoming just the ninth FSU running back in school history to surpass 1,000 yards in a season. "But we are not going to let them. I know for a fact we are not going to let up. The team we play has no face. We are going to prepare just the same."

That, however, is easier said than done with the future of FSU's most important player still in limbo.

Seminoles freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner by a wide margin, is still under a cloud of suspicion stemming from a 2012 sexual assault case that was re-opened recently and has yet to be resolved. The state attorney's office in Tallahassee said Saturday it did not expect a decision as to whether to charge Winston would come before Thanksgiving, meaning the 19-year-old Bessemer, Ala., native should be in uniform for the third straight game since the allegations surfaced two weeks ago.

The uncertainty about Winston's status has kept oddsmakers from putting a point spread on the game, but should Winston play, the likelihood is that FSU will be at least three-touchdown favorites against the Gators, who will be down to their third- or fourth-string QB for the game, along with just a few healthy offensive players and a defense also riddled by injuries.

Fisher is too focused on his own team to take a lot of time out of his busy schedule to feel sorry for his old pal Muschamp. But the fourth-year FSU coach did end Monday's media blitz about the game on a friendlier note than Watkins did.

"We have no patience in this world anymore," Fisher said when asked about whether he thought it was fair for Muschamp to be on the hot seat one season after the Gators won 11 games and went to a BCS bowl. "Everything is, 'What have you done for me lately?' It's just the way things go. I don't think it's right. I think that's some of the things as far as when you look at the history of organizations, ones that have had patience seem to be the ones that really have the best true teams over longevity than ones that don't come to rash decisions very quickly.

"He's a great guy and a heck of a football coach. Will knows this business, he'll handle it very well."

But for one more game, of course, Fisher hopes his guys handle it better.

"Very big game, always a very difficult place to play there in Gainesville. One of the most difficult in the country," he said. "They'll be ready to play. I know they will bring their 'A' game and we'll have to bring ours. Like I say, it's the next game on our schedule, so it's the biggest game we have."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Freshman QB Jameis Winston's postseason awards haul could be huge. He was named one of three finalists Monday for both the Maxwell Award (nation's best overall player) and the Davey O'Brien Award (top quarterback), and Las Vegas has him as a significant favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as long as any potential legal trouble is cleared up quickly -- and in his favor. Winston, who has broken nearly every significant ACC freshman QB record, heads into Saturday's rivalry game at Florida with a nation's-best passer rating of 194.5. He is also third in TD passes with 32 and is one passing score away from tying FSU's most recent Heisman winner Chris Weinke's school record for most TD passes in a season. Even more amazing? Winston has done all of this despite only playing three complete games this season, seeing very little second-half action in most of FSU's blowout wins.

--Junior TE Nick O'Leary was named one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award for the country's best tight end. O'Leary, FSU's bruiser (6-3, 248) who is the grandson of PGA legend Jack Nicklaus, has a chance to go down as the greatest tight end in Florida State history. He has his seven TD grabs this season (11 for his career, a school record) on 27 catches for 457 yards, including the longest play in Seminoles history by a tight end -- a 94-yard catch and run against Clemson. What makes O'Leary's season even more remarkable is that he was involved in a potentially fatal motorcycle crash before fall practice began when a car pulled out in front of him, sending him flying off his bike and skidding nearly 100 feet across the highway. Fortunately for O'Leary and the Seminoles, he was able to walk away with only a few minor injuries.

--Senior CB Lamarcus Joyner, who has already been named one of five finalists for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy given to the top defensive player in college football, will go down as one of FSU's all-time great defensive backs. No defensive back has more sacks than Joyner's team-high five, and he's also added 6.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and an interception, and he is second in tackles (55). Coach Jimbo Fisher shook his head when asked about the thought of losing Joyner after this season. "There's not a lot of Joyners falling off trees out there," he said.

--Freshman K Robert Aguayo, named a finalist Monday for the Lou Groza Award given to the nation's best kicker, has replaced the ACC's all-time leader scorer -- former FSU kicker Dustin Hopkins -- quite well. Aguayo is 15 of 16 on field-goal attempts this season and broke the NCAA record for consecutive extra points made in a single season with his 78th in a row last Saturday against Idaho. Aguayo is now 80 for 80 on PATs this season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "(Starting QB Jameis Winston and backup QB Sean Maguire) definitely talk all the time. That's the thing I love about this team, not just the quarterback position, but the running back position, you see the older guys, offense, defense, really interacting with those young guys. Not scared that this guy is going to take my job. There's none of that. There's 'This helps you, I want you to play well.' There's a real friendship there, and they talk and communicate often." -- Jimbo Fisher, FSU head football coach on whether starting QB Jameis Winston is helping mentor Sean Maguire in the event Winston can't play.
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