The Florida Gators (5-6, 3-5 SEC) will face the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 ACC) Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. UF will look to secure a sixth-straight bowl berth while spoiling FSU’s perfect regular season.
Both teams will be severely shorthanded at the most important position on the field. In the second to last game of the season, Florida’s redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz and Florida State super senior signal caller Jordan Travis both suffered serious injuries.
Mertz went down with a collarbone injury in the Gators’ 33-31 loss to the No. 10 Missouri Tigers. The Wisconsin transfer had a career-best season for Florida with 2,903 yards and 20 passing touchdowns.
The Seminoles played a tuneup game against North Alabama. Early in the 58-13 FSU win, Travis suffered a serious injury that ended his six-year college career. He was having a career season, as well, with 27 total touchdowns and just two interceptions.
In place of the two seasoned gunslingers, both teams will turn to inexperienced quarterbacks. Florida State’s Tate Rodemaker is a relatively seasoned backup with 22 appearances in four seasons.
Florida head coach Billy Napier has a longstanding relationship with the Rodemaker family and praised the Seminoles’ quarterback.
“His dad is a long-time friend of my dad's,” Napier said. “He's a coach's son. He's very bright.”
Florida will turn to redshirt freshman Max Brown. The former three-star quarterback redshirted his first season and has played sparingly through his second season. He’s thrown just ten passes and has eight rushing attempts in his career.
Despite the inexperience, the Gators have faith in their young signal caller.
“There'll be some butterflies, that's coming,” Napier said. “But Max, he's done a great job so far this week."
Brown’s athleticism adds an extra dimension to Florida’s offense. The two-sport athlete can attack defenses with his feet, and he ran for 42 yards against the Tigers a week ago.
UF’s offense can lean on its talented crop of skill players to elevate Brown against the top defense in the ACC. Senior receiver Ricky Pearsall — fresh off an invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl — is on the brink of 1,000 yards.
The Arizona State transfer leads Florida with 64 catches and 948 yards this season. If he can finish with at least 52 yards against the Seminoles, he’ll become UF’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2002.
Florida’s running game will likely feature early and often, especially with a dual-threat quarterback. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne and junior tailback Montrell Johnson Jr. continue to impress in conference play.
The duo both have exactly 737 rushing yards this season. Etienne, especially, has made huge plays for the Gators offense. He leads the team with nine touchdowns, including five in his last two games.
Even with Rodemaker in place of Travis, Florida State’s offense will pose a massive challenge for a reeling UF defense. The Gators rank near the bottom in several key defensive metrics and are one of the worst defenses at stopping explosive plays.
The Seminoles’ core of skill players will routinely test Florida down the field. Michigan State transfer wide receiver Keon Coleman has been one of the best transfer portal acquisitions this season.
Coleman leads FSU with 615 yards and 11 touchdowns. His explosive speed will challenge a Gators secondary that’s struggled with vertical passes all season.
Johnny Wilson is another formidable target on the perimeter. The 6-foot-7-inch receiver is second on the team with 532 receiving yards. Running back Trey Benson provides a threat in the run game with 764 yards and 11 scores this season.
Florida’s reeling after a slog to close the season. The Gators are on a four-game losing streak and on the brink of their third-straight losing season for the first time since the 1940s. A win over an undefeated Florida State would do a lot to galvanize a struggling program.
The Seminoles could get one step closer to their second appearance in the College Football Playoff, and their first since the first edition of the playoff in 2014. Florida State already clinched its second straight 10-win season under head coach Mike Norvell.
With the rivalry shifting back towards Tallahassee, this game is a huge opportunity to close the regular season for Florida.
“I think they all understand there are some significant things here relative to seniors playing their last game at The Swamp, bowl eligibility potentially at stake here,” Napier said. “Certainly just the rivalry in general I think is enough motivation, right?”
Kickoff Saturday is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Contact Topher Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.
Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.