GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — It wasn’t too long ago that Florida State and Florida were in opposite positions.
The Seminoles had the better program, the more stable coaching situation and were enjoying double-digit wins annually. The Gators, meanwhile, struggled to develop quarterbacks and found themselves lagging behind their most hated in-state rival.
Willie Taggart and Dan Mullen, hired nine days apart in 2017, had a lot to do with reversing those roles.
Now, No. 8 Florida (9-2) is well ahead of Florida State (6-5) and looking for its first winning streak in the series in a decade when they meet in the sold-out Swamp on Saturday night.
“I’ve seen the change,” Gators defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “It’s magical.”
It’s probably more cyclical. But Florida will gladly take it after losing five straight and seven of eight to Florida State between 2010 and 2017.
Mullen replaced Jim McElwain in November 2017 and led the Gators to a 10-win season — and a 41-14 victory in Tallahassee — in 2018. Mullen’s work with quarterbacks Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Emory Jones has been a key part of the team’s turnaround.
Taggart replaced Jimbo Fisher’s unraveling program the week after Mullen was hired in Gainesville and looked mostly lost during 21 games at the helm. He was fired after less than two years on the job.
Longtime FSU assistant and interim head coach Odell Haggins is 2-0 since Taggart’s firing and 4-0 in two stints as interim coach. But his streak is in jeopardy against the Gators, who are 18-point favorites and trying to finish undefeated at home for the third time since 2010.
“It’s a lot more juice at practice,” Haggins said. “Kids know what’s at stake. I always say this: It’s a one-game series. Throw out the record book and just get ready to play ball.”
The Seminoles, who missed a bowl last year for the first time since 1981, need a victory to improve their postseason landing spot and strengthen Haggins’ case to get the job.
The annual coaching carousel begins Sunday, with teams firing and hiring all across the country. It’s unclear how close Florida State is to making a decision on its vacancy.
“When things like that happen, I think character is revealed,” FSU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said. “We have a lot of high-character people here that are working at Florida State. There’s two ways you can handle things. We’re going to handle it the right way.”
If Florida handles business in the Swamp, it would notch 10 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009 and move a step closer to securing a New Year’s Six bowl.
Equally pressing for the Gators: they have lost four in a row against Florida State in Gainesville. None of those was even close, giving Florida players extra motivation to end the streak and create one of their own against the ‘Noles.
“Well, their mindset is, ‘We have nothing to lose, so why not go out there and give it everything we’ve got?’” Florida center Nick Buchanan said. “I know those guys are hungry to come out here and spoil our season and come into the Swamp and get a ‘W’ just like they have done for the past three or four times.”
Some other things to know about a series that begin in 1958 and is being played for the 62nd consecutive year:
Florida will recognize 22 seniors, including 14 scholarship players, prior to kickoff. The class is credited with getting Florida back on track following the team’s 4-7 debacle in 2017.
“These guys have faced lots of different adversity throughout their career,” Mullen said. “Different head coaches, some ups and downs. ... I told them right from the beginning that we’ll be successful at some point. The sooner everybody buys in, the sooner we’ll be successful. And those guys bought in and we’ve had some success.”
Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga, one of the team’s most disruptive pass-rushers, is expected to play a full game for the first time since early September.
The fifth-year senior has dealt with a high ankle sprain most of the season. He was only able to play on third down against Georgia, sat out the last two games and had a bye week to get as close as possible to full speed.
Florida had a bye week before facing FSU for the first time since 2005. The Gators won that game 34-7 in Gainesville.
This is the seventh time since 1995 that the betting line has been a double-digit point spread. The heavy favorite has won and covered in each of the previous six: 2000-01, 2007-09 and 2013.