Florida State sets sights on ACC Three-Peat

(Photo courtesy of Florida State Athletics)

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Special to theACC.com by Charlie Sallwasser, UniversityBall.org 

The 2014 Florida State Seminoles are learning what anyone who spent 12 bucks on a ticket for Dumb and Dumber To could have told them already: making a sequel isn’t easy. Principal actors leave, stories change, and the original magic can prove to be fleeting.

In fairness, the 2013 team set the bar absurdly high, running rampant through a regular season in which it scored 53.7 points per game, allowed 11 and dropped 80 on a hapless Idaho team. The Seminioles added a 45-7 victory over Duke in the Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game before capping things off with a last-second 34-31 win over Auburn in the Vizio BCS National Championship. Six Seminoles were AP All-Americans, and seven were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. It was a model season on the field.

The sequel enters this year’s Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game with the same undefeated record as the 2013 group, but the bloom has come off of the rose. Depending on how you feel about Florida State, the 2014 Seminoles are either Rocky or Michael Myers: you keep thinking they’re down for the count, but they rise up again and keep staggering forward. The ‘Noles are a perfect 12-0, but they’re only outscoring their opponents by less than two touchdowns (34.6 to 22), have trailed by at least two scores on three separate occasions, and have had only three games in which it could be said that they “cruised.” This is what happens when you transition from otherworldly to merely very good.

Recent History:
FSU is making its fifth appearance in the Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game. The Seminoles won the first one (in 2005), and the last two (2012 and 2013), but lost in 2011 to Virginia Tech. They last played Georgia Tech in the 2012 iteration of the game, winning 21-15. The ‘Noles are 13-2 against the Jackets since joining the ACC, but Georgia Tech has won two of the last three.

A Look Under the Hood:
FSU focuses its offense on the pass (53.6 percent of the time), which places the focus squarely on defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who is like Taylor Swift or the McRib -- love him or hate him, people talk about everything he does. Winston has felt the effect of Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw’s departures in his numbers, completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 295.5 yards per game, 21 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 8.3 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 143.7 -- a great body of work, but one that struggles to live up to the 66.9 percent, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 289.8 yards per game, 10.6 yards per attempt, and a rating of 184.85 that he posted a year ago. His primary target is all-time leading FSU receiver Rashad Greene, who boasts more catches (86) and yards (1,183) than the next two ‘Noles (TE Nick O’Leary with 44 for 517 yards and WR Jesus Coles with 37 for 455) combined. FSU protects Jameis well, as the Seminoles have allowed only 21 sacks in their 12 games.

If FSU’s Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook were one back, they’d have 1,337 yards and 17 touchdowns. As it is, Williams (4.4 yards per carry, 10 scores) serves as the thunder and Cook (5.9 per, seven scores) as the lightning in FSU’s two-pronged rushing attack.

The FSU defense is led by two preseason All-ACC selections in defensive end Mario Edwards (11 tackles for loss) and cornerback P.J. Williams (51 tackles). It hasn’t always come easy for them, as they give up more yards per rush (3.73, seventh in the ACC) and a higher passer rating (124.6, 10th in the ACC) than last year’s group (3.21 and 93.7, respectively). This year’s Seminole defense is the Ghostbusters II to the prior year’s Ghostbusters, but that’s what happens when you lose four starters to the NFL.

Roberto Aguayo is an advantage for FSU almost every week, as he’s nailed 22 of 24 field goal tries (including the game-winner against Boston College) and seemingly has antifreeze running through his veins. Greene (10.7 yards per return) is a threat to score every time he catches a punt, but the rest of FSU’s special teams are more ordinary.

How does FSU beat Georgia Tech?

1.) They have to win the edge on defense.
Everybody knows by now that Georgia Tech is going to run the ball all game, using the chaos created by the triple option to try to break big plays. The Jackets have run for at least 220 yards in every game this season (their low of 226 yards came against Wofford in their opener), and they’ve lit up the likes of Clemson (250 rushing yards) and Virginia (268 yards) that are typically stout against the run. FSU arguably brings better speed at defensive end and outside linebacker than any other team Georgia Tech has seen this season, but all hands will need to stay in their lanes and play assignment football for the Yellow Jackets to find success. Speed doesn’t help as much if it’s being used to race offensive players to the end zone.

2.) Own the football.
Much has been made of FSU going down by multiple scores in a few games this season, and the common thread in those three games (at NC State, Louisville, and Miami) is that the ‘Noles committed turnovers while falling behind. FSU committed 10 of their 27 giveaways for the season in those three games, with three coming in the four quarters where they went down a combined 58-14 (24-7 against NC State after a quarter, 21-7 against Louisville at the half, and 13-0 to Miami after a quarter).

The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, has 17 interceptions (tied for eighth in the country), which they’ve returned for 328 yards and five touchdowns. Got it, Jameis? Good.

FSU’s average margin of victory when Jameis throws one or fewer interceptions is 15.7
He has six games with multiple interceptions, in which the Seminioles’ average margin drops to 9.5.

The Yellow Jackets are 6-0 when they make multiple picks, winning by an average of 18.5 points. They’re 4-2 when they don’t, and only outscore their opponents by an average of 7.7.

It’s all in the numbers.

3.) While I’m at it: don’t go down by multiple scores.
Georgia Tech’s offense is capable of both busting out for big plays and chewing up big chunks of clock, as it leads the ACC and are second in the entire country in average time of possession (34:02). Eventually, FSU will encounter an opponent against which it can’t mount a storybook second-half rally, and it’ll happen when they it can’t get the ball back.

"Pressure breaks pipes ... or it makes diamonds," wide receiver Rashad Greene said. "And right now, we're shining. We're able to play with pressure." (AP via ESPN.com)

That’s the nice way of saying “so far, we’ve been able to hit the gas when we have to.”

4.) Win first and second downs.
Forcing Georgia Tech into third-and-long throws Yellow Jacket QB Justin Thomas (50.3 percent completion percentage) out of his comfort zone, as Georgia Tech’s passing game thrives when it catches you by surprise, but struggles mightily when foes see it coming. Two of Thomas’s three games with the most pass attempts this season came in losses (26 vs. Duke, 18 vs. UNC), and he only completed an even 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions.

5.) Rely (a little) more on the run.
Georgia Tech this season: 10th in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game (167.9) and dead-last in yards per carry (5.1), and that comes without the stat inflation that comes from a meeting with Georgia Tech. FSU would be well-served to execute a run-focused game plan that targets the soft spot of the Yellow Jacket defense and keeps the ball away from their offense in one fell swoop.

What This Game Means to FSU:
Florida State has a public perception problem. The Seminoles are undefeated, yet only placed fourth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings behind three one-loss teams -- a slap in the face with which most of the country apparently concurs. They’re partially to blame for this for struggling at times, but they also face an uphill battle with the media -- to Joey McCollegeFootballFan, a 43-3 win over Wake Forest isn’t newsworthy at all, but falling behind by 17 to NC State warrants an interruption of his current programming.

FSU graph

This game with Georgia Tech presents more than just a chance to claim a third straight Dr Pepper ACC Championship and further reestablish themselves as the ACC’s big fish after a lukewarm lull in the mid-2000s. It’s a chance for FSU to prove its worth to the College Football Playoff Committee and the legions of doubters at home on their couches -- a playoff before the Playoff, so to speak -- and a chance for the Seminoles to end a turbulent season on a resounding high note.