The difference between the 2013 Florida State team and the 2014 version can be largely summed up in one statistic: Turnover margin. The difference is striking.
The 2013 team finished second in the country with a +17 margin against FBS competition, forcing 2.62 turnovers per game while only turning it over once per game.
That turnover edge manifested with special force in Florida State’s signature win of 2013, as a 4-1 turnover advantage propelled the Seminoles to a 51-14 win at Clemson.
By contrast, the 2014 Seminoles have more often than not had to overcome a turnover deficit, as the Seminoles are 68th nationally with a -1 turnover margin vs. FBS competition. This year’s team is still forcing 2.25 turnovers per game, but the offense has turned it over 2.375 times per game, 1.375 turnovers more than last year’s team.
That has meant a young, banged-up defense has been put in short-field situations at least once—usually more often—per game, a significant reason FSU has given up more points this year.
FSU’s poorer turnover margin traces primarily to two factors: reduced performance on the lines and less experience and physicality from the wide receiver position.
The first factor is more significant. The 2013 Seminoles were dominant up front on both sides of the football, rotating six 300-pound linemen (plus an NFL OLB/DE hybrid) on defense while also fielding perhaps the nation’s best offensive line, led by Rimington Award winner Bryan Stork.
FSU was able to limit the run with its size while still getting pressure on the quarterback, forcing offenses to throw the football in disadvantageous down-and-distance scenarios. That allowed an outstanding secondary to feast on the inevitable mistakes of that arrangement.
The 2014 team does not have Timmy Jernigan, Demonte McAllister, Jacobbi McDaniel, and Nile-Lawrence Stample (injury) rotating on the inside, nor does it have a hybrid end of the caliber of Christian Jones. Opposing offenses have thus had an easier time running the football against the Seminoles, better avoiding long-yardage situations in which turnovers are more likely. And when quarterbacks drop back to pass, FSU has had to blitz to produce comparable pressure to what it got with four rushers in 2013.
On the offensive side of the ball, center has been a sore spot since Stork’s departure, and not only because Austin Barron and Ryan Hoefeld have struggled to block on the interior. Stork was also a film junkie who regularly stayed at the football facility past 10pm and helped ensure that the rest of the offensive line did their jobs. That leadership has been badly missed, as the Seminole offensive line struggled through the first half of the year and is still not to the level one would expect given the talent at the other four positions.
Finally, Jameis Winston could completely trust Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to be in the right place at the right time—and when in doubt, he knew Benjamin would win his physical matchup, ensuring that even slightly errant throws would not be intercepted.
At least three of Winston’s interceptions over the past month have been the result of a young receiver making a route-running error or not adequately fighting for the football, and a few other interceptions have come as Winston tried to force the football to veteran Nick O’Leary, throws that may not have been made if Benjamin were still on the field. (Winston probably forced more balls in 2013 than he did in 2014, but because there was more space and a jumbo athlete to work with on the outside, some of those did no damage.)
Winston’s ankle injury also clearly affected him against Virginia, as he was unable to push through his back foot and shift his weight effectively on throws to the outside, though neither interception was the result of that problem. It is, however, definitely a concern going forward.
There are, however, a few reasons for optimism in Tallahassee. The first positive is the modest improvement of the Florida State running game over the past month, as the Seminoles have averaged over 4.5 yards per carry in four of their last six games (exceptions: Notre Dame and Virginia), rushing for over 115 yards in all but one (Notre Dame).
The return of Mario Pender against Miami should be a further shot in the arm, though the center position remains in question, with Ryan Hoefeld having been banged up against Virginia and Austin Barron likely not quite ready to return to game action, despite full participation in practices this week for the first time since his injury against Wake Forest. Left tackle Cam Erving took three snaps at center while Hoefeld was out against Virginia and was badly beaten on the lone run play.
The other cause for optimism is the continued development of the freshman wide receivers. Their inconsistency has caused a few turnovers to date, but they are getting more reliable each game and present tough physical matchups on the outside for secondaries down the stretch.
The biggest cause for optimism, however, is the performance of the defense, which has been playing better than most realize, despite being put in bad positions by offensive turnovers. Mario Edwards, Jr. has begun to come to life again, and the Seminoles have been getting more pressure on the quarterback, which should lead to more turnovers down the stretch.
Regardless, FSU will need to make sure it doesn’t lose the turnover battle in the season’s last month if it wants to make the first College Football Playoff.