Although both teams have historically been known for their defensive speed and their ability to pressure the quarterback, Miami's defensive philosophy is different from FSU's. Randy Shannon has typically favored a "two deep" coverage scheme against FSU. Unlike FSU's defense, which typically uses some form of an eight-man front to shut down the run first, Shannon likes to challenge FSU to beat UM's front seven in the running game by only keeping seven in the box. Behind this, he will typically run a form of cover-two man-under coverage, featuring two deep safeties with the corners tight against the WRs in man coverage. This can be a very difficult defense to beat on the outside—especially if the officials allow the corners leeway to grab and hold a bit, something Miami has been notorious for at the corner position for years.
This defensive philosophy is one of the reasons that the rushing statistics have been so closely tied to success in this game—if FSU is able to beat UM's front seven in the running game and force them out of their two-deep shell, FSU will generally win. The great exception to this, of course, is the 2002 game in which Greg Jones and Nick Maddox ran wild behind a dominant performance from the FSU offensive line (probably the last time that statement has been truly applicable). However, that game actually demonstrates this point perhaps even more than the others—through the first three quarters, FSU was able to run at will while UM stubbornly stayed in their two-deep defense. However, with a 13-point in the fourth quarter, the FSU coaching staff grew increasingly conservative and decided to shift to a two tight end formation in the attempt to grind out the clock. Miami responded by putting nine men in the box, FSU's running game was stymied, and the rest is (very painful) history.
That being said, I expect Jimbo Fisher to do several things:
1) I expect a concerted effort to establish the run between the tackles. UM has very good defensive ends, but their tackles are not as good as usual, and if we are able to hit them straight up the middle, we should be able eventually to force them out of their cover-two defense, opening the downfield passing game.
2) I expect us to spread Miami's defense with at least a three-WR set most of the game, challenging UM's linebackers and safeties with Preston Parker in the slot. As a result of UM's (sometimes stubborn) reliance on the cover-two defense, many of FSU's best offensive plays against UM have the last decade have come from the slot WR in a three-wide set (surely every ‘Nole fan remembers Atrews Bell's games from the slot against UM in 2000). If UM decides to go to a nickel package (probable), FSU's emphasis will be to establish the running game against UM's front six. If UM stays in their base defense, look for FSU to challenge the space between the UM safeties downfield (one of the weak points of the cover-two is around 18 yards downfield between the safeties).
3) By putting multiple WRs on the field, Fisher will try to stretch the defense horizontally—the cover-two is designed to eliminate the vertical stretch—creating seams for big plays in the short to intermediate passing game. Look for fewer "jump balls" and more intermediate throws.
4) Cover-two safeties don't rotate much, allowing FSU to put a given safety in a bind by putting more than one WR in his area of responsibility. Mark Richt and Jeff Bowden used to do this by running one WR on a deep post behind one safety while the inside WR cut across his face on a shallower post route. I expect variations of this route as well as the effort to get Xavier out of the pocket throwing to crossing-type routes.
5) Look for even more screens in this game; screens can be devastating against man-under packages because if the person responsible for the RB or WR receiving the screen is blocked or beaten, the other coverage players will be upfield rather than (as in a zone) converging on the ball.
It will be an extremely positive sign if FSU is able to force UM out of their two-deep packages as this will open the downfield pass to the outside that Xavier Lee throws so well. One final key is Xavier Lee's mobility. Although UM's defense is fast enough to largely neutralize this more than many teams, man-under coverage schemes are often very vulnerable to quarterback scrambles (not designed QB runs) because players in man coverage have their backs to the quarterback.
UM's offense has always been predicated on a physical running game and a downfield play-action passing attack. This has changed a bit this year due both to the change in coaching staffs and to personnel limitations. Nonetheless, FSU's defense will play them the same as always—we're going to put eight players near the line of scrimmage and challenge them to beat us in the passing game. As a result, I expect UM to do a few things:
1) I expect them to use Kyle Wright's mobility by moving the pocket some to slow down FSU's pass rush. His running ability should be a major concern for our coaching staff.
2) UM has killed FSU's defense with RB screens in the past. We're going to see a lot of them this game, even with a new staff.
3) I expect more spread formations than in the past—but less to throw than to get extra players out of the box so UM can try to establish a running game.
4) I expect UM to challenge FSU's safeties downfield with several early deep throws to the deep middle off play-action.
5) I expect UM to throw more than usual early in the game in the attempt to loosen FSU's defense. It is critical that FSU gets a couple three-and-outs early.
Miami will depend on their wide receivers to create some big plays in the passing game—just like FSU has to establish their running game, UM will need to establish their passing game in order to counter FSU's emphasis on stopping the run. It will be a very bad sign for FSU if the Miami passing game is able to get in any sort of rhythm early.
Miami's receivers have big-play ability and I actually think much more highly of Kyle Wright than many, but I simply cannot see Miami's receivers being consistent enough in this game for the Hurricanes to be able to move the ball. On the other side, with Hudson out, the pressure is on FSU's interior three offensive linemen to be able to move UM's defensive tackles enough to make Miami respect FSU's running game. I expect a much better effort up front than at Wake last week, but I still don't see Greg Jones-esque success ahead for FSU's running game. That being said, I think Florida State's receivers will be the deciding factor in this game. By going to multiple-WR sets, I think Jimbo Fisher will be able to get the matchups he wants against Miami's man-under defense, allowing FSU's athletes at receiver to have big games. Oklahoma has already proven that putting enough quality receivers on the field will stretch Miami's exceptional safeties too thin and create big plays. I expect both Parker and Fagg to have huge games, leading to a 27–17 FSU win.