FSU Offense vs. UNC Defense
This matchup is strength vs. strength—one of the nation's top offenses, led by FSU QB Christian Ponder, who is playing as well as any quarterback in the country, against one of the nation's best defenses, led by arguably the best front seven in the country. Florida State has struggled to run on the better defensive fronts they've played (i.e. Miami and South Florida), and Carolina has a bigger and more talented defensive line (as well as faster, more talented linebackers) than each of these squads, led by 6'5, 270 pound defensive end Robert Quinn, who, despite being a sophomore, may be the top defensive end prospect in the country. The other end is even bigger: 280 pound senior E.J. Wilson.
Inside, Carolina looks an awful lot like Boston College of last year, with two huge NFL caliber defensive tackles in 330 pound Cam Thomas and 320 pound Marvin Austin (a one-time FSU commit who jilted the ‘Noles the week of Signing Day) clogging the middle. These two tackles are backed up by a pair of experienced 300 pounders, giving the Heels a deep and huge interior, allowing them to run two-gap schemes on the inside, allowing their speedy linebackers to stay "clean" and flow to the football. Though the linebackers are known for their speed, they're not especially small, with two above 230 and the other at 220. The top linebacker is Quan Sturdivant, Mel Kiper's #2 rated inside linebacker prospect, though outside linebacker Bruce Carter (who might be the best athlete at linebacker FSU will play against this year) is no slouch either (Kiper's #3 junior outside linebacker prospect).
The weakness (if there is one) of the defense is the secondary. Because they can usually stop the run with their front four, however they're usually in a cover two look, protecting their smaller corners and allowing their linebackers to cover a lot of ground in the short and intermediate zones. In terms of style, expect the defense to look like a cross between Miami (especially the ‘Canes' linebackers) and Boston College, with conservative coverage schemes forcing a lot of intermediate throws and protecting against the big play. Against Carolina's base defense, the holes should be down the sidelines at around 20–35 yards and in the middle intermediate zone between the safeties.
Look for FSU to try to neutralize the Heels' size inside by spreading them out and throwing on first down, when they have to play honest and respect the run threat. The worst thing the ‘Noles can do is try to come out and establish the run right away, getting into long yardage situations and throwing into the teeth of a very quick defense set to play the pass—a sure recipe for turnovers. That said, Carolina's front does have a weakness: I'm not sure they are especially tough up front. The two tackles especially have shown a penchant for taking plays off (unlike BC's tackle duo from a year ago), and conditioning and focus have been factors in the past, as they have let themselves get pushed around at times by lesser offensive lines. Look for Trickett's soldiers to test the toughness of UNC's "pretty boys" up front right away, and if FSU does have some early success, I'm not sure the defensive linemen will continue to play with the kind of abandon they'll need to stop the FSU attack.
If FSU is able to run the football, this game won't be close, but I don't expect that to happen. Instead, like I said, look for the ‘Noles to come out in the spread and throwing on first down, trying to loosen the ‘Heel defense up early and make conditioning a factor. I would also anticipate some zone-read and more running from Ponder early to create balance and prevent the defense from being able to stuff the inside run game so easily.
FSU Defense vs. UNC Offense The FSU defense is not as bad as it looked against Georgia Tech (a team that has now embarrassed the defenses of FSU, Miami, Georgia, and Virginia Tech in a one year span), but this FSU defense is certainly not what fans (or the coaches) are accustomed to seeing. Fortunately for the ‘Noles, the UNC offense has been anemic so far this year, making this a matchup of the teams' weaknesses.
FSU's biggest weakness on defense has been an inability to stop the run, allowing over five yards per carry in every game so far this year. This has led to big plays in the passing game, since the offense is usually in advantageous down/distance scenarios and the Seminole pass rush has been virtually nonexistent. Carolina, on the other hand, has averaged around two yards per carry in their games against quality competition this year—something's going to have to give. UNC has been beset with injuries on the offensive line and has struggled to create holes or protect the passer. To make matters worse for the Tar Heels, two of their backup running backs (including the player they used as their read-option quarterback) are now out for the season, making them even thinner in the running game.
Last year, North Carolina had the top receiving corps in the ACC, with three NFL caliber wide receivers who could stretch the field and consistently make plays. This year, however, the receivers have been a weakness. They have several big, physical targets, but no one has stepped forward and become a consistent threat. They also do not have a legitimate deep threat (a welcome relief for Seminole fans). Quarterback T.J. Yates is slow of foot, has unpolished footwork in the pocket, and can be pressured into mistakes (especially since his receivers are unreliable). Look for an interception or three from Yates.
This game could go either way, with the strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness matchup making it hard to project. That said, this is really a game Florida State should win (despite the point spread). With the majority of the students being out of town for fall break, the Thursday night crowd will not be as much of an advantage as it might otherwise be (plus UNC's home crowds tend to be rather quiet as it is), so home field advantage should be a non-factor. The Carolina offense has the capability to make the Seminole defense look as deceptively good as Georgia Tech made it look worse than it actually is. The UNC defense's strength is stopping the run and then winning pass-first situations, while the FSU offense is unlikely to take that approach, instead using a spread attack to expose the few soft spots in the Carolina defense. There is also a 50/50 chance that Justin Mincey will return for this game, a key personnel addition, the importance of which I addressed earlier this week.
Though I would not be surprised to see UNC win this game by 10 (say, 24¬–14), I fully expect the FSU offense to score enough points to win, with the defense playing with enough pride to limit a weak Carolina offense and force some turnovers. FSU wins, 31–17.