The Seminoles enter Thursday night's contest with a 2-4 (0-3 ACC) record. There is no doubt that Florida State is a shell of the powerhouse it was during the 1990s, but Bobby Bowden has managed to continue bringing in elite-level talent that is capable of playing well against any opposition. But inconsistency has saturated the program, as evidenced by the Seminoles 54-28 thrashing of BYU in Utah before tripping over themselves against South Florida and Boston College the next two weeks.
Florida State blistered the scoreboard with 78 points against Miami and Georgia Tech, while posting just 26 points in games against South Florida and FCS opponent Jacksonville State. Injuries have played a significant role this season, but that still doesn't explain how this program has lost more games in the past four years (21) than it did during its 14-year heyday from 1987-2000 (19).
"They're still Florida State. [When I was] growing up in the '90s, Florida State was pretty much all you heard about in the ACC." – UNC cornerback Kendric Burney
"Every game is a new game. You forget the last one, get your mistakes corrected and get on to the next game." – FSU head coach Bobby Bowden
Quarterbacks are accustomed to receiving too much of the blame when their team loses while receiving too much credit when their squad wins. But FSU's Christian Ponder hasn't received enough attention of any kind while delivering all-conference level statistics through his first six games.
Ponder is coming off back-to-back, career-high passing performances against Boston College and Georgia Tech. In those two losses, the junior signal caller completed 55-of-78 (70.5 percent) of his passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
For the season, Ponder has completed 147-of-217 passes for 1,781 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder also leads the ACC in total offense with 317.3 yards per game, good for sixth nationally. It's hard to blame the Colleyville, Texas native for an inept defense that rarely provides him good field position or for offensive skill players that have tallied 11 drive-ending fumbles on the season.
What makes Ponder even more lethal is his athleticism and escapability in the pocket, averaging 20.5 yards per game on a 2.41-yards-per-rush clip. Those numbers include losses associated with two sacks per contest.
UNC head coach Butch Davis indicated on Monday that Ponder presents the difficulty in preparation that quarterbacks such as Brett Favre represented during his NFL days.
"He's very accurate throwing the football," Davis said. "He's got an awful lot of poise. He plays with a real presence out there – he clearly knows what he wants to try to do."
Matchups to Watch
North Carolina's Offense vs. Florida State's Defense
The battle that will ensue on Thursday between UNC's anemic offense and FSU's porous defense provides a completely different approach to the unstoppable force paradox. After all, John Shoop's offense is anything but an irresistible force, while Mickey Andrews' defense has been anything but immovable.
The Tar Heels rank 117th nationally in total offense (282.2 ypg), thanks to a rushing offense (110.7 ypg) and passing offense (171.5 ypg) that both fail to crack the top-100. The Seminoles, on the other hand, hold down the ACC's cellar spot in four different defensive categories – total (226.6 ypg), pass (253.8 ypg), rush (172.8 ypg) and pass efficiency (158.4).
But there is reason for hope on both sides of the field. North Carolina finally has left guard Jonathan Cooper near 100 percent, while tight end Zack Pianalto is expected to make his return after missing four games due to a foot injury. For Florida State, Bowden hopes to have linebacker Dekoda Watson (groin strain) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (ankle sprain) back in the starting lineup. The Seminoles did receive bad news on Monday when defensive tackle Budd Thacker suffered a MCL sprain after delivering two solid performances against Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Davis believes that FSU's numbers are skewed due to an unlucky dose of big plays that have hit at the wrong time.
"From a scheme standpoint, from an athletic talent standpoint, they don't look much different to me," Davis replied when asked about comparing the current Seminoles squad to their dominant teams of the 1990s.
One thing is certain for these two struggling units – when the game clock rolls to triple zeros on Thursday night, one of these coordinators will be able to take positives away from his squad's winning performance. The other coordinator will realize that things cannot get much worse.
Florida State's Ground Game vs. North Carolina's Run Defense
Ponder's success under center has helped to mask Florida State's issues in the running game. The Seminoles rank 83rd nationally (128.5 ypg), and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has juggled his lineup to try to find the right fix.
While Ponder leads the team with 51 rushes (123 yards, 2 TD), Ty Jones (46 carries for 228 yards, 4 TD) and Jermaine Thomas (45 carries for 175 yards, 2 TD) have both worked out of the backfield. Those numbers are somewhat skewed when you factor in that FSU churned out 313 yards – nearly half of its season total – in the dominating performance against BYU.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, rank 34th nationally in run defense (112.5 ypg).
"North Carolina is a very physical, tough, football team," Fisher said. "We're going to have to match their toughness up front. Their front is very good. We're going to have to play with a lot of enthusiasm and concentration because one slip-up against those guys and it can be disastrous.
"Usually teams are fast up front or big up front. They're both. ... They are guys who are going to make a lot of money on Sundays."
If North Carolina hopes to contain Ponder, it has to make the Seminoles one dimensional by shutting down the running game. If FSU is able to move the ball on the ground and forces UNC to play more men closer to the line of scrimmage, then Ponder will have more open territory down the field to work his magic.