Florida State and offensive-minded head coach Jimbo Fisher run multiple looks from the spread, pistol and traditional formations, but the goal is the same no matter the look of the attack. It wants to establish the run initially before opening up the passing game with its dual-threat superstar quarterback Jameis Winston.
The tempo isn't as speedy as some programs the Orange has faced thus far in the season, like Clemson or what Maryland wants to do, but it isn't a methodical unit like Georgia Tech, either. The Seminoles know they have the advantage over most opponents in their quality and depth at the skill positions and experienced offensive line, so there isn't necessarily one or two players that have to be contained to limit the offense, which is what makes the unit one of the nation's best (ninth overall) at producing 521 total yards per game en route to putting up a gaudy 52 points a game, second in America only to Baylor.
The aforementioned Winston has come into his own as a redshirt freshman, after taking in all he could from 2012 starter and senior E.J. Manuel, ironically now the starting quarterback for former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's Buffalo Bills. During that time he practiced with the top group, traveled to every game as if he were to play and was coached as such that his second year in the program has been a smooth transition. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, the former Scout.com five-star is one of the front-runners for the Heisman trophy, with nearly 3,000 combined yards of offense and 29 total scores to his name through nine games.
Winston is second in America in pass efficiency, at a 192.22 clip, and he leads a big-play offense that manages more than 16 yards per completion. As a runner, he's been more reserved than not this fall, though he has used his legs most efficiently on third down, a scary thought considering he's already the nation's top third-down passer. The only visible downside to the patient, accurate and strong-armed talent is an overzealous side that gets him in trouble in certain spots. He's been accused of trying to do too much at times, which is the case behind most of his seven interceptions thus far in the season. A few passes have sailed on him while trying to make the "dagger" throw at times. Winston has tossed an INT in each of his last four games.
Another strength for the Seminoles is the amount of players that can make plays with the ball in their hand. At running back, a trio of talents have each brought something different to the table. Devonta Freeman is the lead back and leads the roster in rushing, with 650 yards and nine scores, using a dynamic and one-cut style along with good top-end speed in the open field. He's also the best pass-catching tailback on the team, amassing 184 yards and a score through the air this fall. The change of pace to Freeman is power back James Wilder Jr., who despite missing a game with a concussion, has averaged nearly 6 yards per carry en route to 317 yards and five scores. The junior is the primary back the ‘Noles use on the goal line, and his angry style of running is tough to stop at 6-foot-2, 229 pounds. The third back, Karlos Williams, is a converted five-star safety that changed positions during the season, and his combination of speed and size at 6-foot-1, 223 pounds has made quite the impression. The junior has 444 yards and eight scores to his name on just 61 attempts (7.28 average). He's the home-run threat out of the backfield.
Fullback Chad Abram is a traditional blocking-back with good power and agility to get to the second level, but he's also made an impact as a pass-catcher, hauling in a pair of scores this season. His versatility has been a surprise to the team, which can't be said for tight end weapon Nick O'Leary. The junior has come into his own as both a gritty blocker and reliable receiver, with 23 grabs for 389 yards and six touchdowns thus far. He's a throwback talent that enjoys contact as much as any player on the roster.
On the outside, FSU uses a three-headed attack on most sets. Even while trying to establish the run, Fisher will leave Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw on the field to keep the defense honest. Benjamin is the big-bodied play-maker, who uses his great size (6-foot-5, 234 lbs) and body control to often provide a mismatch against even the biggest of cornerbacks. His hands have improved over time as well, and its resulted in six scores along with 499 yards on just 27 catches. Greene is the opposite at 6-foot, 180 pounds, but his blinding speed has NFL scouts pegging him too go early in the upcoming draft. Utilized both down the field and often in the screen game, Greene can hit a gear that the Orange has only seen from Sammy Watkins thus far in 2013. The junior leads the team with 820 yards and eight scores. Shaw is the slot man in the offense, with elite quickness and route-running skills at a slender and probably generous 6-foot, 170-pound listed frame. He has great hands and can go over the middle without fear, making him a third-down favorite of Winston's with most defenses primarily focused on Benjamin and Greene. Shaw thrives in arguably the nation's top wide receiver corps, with 622 yards to his name this fall.
In the Trenches
Lost in the gaudy numbers from Winston, the running backs and the wideouts is the experienced Seminole offensive line. The group was once the weak point in the roster a season or two ago, but the growing pains it experienced along with incredible youth at one point, seems like a trend of the past. Center Ryan Stork keeps the group together, a far cry from two seasons ago when he led four of the current starters as freshmen, including a 17-year old Bobby Hart at the time. Now, the group is mostly juniors and seniors, with right tackle Hart developing into a rising NFL stock and guards Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias coming into their own as exceptional pullers this fall. Left tackle Cam Erving has done maybe the best job this season at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, at keeping Winston upright and spearheading the running game.
Stork missed some time with injury, but he's now been back for a full game, so the unit comprised of mostly three-year starters is hitting its stride during the stretch run. The chemistry is also at an all-time high because of their experience in playing together, making the FSU offense as balanced and deep as it gets in college football.
Florida State's traditional 4-3 defense is still utilized, but new defensive coordinator and former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt is implementing Nick Saban's 3-4 look more and more as time progresses. The FSU personnel still fits the old scheme best, so the result is a unit that uses a bit of both though the typical mantra of the ‘Noles attacking style remains. It has resulted in a top five defense in overall yards (274.1), scoring (12.0) and efficiency (90.96), while ranking in the top 10 in forcing 23 turnovers in the process.
In the Trenches
Florida State's bookend pass-rushing specialists from year's past are all in the NFL now, so the unit gets by as a whole against opposing quarterbacks. For instance, the team has 20 sacks, but no single player has more than 3.5 to his name. Instead, the balanced group has been more about occupying gaps this fall, led by stud defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. The junior leads the lineman with five tackles for loss on the year and the remainder of the interior rotates in to keep the big guys fresh. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Jacobi McDaniel and Desmond Hollin all contribute as well on the interior. On the edge, Mario Edwards has rounded into form this year, making impact plays against both the pass and the run. On the other side, the move of former linebacker Christian Jones to the end position has resulted in a batter push up front with several tackles for loss and a pair of sacks already. Eddie Goldman and true freshman Demarcus Walker have also contributed in the deep rotations.
The Back Seven
Everything about the second and third-level defenders for the ‘Noles should remind college football fans of past units. The linebackers are undersized and incredibly fast play-makers, while the secondary is physical, gifted and ball-hawking in nature.
Joyner is a play-maker at every level.
Telvin Smith has emerged as perhaps the top impact linebacker in the ACC this year, despite a long 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame. He has safety speed though he hits like a bigger ‘backer, all resulting in a team-leading 35 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Smith's skill-set is even more lethal in passing situations, whether as an extra pass-rusher or in coverage. Terrance Smith flanks him at just 222 pounds, but offers similar skills in what has become a great play-making tandem after Jones' move to defensive end. Reggie Northup, Ukeme Eligwe and E.J. Levenberry also see time at linebacker, each at 240 pounds or lighter. The conception is that the unit can be wore down, but it hasn't quite happened yet aside from Andre Williams and Boston College.
Though youthful, the secondary has been game for tough matchups on the outside more times than not. The Seminoles start a true freshman at free safety in Jalen Ramsey and nickelback in Nate Andrews, along with sophomore cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. However, each has brought different things to the table and made big plays in the process. Ramsey is an improved tackler and plays well in space, Andrews is as instinctive as it gets in coverage and leads the team with four interceptions while Williams has challenged top receivers all season long as his confidence grows. Darby is the returning starter among cornerbacks, though top player Lamarcus Joyner occupies the spot on the depth chart.
Joyner may be the most talented player on the entire defense, whether he lines up at safety, corner or even on the line at times (he leads the team in sacks), all he does is make plays. Perhaps he and Telvin Smith are the two players Syracuse, or any offense, must identify on every play before going through with one. Joyner is physical despite his 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame, as fast as it gets, and defines today's ballhawk. He has three forced fumbles and an interception on the year.
Kicker Roberto Aguayo has been another reliable freshman on the roster, making good on 13 of 14 kicks thus far in addition to notching 24 touchbacks on 77 kickoffs. Punter Cason Beatty hasn't been a weapon for the unit, averaging just under 40 yarder per kick, but the Florida State coverage units are speedy and reliable, so the weakness hasn't yet been exposed.
The return game is another strength of the program with several options on both kicks and punts. Shaw is the primary punt returner, and he uses his quickness to average better than 10 yards per return. Levonte Whitfield, arguably the fastest player in the country and a true frosh, is the team's primary kick returner, averaging 34-plus yards per touch. The number was boosted by a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown last week against Wake Forest.
The Orange's toughest test is on the road, in a new venue, against a likely BCS title game participant. While this is the time of year these contenders always seem to stumble, it is hard to imagine the Seminoles going down to a team that lacks offensive explosion on their home field.
Syracuse's defense has better athletes than given credit for, but even their A-game, which let's say limits Florida State to half of its scoring average at best, 26 points, would still be more than the Orange's scoring average for the season of 24.6 points per game. If Terrel Hunt can shock the world, SU has a chance, but chances are he will play a steady game like he has been, without a wow moment and without explosive plays. Most signs point to a Syracuse loss, though the defense and special teams has a chance to make somewhat of a statement no matter the outcome.