Syracuse and Florida State battle inside the Carrier Dome on Saturday in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, but the Seminoles haven’t been at their best so far this season. What can we expect from this matchup? We take a look at the Seminoles below.
Florida State runs a multiple pro-style offense that will include spread looks, I-Formation, and Ace (one back w/QB under center). With 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback, the Seminoles take deeper drops and throw downfield more often than most modern offenses, relying on a mix of dropback, play action, and boot action in the passing game.
Florida State’s bread and butter in the running game is the outside zone play, with the aim being to create cutback lanes for their home run hitters at the running back position. Out of the shotgun, FSU typically packages the outside zone with a bubble screen and will take whichever has advantageous numbers, regarding the bubble as an extension of the running game. This year has featured a bit more variety in the running game, including a toss sweep, some Power-O, and a couple counter variations.
Head coach and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher’s offense is predicated on giving the quarterback an answer for everything at the line of scrimmage, and Winston will often come to the line of scrimmage with two or even three plays to choose from depending on the defensive look. The aim is to ensure the offense never winds up running a play the defensive call is specifically designed to stop.
FSU runs at a fairly average pace, eschewing the up-tempo trend, though they do occasionally push the pace if Fisher feels the situation warrants it.
If you aren’t familiar with Winston by now, you probably aren’t a college football fan. Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner possesses outstanding anticipation, terrific pocket awareness, very good accuracy and ball placement, and is an outstanding athlete. His footwork and mechanics are still a work in progress, and his release is a bit more elongated than ideal, but he gets rid of the football so quickly due to his anticipation that it doesn’t matter much. His one primary weakness is a tendency to force the football downfield rather than checking down to backs when that is the better play.
Starting running back Karlos Williams (6’1, 235) is the power back but possesses blazing speed in addition to his size. Williams is unlikely to play this weekend due to an ankle sprain, so Florida State will be forced to turn to another pair of former five-star recruits in redshirt sophomore Mario Pender (5’10, 200) and true freshman Dalvin Cook (5’11, 205) along with former four-star sophomore Ryan Green (5’10, 200), who just returned from a hamstring injury sustained in preseason camp.
FSU may have the fastest group of backs in the country, as all four run sub-10.9 in the 100m, with Pender (~10.5) winning more 100m matchups against former Clemson star Sammy Watkins in high school than he lost and Cook being even faster. Pender and Green are also very good receivers out of the backfield, and Cook is developing well in that area.
Fullback Freddie Stevenson is mostly a lead blocker but is an excellent athlete and a reliable target out of the backfield.
Receivers and Tight Ends
Senior receiver Rashad Greene is one of the two best at his position in the country along with Alabama’s Amari Cooper. Greene is very similar to former Syracuse star Marvin Harrison as he’s not especially big but is extremely smooth, reliable, and runs away from people on the field. He’s also unlikely to play against Syracuse due to a concussion sustained against Wake Forest.
The Noles’ second option is Jesus “Bobo” Wilson, who is also a smallish receiver at about 5’10, 180 but possesses elite acceleration and is an outstanding route runner with natural hands. He missed FSU’s opener due to suspension but has been a reliable and explosive option since.
The third receiver is fifth year senior Christian Green, a former five-star prospect out of high school who has never quite lived up to expectations, though he has made a few key plays this season. Green is a bit bigger at 6’2, 210 but isn’t the same kind of big-play threat as Greene or Wilson.
Kermit Whitfield gets a good bit of time in the slot, and FSU will move him into the backfield at times to take advantage of his world-class speed (his 10.15 100m was the third-fastest prep time in US history). He’s also one of the top kick returners in the nation.
A pair of five-star true freshmen round out the rotation. Travis Rudolph (6’1, 200) is a little further along at this point and has flashed big-play ability the last two games. He’s likely to get much of the time in Greene’s absence. Rudolph was well-coached in high school and is unusually polished as a route runner for a freshman.
Ermon Lane (6’3, 215) provides the big body Fisher would like to see on the outside and has also begun to push for more time the last two weeks. He’s not a true burner but is fast for his size and is unusually fluid. He’s among the more natural pass catchers I’ve seen in a while; his huge mitts are like suction cups catching the football.
Four-star true freshman Javon Harrison (6’3, 200) may also get some time; he is the fastest of the freshmen but is new to the position and still fairly raw.
Senior tight end Nick O’Leary is an All-America candidate at the position and will be featured in the middle of the field; he’s a terrific option route runner and one of Winston’s favorite targets, particularly in the red zone. He’s never been a great blocker but has dramatically improved in that department to the point where he’s no longer a liability.
This was supposed to be the top offensive line in the country coming into the season, with five senior starters, four of whom were returning starters and projected as first to third round draft choices. To say the group has underwhelmed so far would be an understatement as they have taken turns missing assignments and whiffing on blocks over the first five games.
Communication has not been as good as should be expected with a veteran group, and they’ve struggled against quicker defensive linemen at times. Now center Austin Barron (the lone non-returning starter) is out indefinitely with a broken arm, replaced by redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld, who is more talented but much greener than Barron. Hoefeld was inconsistent on his shotgun snaps after replacing Barron against Wake Forest, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
The talent is still there, however, and it’s one of the biggest lines in the country, averaging around 320 pounds per player. They’ve struggled to run the ball most of the year, but when the running game was really needed against Clemson and NC State, FSU was able to run the football at will.
In my view, the group is a bit out of shape and soft, albeit extremely talented. If they decide to get focused, look out. If not, there will be opportunities to get to Winston.
Hybrid is the word. Florida State runs a very flexible scheme involving both even and odd fronts and featuring several hybrid players. The base look is typically a 4-2-5/3-3-5 personnel grouping, as most opponents run some version of a spread offense.
Against more traditional personnel, FSU uses more odd front looks, including some older-schooled 5-2 “Okie” fronts.
FSU is a heavy pattern-match team, running a Saban-style matchup zone scheme in the secondary reminiscent of Jim Boeheim’s matchup zones in basketball. Basically, the Seminole secondary and linebackers will play zone but will read the releases of the receivers and match up based on offensive tendencies and which players are coming into what areas. The basic principle is to ensure that no coverage player is ever just covering air—and to give defensive backs a chance to beat offensive players to spots, potentially forcing turnovers.
FSU has two of the top defensive linemen in the country in Mario Edwards, Jr. (who is technically listed as an OLB, but he’s effectively a DE in this scheme) and Eddie Goldman.
Edwards is 6’4, 295 and is athletic enough to be able to do a backflip in full pads. He may be the best run-stopping defensive end in the country and projects as an early first rounder. FSU has started moving him inside in passing situations to match him up against a guard with a speed rusher outside him. He has been devastating in those one-on-one situations. He’s the rare defensive end that can excel in both one and two-gap schemes and gives FSU a ton of flexibility up front.
Goldman (6’4, 315) is a large, powerful man with unusual quickness and bend at his size. He two-gaps most of the time on the defensive front and requires a double team. With the injury trouble at the nose tackle position, he is now sometimes sliding inside to that spot, particularly on passing downs or goal line/short yardage situations.
Starting NT Nile Lawrence-Stample was lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle against Clemson. His replacement is Derrick Mitchell (6’4, 300), who has been a bit of a surprise this year. Mitchell is another excellent athlete for his size, and although he’s not going to make a ton of plays, has been very solid all season. He’s slowed by a knee injury sustained against NC State and missed last week’s game against Wake Forest.
Other defensive tackles will play about as many snaps as Goldman and Mitchell, including senior Desmond Hollin (6’3, 285), five-star true freshman Derrick Nnadi (6’2, 320), and redshirt sophomore Justin Shanks (6’2, 335). Nnadi in particular has flashed a very high ceiling in recent weeks.
FSU plays a hybrid front, so we’ll include the bigger OLB/DE hybrids here. Earlier in the season, these spots were manned by sophomores Chris Casher (6’4, 260) and Demarcus Walker (6’3, 270), but neither has made many plays on the year, and FSU has been vulnerable on the edge against the run at times.
Enter freshman phenom Lorenzo Featherston (6’7, 225) and fellow freshman Jacob Pugh (6’4, 240), who have gotten the bulk of the time at those spots since the second half of the NC State game. Featherston is a freak with elite explosion and a 7’3 wingspan and has instantly provided the pass rush Florida State lacked prior to his emergence. He reminds me quite a bit of former Florida defensive end Jevon Kearse. He’s still not entirely assignment sound, however, and may be vulnerable to getting pushed around if a team runs right at him.
Linebacker Terrance Smith has played like an All American so far this season. He runs like a safety at 6’4, 230 and has improved against the run since last year.
Reggie Northrup (6’1, 220) is the other starter and is decent against the run between the tackles (he’s the biggest hitter on the team) but has had some trouble in space, particularly against the pass.
Sophomore E.J. Levenberry (6’3, 245) has more size and actually plays better in space but hasn’t been quite as assignment sound as Northrup just yet.
Markuss Eligwe (6’2, 240) was a likely starter before hurting his foot in the spring. He returned against Wake Forest and looked rusty, but look for him to get more time against Syracuse as he is one of the top pass rush options on the team and is better in space than Northrup.
This is the Seminoles’ strength, as Florida State has three cornerbacks who will all be drafted in the first round. Outside corners P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are both juniors and have both fought through hamstring injuries through the early portion of the season, just now getting close to full strength.
The best cover corner on the team actually plays the “Star” hybrid CB/S/LB position. Jalen Ramsey is freakishly long and explosive and has started to get a feel for blitzing off the corner, something he still doesn’t do as well as Lamarcus Joyner did in that role last season.
Free safety Tyler Hunter was slated to start in 2013 but missed the season with a neck injury. He was tentative in the first three games but started to find his stride a bit against NC State. He’s a very smart and instinctive player but lacks the range that Terrence Brooks had in the center field role last season.
Sophomore Nate Andrews is the final starter and has been a ball hawk since his arrival. He can play in the box, downfield, and cover one-on-one. He’s not an elite athlete but has great football instincts and perhaps the best hands on the team. He’s also a reliable tackler in the box and in the open field.
FSU has the best kicker in the country in Roberto Aguayo, who has missed one kick in his career. The guy is amazing; it’s an upset if the ball doesn’t hit the center of the net.
Punter Cason Beatty has been a significant weakness for two years, as FSU has been near the bottom of the country in punting efficiency. Remarkably, Beatty may have been the MVP against Clemson, as he played the game of his life right when FSU needed it most. He has started experimenting more with rugby-style punting, which has seemed to help somewhat, though he’s still quite inconsistent.
Kermit Whitfield is one of the top kick returners in the country, and if he gets a step, there’s nobody in the country at any level who will catch him from behind.
In Greene’s absence, Bobo Wilson will take over punt return duties. He may actually be the more explosive return man, but with his inexperience the concern will be making sure he catches every punt reliably.
FSU’s coverage units have been good overall on the year. Expect FSU to go with very high kickoffs landing around the two yard line in the effort to pin the Orange inside their own fifteen yard line.
As you can see, FSU has one of the younger defensive units in the country with only one senior in the defensive two deep, but the Seminoles are very deep and experienced across the board anyway. As long as they don’t turn the football over, there’s no reason they should lose this game. That has, however, been a bit of a problem so far this season, as FSU is -2 (96thnationally) in turnover margin, a far cry from the +17 (3rd) they managed in 2014.
My eyes will be on the FSU defensive front in this one, as Syracuse should come out to try to pound the Seminoles in the running game, particularly on the edges of the defense. If FSU is able to stop the run consistently, this one will get ugly. If not, the Orange will be able to shorten the game and hang around long enough to make things difficult. We’ll see how it goes on Saturday.