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Florida State Seminoles vs. Louisville Cardinals Game Preview and Prediction

Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston

Florida State puts its 23-game winning streak on the line on Thursday night, as the Seminoles travel to Louisville for a key ACC showdown. The Cardinals are 6-2 in their debut season in the ACC, but Florida State is easily their toughest opponent so far this year.

The Seminoles are not as dominant – at least right now – as this team was last season. However, coach Jimbo Fisher’s team continues to win and has recorded solid victories over Clemson, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame this year. And Florida State ranked as the No. 2 team in the first release of college football’s playoff committee rankings, so there’s plenty at stake in Louisville on Thursday.

On the other sideline, Louisville is looking to score a breakthrough win in its ACC debut, and Thursday night’s game is the start of a difficult four-game stretch to close out the 2014 season. The return of coach Bobby Petrino was supposed to transform the Cardinals into one of the ACC’s best offenses, but Louisville has been winning with its defense so far this year.

Florida State owns an 11-1 series edge over Louisville. However, the Cardinals’ won 26-20 in the last meeting between these two teams (2002).

Florida State at Louisville

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)

TV Channel: ESPN

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Three Things to Watch

1. Louisville’s Front Seven
Despite a change in scheme, Louisville’s defense has been one of the best in the nation through the first nine weeks of the season. The Cardinals are limiting opponents to just 14.6 points per game and 3.9 yards per play. Additionally, Louisville’s front seven creates a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage. Through eight games, the Cardinals have recorded 60 tackles for a loss and 28 sacks. Florida State’s offensive line was expected to be one of the best in the nation this year but has struggled through the first seven games. The Seminoles also lost center Austin Barron due to injury, leaving redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefield to anchor the starting line. The Cardinals are aggressive and have enough experience up front to give Florida State’s offense plenty of headaches. End/linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin leads the team with six sacks, while end Sheldon Rankins has five. Not only is Louisville’s front capable of causing problems in pass rush situations, but this front seven will make life difficult for the Seminoles’ ground game. Florida State has struggled to establish a consistent push on the ground all year, and running back Mario Pender is unavailable to play due to injury. Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams will handle the workload on the ground on Thursday and will find limited running room against the Cardinals No. 1 ranked run defense in the ACC. Florida State doesn’t need 200 rushing yards, but it needs to have success to take some of the pressure off of Jameis Winston’s shoulders.

2. Jameis Winston Against Louisville’s Secondary
At the beginning of the 2014 season, Florida State’s receiving corps was a question mark. Sure, the Seminoles had Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary, but would a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver emerge early in the season? Those fears have subsided in recent weeks, as Jesus Wilson, Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane have each contributed, and Winston has more weapons available at his disposal. Louisville’s secondary (largely at safety) entered the year with its own share of question marks, and much like Florida State’s receivers, this unit is no longer a concern. The Cardinals have allowed only seven passing touchdowns and have picked off 15 passes. Additionally, opposing quarterbacks are completing just 54 percent of their throws against this defense. Winston has been sharp most of this season, completing at least 62 percent of his throws in five of his six appearances. The sophomore has only four games of more than one interception in his career and was nearly flawless in the second half of the 31-27 win over Notre Dame. With the pressure Louisville gets with its front seven, it should limit Winston’s time to scan downfield and find Greene, Wilson or Rudolph for big plays. However, this is the best offense the Cardinals have played this year. If Florida State’s line gives Winston time to throw, will Louisville’s secondary struggle to stop Greene, O’Leary and the other Seminole receivers? Or can the Cardinals provide the necessary support in pass defense if the pass rush is stymied? 

3. Louisville’s Offense
Is Louisville’s offense ready for a breakout performance on Thursday night? In the 30-18 win over NC State, the Cardinals regained the services of receiver DeVante Parker, while running back Michael Dyer recorded 173 yards on just 24 carries. With Parker and Dyer playing at a high level, combined with Will Gardner growing more comfortable at quarterback, Louisville’s offense could be peaking at the right time. Florida State’s defense is not as dominant as it was last season, largely due to injuries in the front seven and lack of depth at defensive tackle. With Timmy Jernigan no longer the anchor at the point of attack, the Seminoles have slipped to sixth in the ACC against the run and have generated only 11 sacks in seven games. Even though Louisville’s offensive line has struggled this year, expect coach Bobby Petrino to give Dyer several opportunities to test the Florida State front seven. And when Gardner looks to pass, having the big-play ability of Parker on the outside should open up opportunities for receivers James Quick and Eli Rogers and tight end Gerald Christian to attack the middle of the field. Despite a lackluster pass rush on the stat sheet, the Seminoles should bring pressure on Gardner, as the Cardinals have allowed 27 sacks through eight games. If Louisville doesn’t get its ground game on track, this game may not be close in the fourth quarter.

Final Analysis

Florida State’s last trip to Louisville did not go well. The Seminoles lost 26-20 in overtime to the Cardinals in 2002. This year’s matchup is a dangerous spot for Florida State as well. Injuries on both lines of scrimmage have dwindled the team’s depth, and the offense won’t have running back Mario Pender. However, the Seminoles still have arguably the best quarterback in the nation – Jameis Winston – and keep finding ways to win games this year. This game will be a good barometer test for the Cardinals' defense, especially since it has yet to play an offense with the talent level Florida State will bring to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Thursday night. Louisville’s offense should benefit from having over a week to prepare, along with the return of receiver DeVante Parker to full strength. Dyer should find room to run, allowing Gardner and Parker to connect on a couple of big passing plays on play-action opportunities. But even if Florida State's defense gives up yards, it should hold its own in the red zone, limiting Louisville's scoring opportunities throughout the game. The Cardinals may ride the home crowd to early momentum, but Florida State edges out another victory and remains near the top of next week’s college football playoff rankings.

Prediction: Florida State 27, Louisville 24