Florida State is off to a disappointing 3-2 start this year, but the Seminoles still have plenty to play for, including a trip to Miami on Saturday against the rival Hurricanes. Under coach Jimbo Fisher’s watch, Florida State has owned Miami. Fisher is 6-0 against the Hurricanes and has won the last three matchups in Miami. However, the Hurricanes are a team on the rise under new coach Mark Richt and are a slight favorite (three points). Is this the year Miami knocks off Florida State and reclaims an edge in this series? Or will Fisher rally his team after a last-second loss to North Carolina last week?
High expectations surrounded Florida State at the start of the 2016 season. The Seminoles were a popular pick to reach the national championship after a 10-3 record in a rebuilding year last fall. However, Fisher’s team is just 6-4 over its last 10 games and is out of the College Football Playoff picture after last week’s defeat to the Tar Heels. The defense is the primary culprit of Florida State’s early-season problems, but the offense struggled against Louisville and three missed field goals (one blocked) hindered this team against North Carolina. While the playoffs are certainly out of reach, the Seminoles are playing for in-state bragging rights against Miami and can play spoiler with Clemson still to come later this year.
While Florida State is trying to figure out what went wrong in 2016, Miami is quietly building momentum behind new coach Mark Richt. The former Hurricane quarterback returned to Coral Gables after a successful stint at Georgia and has this program trending in the right direction. Miami has jumped into the polls as a top-10 team after its first four games. However, the Hurricanes haven’t faced the toughest of slates so far. A road trip to Appalachian State and a date at Georgia Tech wasn’t easy, but the schedule will get tougher for Miami starting on Saturday night.
Miami owns a 31-29 series edge over Florida State. As mentioned previously, Florida State has a six-game winning streak in this series. The Seminoles have not lost in Miami since 2004.
Florida State at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Miami -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Miami’s Run Defense Against Dalvin Cook
Under new coordinator Manny Diaz, Miami’s defense has made significant strides in 2016. Last season, the Hurricanes allowed 28.2 points per game (12th in the ACC) and gave up 5.78 yards per play. It’s a small sample size and the competition will get tougher, but Miami has showed marked improvement on the stat sheet. The Hurricanes rank second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 3.6 yards per play and are holding opponents to just 11 points a game. Additionally, Miami is doing a better job of creating havoc plays at the line of scrimmage. The Hurricanes have generated 16 sacks in four games and limit opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry.
While those numbers indicate improvement and the eye test shows this defense is better with Diaz at the controls, Miami has yet to face a team with the balance and overall play-making ability like the one Florida State will bring on Saturday. The Seminoles are led by junior running back Dalvin Cook and redshirt freshman Deondre Francois at quarterback. Francois doesn’t run a ton, but his mobility can present challenges for Miami’s front seven. After a slow start, Cook has rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns over Florida State’s last two games. Additionally, Cook torched the Hurricanes for 222 yards and two scores in last season’s matchup. Stopping the run has to be Miami’s No. 1 priority. Will the Hurricanes continue the trend from the first four games of stuffing the ground attack? This unit starts three freshmen at linebacker and facing Cook’s open-field ability is the toughest test this trio has experienced in 2016.
2. Florida State’s Secondary Against Miami QB Brad Kaaya
Despite losing standout cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Florida State was still projected to have one of the nation’s best defensive backfields in 2016. However, this unit hasn’t lived up to those expectations and has struggled mightily through the first five weeks of the season. The Seminoles rank last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, have surrendered 10 passing scores and six plays of 40 yards or more. While this unit has struggled, two factors are worth noting. Florida State has played an outstanding slate of quarterbacks so far in 2016, and safety Derwin James – arguably the nation’s best defensive back – is sidelined with a knee injury. The assignment won’t get any easier for the Seminoles on Saturday. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is off to a fast start under new coach Mark Richt, throwing for 935 yards and eight touchdowns and completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Kaaya has the necessary skill set and talent to be a high pick in the NFL Draft and has benefited from the addition of Richt as the team’s play-caller. Miami isn’t deep at receiver, but Stacy Coley (14.1 ypc) and Ahmmon Richards (22.4 ypc) and tight end David Njoku will test the Florida State secondary.
Will Kaaya add to the Seminoles’ struggles against the pass on Saturday night? Or will the secondary find a way to tighten up the coverage against Coley, Richards and Njoku? One area Florida State could help its pass defense is by disrupting Kaaya’s timing at the line of scrimmage. The Seminoles have generated 16 sacks, including 6.5 from DeMarcus Walker. The Hurricanes have only surrendered two sacks through four games but have yet to be tested by a standout defensive line. This group is under the microscope on Saturday night.
3. Miami’s Ground Attack and FSU QB Deondre Francois
Most of the pregame attention for this matchup is going to be on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook and Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya. However, two x-factors – Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois and the Miami running backs – are going to play a huge role in this game.
Similar to the secondary, Florida State’s front seven has experienced its share of issues through the first month of the season. The Seminoles rank 12th in the ACC against the run and opponents are generating 5.2 yards per carry. Those numbers are skewed a bit by the 314 yards Louisville posted and the 290 USF recorded in a 55-35 Florida State blowout victory. However, one of the underrated elements about Miami’s 4-0 start has been a deep backfield and a ground attack averaging 6.99 yards per rush. Mark Walton leads the way with 445 yards, and Joseph Yearby chips in 7.3 yards per carry (321 yards this season). Will this duo continue to have success and help Kaaya keep the offense out of third-and-long situations?
Francois has experienced a few ups and downs in his first season of action but has passed for 1,323 yards and seven scores so far. The redshirt freshman threw for 419 yards in the win over Ole Miss and connected on 20 passes for 372 yards in last week’s two-point loss against North Carolina. Francois has only played in two road games, but his lowest passing yardage (101 against Louisville and 169 against USF) both took place on the road. Pass protection (16 sacks allowed) has been an issue at times for Florida State. However, if Francois has time to throw, he should be able to make plays against a Miami secondary ranked second in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. While the Hurricanes rank as one of the best in the conference against the pass, none of the three FBS offenses faced so far – FAU, Appalachian State and Georgia Tech – rank better than 90th nationally against the pass.
These two teams have played their share of tight games and produced plenty of memorable moments in this rivalry. The last two meetings between the Seminoles and Hurricanes were decided by five points or less, and there’s plenty at stake for in-state bragging rights and recruiting. Florida State’s loss to North Carolina adds to a disappointing start, but this one still means plenty to the Seminoles. Picking a 30-27 result might be too low considering the offensive firepower on both sidelines. However, the guess here is Miami’s defense allows a couple of big plays to Cook and Francois, which is just to enough to outduel Kaaya and the Hurricane offense.