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Florida State vs. North Carolina Football Prediction and Preview

Sam Howell, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Sam Howell and the Tar Heels look to avenge last season's upset loss when they host the Seminoles on Saturday

Florida State finally got in the win column last week. On the 45th anniversary of legendary head coach Bobby Bowden's first win as FSU head coach, the Seminoles slipped past Syracuse 33-30 on a last-second field goal for the first victory since his passing. FSU avoided its first-ever home loss to the Orange and this week, it'll try to avoid another first — losing to Mack Brown.

The North Carolina head coach played running back for FSU from 1971 to 1973 but has never defeated the Seminoles as a head coach. In stints at Tulane and North Carolina, Brown is 0-10 against his alma mater. North Carolina was ranked No. 5 last season when it fell to the Seminoles in Tallahassee, 31-28.

The Tar Heels began the 2021 season ranked in the top 10 but are now 3-2 as they prepare to host the Seminoles on Saturday. At 2-2 in conference, Saturday is probably a must-win if North Carolina is to stay alive in the ACC Coastal race. FSU is just 1-4 and looking to win ACC games in consecutive weeks for the first time in more than two years.

Florida State at North Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -17.5

When Florida State Has the Ball

Quarterback Jordan Travis returned to the starting lineup in last week's win over Syracuse and made plays with his arm and his legs. Travis threw two touchdown passes last week but is a far bigger threat on the ground. He holds the FSU career record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Last season, Travis accounted for 298 total yards and three touchdowns in the upset of North Carolina. When it comes to the ground game, Travis will have help.

Running back Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward rank first and second, respectively, in the ACC in yards per carry. The two have combined for nearly 800 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. FSU is one of just three ACC schools averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game. The offensive line and receiving corps have not been points of strength for the Seminoles this season. Wide receivers Ontaria Wilson and Andrew Parchment and tight end Camren McDonald will be the players to watch.

What to expect out of North Carolina's defense from week to week is anyone's guess. The Tar Heels have held three opponents to 17 or fewer points this year. The other two combined for 84. Statistically, North Carolina is in the middle of the pack of the ACC in both total and scoring defense. When it comes to rushing the passer, defensive end Myles Murphy and linebackers Tomon Fox and Kaimon Rucker have combined for eight of the team's 11 sacks.

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Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel leads the team in tackles. However, the secondary may be the strength of this defense. Cornerback Tony Grimes is one of the ACC's best in man coverage. Ja'Qurious Conley and Trey Morrison have each made plays early on in 2021. Conley leads the team with two interceptions while Morrison owns the team's only non-offensive touchdown. It is worth noting that Virginia's Brennan Armstrong passed for 554 yards and four touchdowns against North Carolina earlier this season.

When North Carolina Has the Ball

While Travis has set FSU rushing records from the quarterback position, Sam Howell may be the best quarterback ever to play at North Carolina. Once a Florida State commitment, Howell has bounced back nicely since a rough opener against Virginia Tech and ranks in the top 15 nationally in passing yards, yards per pass attempt, touchdown passes, and passer rating. He's also rushed for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns. Howell was never a question mark for the Tar Heels, but how they would replace the likes of Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown, and Dazz Newsome was.

Those questions have been answered this season in the form of running back Ty Chandler and wide receiver Josh Downs. Chandler has anchored the ground game with 423 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry. Downs leads the ACC with 40 receptions and 620 receiving yards. He also ranks in the top five nationally in both categories. His six touchdown receptions are second to Pittsburgh's Jordan Addison nine in the conference. In the red zone, tight end Kamari Morales is someone FSU will have to keep an eye on. North Carolina ranks in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense.

It's probably fair to say that Florida State's defense is improved this season, but it still does not play well or consistently for an extended period of time. Transfers Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas have been key pieces to an FSU pass rush that has already exceeded last season's sack total. Amari Gainer and Kalen DeLoach headline an improved linebacking corps, but where FSU has really struggled is in the secondary. Jammie Robinson, yet another transfer, has emerged as a solid tackler for the Seminoles, but the problem has been in coverage.

The Seminoles have routinely blown coverages this season and that was again evident late last week against Syracuse. Travis Jay leads the team with two interceptions, but he and Jarvis Brownlee have been picked on quite a bit. FSU ranks just 12th in the ACC in passing defense and has allowed more touchdown passes than any other team in the conference. This week, the Seminoles will see the best pro prospect behind center that they've seen all year in Howell. The Tar Heels' signal-caller threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns but did have an interception returned for a touchdown by FSU defensive end Joshua Kaindoh in last season's matchup.

Final Analysis

With the exception of a six-turnover effort at Wake Forest, Florida State has been competitive in every game it has played this season. But FSU will need its best defensive effort of the season to keep the Tar Heels at bay for 60 minutes, and so far, the Seminoles haven't shown to be capable of doing so. Since a disappointing start to the season, the North Carolina offense has been clicking. The Tar Heels are inconsistent on defense but would probably need a lot of self-inflicted wounds to lose at home to FSU.

Prediction: North Carolina 41, Florida State 24 

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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.