Saturday's ACC contest in Tallahassee between Louisville and Florida State will feature two teams heading in seemingly different directions. Since a rough first half of a season-opening loss to Ole Miss in Atlanta, Louisville has played 10 solid quarters of football. The Cardinals notched their biggest win of the season last week, thanks to a late interception return for a touchdown in a 42-35 victory over UCF.
The Cardinals are now 2-1 and will visit a Florida State team that is 0-3 for the first time since 1976 – legendary Bobby Bowden's first season as head coach. After dropping a heartbreaker to Notre Dame and suffering its first-ever loss to an FCS team in Jacksonville State, FSU was embarrassed by Wake Forest to open ACC play.
Louisville rebounded from two straight hard-fought losses to FSU with a 48-16 rout of the Seminoles last season. FSU won the last meeting between the teams in Tallahassee in 2019 with two fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 35-24 victory. A victory would give Louisville its best four-game start since 2017. FSU hasn't started 0-4 since a 1-10 campaign way back in 1974.
Louisville at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisville -1.5
When Louisville Has the Ball
Prone to turnovers in the past, quarterback Malik Cunningham has given Louisville a stellar and gritty effort so far this season. Playing in noticeable pain last week, Cunningham asserted himself as a leader for the Cardinals. Through three games, Cunningham has been intercepted twice but has nine total touchdowns with six of those coming on the ground. Cunningham was stellar in last season's matchup against Florida State with 318 total yards and two touchdown passes. Cunningham will serve as a key complement to leading rusher Jalen Mitchell in the ground game.
Despite losing the likes of Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick at wide receiver and Mekhi Becton on the offensive line, Louisville has been solid in both of those areas so far this season. Ahmari Huggins-Bruce has yet to score, but he has averaged nearly 25 yards per catch with a long of 93 yards this season. He leads the Cardinals with seven catches for 174 yards, while tight end Marshon Ford has also been reliable with a team-high 13 catches for 156 yards and a score. The offensive line, led by center Cole Bentley, has allowed just four sacks so far this season.
Pressure will be a necessity for Florida State on Saturday. The defense has still had its struggles, but the pass rush is clearly the biggest area of improvement. Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson enters Saturday's contest leading the ACC with 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. Defensive tackle Robert Cooper and end Keir Thomas, a South Carolina transfer, have been also been assets to the FSU front.
At linebacker, Amari Gainer had his best game of the year last week with 2.5 tackles for a loss. The problem for FSU has been a position that appears to have a lot of depth and that's in the secondary. Cornerbacks Jarvis Brownlee and Travis Jay have particularly struggled and FSU has not gotten great play from its safeties. The Seminoles allow the most passing yards per game and most yards per pass attempt in the ACC. If FSU is to turn its season around, that must change.
When Florida State Has the Ball
At quarterback for Florida State, Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton have each seen action this season. Last week, Travis was clearly the better of the two signal-callers but left the 35-14 loss to Wake Forest with an apparent shoulder injury, and his status for Saturday is unknown. Travis actually began his collegiate career at Louisville while Milton's return to action has been one of the feel-good stories in college football this season. Milton nearly lost his leg after a devastating injury while playing at UCF late in the 2018 season. Over the last two contests, however, Milton has not played like the player who once finished in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting.
Last week's effort was not great, but FSU has been a pretty good rushing team this season. Jashaun Corbin opened the season with a pair of 100-yard games, and Treshaun Ward has been a nice complementary back. In last season's blowout loss to Louisville, Lawrance Toafili shined with 76 rushing yards on just six carries. The FSU offensive line continues to be a liability and the Seminoles have struggled to find a go-to wide receiver. Ontaria Wilson had the best receiving day by a Florida State player this season against Wake Forest with 91 yards and a touchdown.
Statistically, Louisville is among the worst defenses in the ACC, although it has faced two of the nation's best offenses in Ole Miss and UCF. Pass protection has not been a strong point for FSU, but Louisville has just five sacks through three games. Among ACC schools, only Duke, Georgia Tech and NC State have fewer. Two of those sacks belong to Yasir Abdullah. Monty Montgomery led the team last season with four sacks, but he has yet to get to the quarterback this season.
C.J. Avery is an experienced linebacker and arguably the leader of the defense for Louisville. The leading tackler thus far has been safety Kenderick Duncan Jr. Fellow defensive back Kei'Trel Clark recorded two interceptions in the Week 2 victory against FCS Eastern Kentucky, and last week, freshman linebacker Jaylin Alderman saved the day with the game-winning interception return for a touchdown with 13 seconds left against UCF. If there's another area where Louisville should have the advantage on Saturday, it's on special teams. Braden Smith is a dynamic punt returner, and kicker James Turner was 13-for-15 on field goal attempts last season.
Returning home should allow Florida State to play with a little more confidence this week. Since a rough first half against Ole Miss, however, Louisville has been a pretty good football team. As long as Cunningham plays turnover-free, he should again have another big day against the FSU secondary. For the Seminoles to like their chances, they have to be able to run the football and find a way to get off the field on third down. Opponents have converted 43 percent of their third downs against FSU this season. When all is said and done, the Cardinals are a better football team.
Prediction: Louisville 34, Florida State 30
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.