The bitter Sunshine State rivalry between Miami and Florida State will be renewed in Tallahassee on Saturday in a key ACC showdown for both teams. The Seminoles have won seven in a row in this series, but the Hurricanes are a slight favorite and will be looking for their first win in Doak Campbell Stadium since 2009. Prior to the season, this game was pegged as a potential preview for the ACC Championship Game. However, with Florida State already at two losses, it’s unlikely coach Jimbo Fisher’s team will reach Charlotte in early December. Miami is still looking to win its first Coastal Division title, and a win here would certainly be a step in that direction for coach Mark Richt’s team.
Florida State got a much-needed victory last Saturday against Wake Forest. However, it certainly wasn’t easy for the Seminoles, as the offense scored the winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining. Florida State lost to Alabama 24-7 in the opener in Atlanta, but the loss on the scoreboard wasn’t the only setback for Fisher. Quarterback Deondre Francois was lost for the year due to injury, prompting true freshman James Blackman to make his first career start against NC State on Sept. 23. The Seminoles fell to the Wolfpack 27-21 but earned their first win against Wake Forest last week to enter this matchup at 1-2.
After a 9-4 debut at his alma mater last season, Mark Richt has Miami trending up for 2017. The Hurricanes are 3-0 so far and defeated Duke 31-6 in the ACC opener last week. Richt’s team has a standout defense in place (16.3 ppg), and the offense seems to get better with each snap under new quarterback Malik Rosier. Additionally, with a standout recruiting class in place for 2018, the future of this program is in great shape. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt Richt’s pitch on the recruiting trail to earn a win over Florida State on Saturday.
Miami holds a 31-30 series edge over Florida State. However, as mentioned previously, the Seminoles have dominated in recent years with seven consecutive victories over the Hurricanes. Three out of the last five games between these two teams have been decided by five points or less.
Miami at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Miami -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State’s Offensive Line
The biggest question mark on Florida State’s offense (until the injury to Francois) was its line. And through the first three games, it’s clear the Seminoles still have some issues in the trenches. In last week’s victory against Wake Forest, this line allowed 17 tackles for a loss and five sacks. A couple of linemen were banged up throughout the game, so it’s tough to pin all of the problems on just performance. However, this wasn’t a one-game blip. Florida State is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and is giving up an average of four sacks per game – the most of any team in the ACC. Through three games, the Seminoles have allowed 12 sacks but have played three standout defensive fronts – Alabama, NC State and Wake Forest.
After struggling with pass protection and run blocking so far this year, the task for Florida State’s offensive line isn’t going to get any easier on Saturday. Miami’s defensive line is also among the best in the nation. This unit is anchored by ends Chad Thomas, Trent Harris and Joe Jackson, with 312-pound tackle Kendrick Norton anchoring the interior. Through three games, the Hurricanes have generated 11 sacks, with Harris (2.5) and tackle RJ McIntosh (two) leading the way. Miami is also limiting opposing rushers to just 3.5 yards per play and has allowed one rushing score on 111 attempts in 2017.
Can Florida State’s offensive line perform better than it did last week versus Wake Forest and handle the front four of Miami? As a true freshman, Blackman already has a lot of pressure on his shoulders and plenty to learn. One way to alleviate some of that pressure? Establish the run. So far, that’s been a challenge for Florida State. Jacques Patrick has 162 yards through three games, and impact freshman Cam Akers has just 144. In addition to pass protection, this unit has to open up a few holes on the ground and keep the offense out of third-and-long or obvious passing downs.
2. Florida State QB James Blackman
As a true freshman replacing one of college football’s top 20 quarterbacks, Blackman has inherited one of the toughest assignments for any player in 2017. Due to Hurricane Irma and the cancelation of a matchup against ULM, Blackman had no opportunity to get a game under his belt before ACC play started against NC State. As expected, Blackman has played well at times and also showcased his inexperience. The true freshman completed 22 of 38 passes for 278 yards and a touchdown versus the Wolfpack but only connected on 11 of 21 passes for 121 yards and a score against Wake Forest last Saturday. Additionally, 83 of his 121 yards came on two plays, which meant the other nine completions accounted for a meager 38 yards.
Winning Saturday’s game isn’t going to rest solely on Blackman’s play for Florida State. The freshman has been careful through the air (no picks on 59 attempts) but also needs more help from the ground game and offensive line. If Blackman has time to throw, there are plays to be made against Miami’s secondary, which is the weak link of a group allowing just 16.3 points a game. The Hurricanes allowed 344 yards to Toledo on Sept. 23, and the Seminoles can counter with a trio of talented options, including Auden Tate (13 catches), Keith Gavin (12) and Nyqwan Murray (10).
Blackman doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards on Saturday night, but he needs to play mistake-free and efficient ball for Florida State to win. Will the freshman rebound after a shaky road performance against Wake Forest? Will Fisher get him more involved on runs early in the game to get some the nerves in a rivalry game out of the way? All eyes in Tallahassee will be watching how Blackman plays in this matchup.
3. Miami’s Offense Against Florida State’s Defense
It’s a small sample size (three games), but Miami leads the ACC in scoring offense (41.3 ppg). After Brad Kaaya’s early departure to the NFL, Malik Rosier edged N’Kosi Perry and Evan Shirreffs for the starting quarterback job this offseason. So far, Rosier has been solid under center, completing 59 of 90 passes for 820 yards and eight touchdowns to just two picks. He’s also added 97 yards and two scores on the ground. While there are some kinks still be ironed out, Rosier’s play has only added to a unit that features a promising group of playmakers at receiver, along with running back Mark Walton. The junior has rushed for 403 yards and three touchdowns through three games and is expected to play after dealing with an ankle injury the last two weeks. When Rosier looks to pass, Braxton Berrios (10 catches) has been his favorite wide receiver, but sophomore Ahmmon Richards returned to action last Friday against Duke after missing the first two weeks due to a hamstring injury.
Florida State’s defense went into 2017 with potential to be one of the best in the nation. However, three games into the season, the Seminoles haven’t played up to that level. This unit ranks eighth in the ACC by giving up 23.3 points per game, seventh against the run and eighth in yards per play allowed (5.03). Also, the pass rush has been lacking (just five sacks) and opponents are completing 66.3 percent of their throws against the secondary. With standout defenders like end Josh Sweat, tackle Derrick Nnadi, linebacker Matthew Thomas, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and safety Derwin James returning for 2017, it’s surprising to see where this unit ranks after September.
Miami’s offense has scored at least 31 points in all three games this season. Will Florida State’s defense deliver with its best performance of the year? Or will the Seminoles continue to underachieve? Rosier presents a different challenge than Florida State has seen in recent years from Miami, as he’s a better runner than Kaaya. Additionally, the Hurricanes have made progress up front, allowing Walton to average a whopping 9.2 yards per carry through the first three games. Even though Rosier has passed all of his tests so far, it’s probably correct to assume the Seminoles would rather keep Walton in check and force Miami to win this one through the air.
Expect another close one in Tallahassee. Everything about this game says to take Miami. The Hurricanes are better on defense right now, and the offense is averaging nearly four yards per play more than Florida State’s through Week 5. The Seminoles have to find a way to provide more protection for Blackman on passing downs and clear the way for Akers and Patrick to generate a consistent push on the ground. Even though Florida State is a little shorthanded, Miami is going to get all it can handle (and plenty more). Fisher shouldn’t need to provide any motivation for his team: Florida State is a home underdog to a program it has beat seven years in a row. The series trends say to take the Seminoles, but it’s hard to pick against Miami with the edge at quarterback and the line of scrimmage matchup on defense.