Seminoles, Sun Devils tangle in El Paso
After 41 straight winning seasons, Florida State will look to avoid its second straight losing campaign as the Seminoles spend the New Year in El Paso to face Arizona State in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.
Some big names will be missing offensively, but the contest should be relatively competitive. The Sun Devils (7-5) will aim for their first bowl win under second-year head coach Herm Edwards. FSU (6-6) fired head coach Willie Taggart in early November and will be guided by interim Odell Haggins. Haggins is 4-1 as an interim head coach and led the Seminoles to their last bowl win — a 42-13 victory over Southern Miss two years ago in the Independence Bowl following Jimbo Fisher's departure for Texas A&M.
The contest will be the fifth meeting between the schools, but the first since 1984. FSU is 3-1 all-time against Arizona State, but lost the only bowl meeting. The Sun Devils topped the Seminoles 45-38 in the Fiesta Bowl to cap the 1971 season. Arizona State is 3-2-1 all-time in the Sun Bowl while FSU is 0-2.
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl: Florida State (6-6) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)
Spread: Arizona State -4
When Florida State Has the Ball
Florida State will be without its best offensive player on Tuesday as running back Cam Akers has set his eyes on the NFL draft. With Khalan Laborn undergoing surgery and Anthony Grant away from the program, FSU will be without a scholarship running back and will likely rely heavily on quarterbacks James Blackman and Jordan Travis. Blackman had an up-and-down redshirt sophomore season but finished the regular season ranked fourth in the ACC in passer rating with 16 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Travis, a redshirt freshman and Louisville transfer, didn’t see a snap until the Nov. 9 contest against Boston College but has become an intricate part of the offense. In just three games this season, Travis has 170 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries. The best offensive player on the field for FSU will be redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tamorrion Terry, who became the first Seminole to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark since Rashad Greene in 2014.
The FSU offensive line has been a disaster for a few years now, but among Pac-12 schools, only Arizona has fewer sacks than Arizona State. Linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas leads the team in that category with 4.5. As a whole however, the Sun Devils have been pretty good on defense. They rank fifth in the Pac-12 in both scoring and total defense.
Other key defensive players for Arizona State defensively include linebacker Darien Butler, safeties Evan Fields and Aashari Crosswell and cornerback Jack Jones. Butler and Fields both have 77 total tackles this season. Butler and Croswell both have three forced fumbles. Jones leads the team with three interceptions.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Arizona State has a dynamic freshman quarterback in Jayden Daniels. Daniels has more than 3,000 total yards this season and 17 touchdown passes compared to just two interceptions but will be without his top two offensive weapons on Tuesday. Running back Eno Benjamin and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk will both sit out the Sun Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. That's a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver missing in action for the Sun Devils.
With Benjamin out, Arizona State may lean on Daniels to fuel the ground game. The Sun Devils do not have another back with as many as 50 rushing yards this season. Out wide, Frank Darby has nearly 600 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions. His 21.3 yards per catch ranked third in the country entering the bowl season.
An FSU defense that was not very good this season will be shorthanded on Tuesday. Defensive tackle Marvin Wilson missed the final few weeks of the season and in the Seminoles’ 40-17 loss at Florida to close the regular season, leading tackler and safety Hamsah Nasirildeen went down with a leg injury. With those two out, FSU will need to rely on a defensive line that includes end Janarius Robinson and tackle Cory Durden to have a big game.
FSU has been gashed recently in the secondary, but sophomore Asante Samuel Jr. is the best cover man for the Seminoles. Linebacker Amari Gainer and defensive back Akeem Dent are a couple of promising young players who could be difference-makers on Tuesday.
Arizona State looks to have the edge on special teams as Michael Turk comes in leading the Pac-12 in punting at more than 46 yards per boot. Kicker Christian Zendejas is 19-for-23 on field goals this season for the Sun Devils and 4-for-7 from 40 yards and beyond. FSU’s Ricky Aguayo finished just 7-for-13 in the regular season while walk-on punter Tommy Martin ranked last in the ACC in punting average at just 39 yards per punt.
With the game’s top playmakers out, it seems like defense would dominate, but Blackman and Daniels are both capable of making big-time throws down the field. FSU is depleted defensively while Arizona State has done an above-average job of keeping teams off the scoreboard. The Sun Devils have also been adept this season at forcing turnovers as only Oregon has more among Pac-12 schools. They also have a significant advantage on special teams.
Prediction: Arizona State 34, Florida State 24