2011 Season Preview: Strategies, Tactics And The Florida State Seminoles

TALLAHASSEE FL - NOVEMBER 27: E.J. Manuel #3 of the Florida State Seminoles looks for a play from the sidelines during a game against the Florida Gators at Doak Campbell Stadium on November 27 2010 in Tallahassee Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Florida State won ten games and a division crown for the first time in five years last fall. In 2011, they are expected to do even more. Jimbo Fisher's strategy is in place; can he find the tactics to officially put the Seminoles back into college football's ruling class?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In chess, there are strategies, and there are tactics. Strategies are general approaches to life -- arranging the board to accommodate for your favored tactics. They are long-term approaches you put in place because you think they give you the best chance to succeed. Tactics, meanwhile, are short-term. Forks, skewers, etc.

For all intents and purposes, football is chess with muscle, chess in which the pieces have minds and bodies of their own and are only sometimes able to do as they're told. In football, you don't win by removing opposing pieces from the field -- you just better them.

Like chess, football usually boils down to strategies and tactics in the end (unless, as is often the case, one team's talent and athleticism is too great for the other, like they're starting with more pieces on the board). Who you decide to place on the field, and where you place them, constitutes strategy. 4-3 defense? 3-4? 3-3-5? Spread offense? Pro-style? Wishbone? Your strategies are your "base, core plays," your approach, your mindset. Tactics, then, are what you actually do once you have established your strategy: Who do you use to blitz and when? When (and how often) do you call your constraint plays to complement your base plays? You put yourself in position to win with strategy; you win with tactics.

In Jimbo Fisher's first season as Florida State head coach, the Seminoles' defense improved tremendously at the strategic level. Fisher and his staff took a bunch of well-recruited, one-time blue-chippers, players who had underachieved in the waning years of Bobby Bowden's legendary tenure, and they made them bigger and angrier. Fisher chose to bulk his players up quite a bit, especially on the defensive side of the ball (a strategic choice that paid off given the players' inherent athleticism -- they were bigger and stronger, but still fast enough to make plays), and he filled his offensive and defensive staff with what we will conservatively call good motivators.

The upgrade in size and intensity alone made a significant difference. FSU's Def. F/+ ranking rose from a staggering 107th in 2009 to 41st in 2010, and despite an offense that regressed slightly, their win total rose from an average of 7.6 over the last five years to ten, complete with their first division title in five seasons.

To take the next step forward, as many have predicted them to do in 2011, the 'Noles will now have to upgrade tactically. Size, athleticism, speed and anger will take you pretty far in college football, but to go as far as they are expected, this is the next step.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 13-1 | Final F/+ Rk**: 15
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Samford 59-6 W 42.9 - 28.7 W
11-Sep at Oklahoma 17-47 L 25.3 - 34.7 L
18-Sep BYU 34-10 W 42.3 - 5.8 W
25-Sep Wake Forest 31-0 W 30.5 - 6.4 W
2-Oct at Virginia 34-14 W 31.5 - 18.0 W
9-Oct at Miami 45-17 W 47.8 - 21.8 W
16-Oct Boston College 24-19 W 33.7 - 15.0 W
28-Oct at N.C. State 24-28 L 32.2 - 26.9 W
6-Nov North Carolina 35-37 L 38.6 - 34.9 W
13-Nov Clemson 16-13 W 29.9 - 24.8 W
20-Nov at Maryland 30-16 W 31.0 - 23.8 W
27-Nov Florida 31-7 W 35.9 - 8.0 W
4-Dec vs Virginia Tech 33-44 L 35.8 - 32.6 W
31-Dec vs South Carolina 26-17 W 25.3 - 17.1 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.4 33 19.6 20
Adj. Points Per Game 34.5 15 21.3 22

Florida State's surge back toward the ruling class was, by any definition, a success. But as is customary, progress comes in fits and starts. The Seminoles looked average, then great, then good, then very good, on their way to ten wins.

First Two Games: FSU 34.1 Adj. PPG, Opps 31.7 (+2.4)
Next Five Games: FSU 37.2, Opps 13.4 (+23.8)
Next Four Games: FSU 32.9, Opps 27.6 (+5.3)
Last Three Games: FSU 32.3, Opps 19.2 (+13.1)

With injuries at the quarterback position, it would have been excusable for the FSU offense to become a little unstable; it was not. In 14 games, their output according to Adj. Points was only twice less than 30.5 and three times over 38.6. Their standard deviation on offense was among the 25 lowest in the country. Their defense, on the other hand, was all over the place. And since only two of the top 18 defenders missed any time at all (two players missed one game each), you cannot blame the deviation on injuries or suspensions.

The primary reason (other than youth), I think, goes back to strategies and tactics. Against lesser opponents, teams Florida State could physically dominate, the defense came up big. They allowed just 16.9 Adj. PPG versus the seven lowest-ranked teams on the schedule. The seven highest-ranked teams, on the other hand, averaged 26.0. Now, to some degree it is supposed to work that way (Good teams do better than bad teams? Rocket science!), but as we'll see in today's Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit, FSU's good-to-bad range was a bit larger than most teams'. The defense was young enough that they still have plenty of time to season and mature, but with the early schedule they're facing in 2011 (Oklahoma, @Clemson in Games 3-4), the sooner that maturation occurs, the better.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 8 9 7
RUSHING 5 17 2 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 11 8 21 18
Standard Downs 16 19 14 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 3 4 3 65
Redzone 14 11 15
Q1 Rk 18 1st Down Rk 17
Q2 Rk 5 2nd Down Rk 8
Q3 Rk 18 3rd Down Rk 6
Q4 Rk 11

It's almost boring to talk about the Florida State offense. They ran when you're supposed to run, passed when you're supposed to pass (with some very well-timed draw plays), took their time at the line of scrimmage, executed at a high level no matter who lined up at quarterback, ranked 21st or better in almost every major category ... they were just good. They handled an incredible slate of defenses -- Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, etc. -- as well as almost anybody in the country would have.

In fact, since FSU was solid in almost every area, let's focus on the two main areas that could be causes for concern:

1. Sacks. Despite the loss of two four-year starters (including All-America guard Rodney Hudson), the Florida State offensive line returns 109 career starts, one of the highest totals in the country. This was a Top 20 unit in terms of run-blocking, but the 27 sacks they allowed on 392 pass attempts by quarterbacks Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel (a 6.9% sack rate) were a bit much. Granted, a higher proportion of these sacks came against Ponder, who is now a Minnesota Viking; but this was by far FSU's biggest weakness, and it will remain a question mark until proven otherwise.

2. Passing Downs. I've long said that standard downs are gameplanning downs, passing downs are playmaking downs. When you achieve at a higher level on passing downs than standard downs (FSU ranked third in Passing Downs S&P+, 16th on Standard Downs) and you lose your starting quarterback, things often go awry quickly. Ponder took some sacks along the way, but he was outstanding at making something happen on second- or third-and-long. Manuel has all sorts of potential, but Ponder's departure raises a red flag in this regard.

The biggest question mark on passing downs, however, might not be at quarterback; it might be at receiver. FSU's was a high-efficiency, low-explosiveness attack, relatively speaking, and with the departure of Taiwan Easterling to professional baseball, FSU returns only one wide receiver who averaged even 8.0 yards per target last year: Willie Haulstead (587 yards, 15.4 per catch, 63% catch rate, 6 TD). Bert Reed (614 yards, 10.6 per catch, 62% catch rate, 2 TD) and tight end Beau Reliford (198 yards, 11.6 per catch, 71% catch rate, 1 TD) are prototypical possession options, but big plays might need to come from either Haulstead or the less consistent Rodney Smith (448 yards, 14.5 per catch, 54% catch rate, 3 TD).

Other tidbits:

  • The FSU offense has one of the more underrated running back units in the country. Chris Thompson (845 yards, 6.3 per carry, +11.0 Adj. POE, 6 TD), Ty Jones (527 yards, 6.1 per carry, +10.0 Adj. POE, 5 TD) and Jermaine Thomas (490 yards, 5.7 per carry, +3.0 Adj. POE) all return this fall, and five-star freshman James Wilder, Jr., joins the fray soon. Florida State's run frequency was quite close to the national average, but with this backfield and that offensive line, it might not be a bad idea to run even more. Draw plays were particularly successful for this bunch.
  • Though Ponder was great on passing downs, it bears mentioning that Manuel's raw stats were still damn impressive:

    Christian Ponder: 2,044 yards (62% completion rate, 6.8 per pass), 20 TD (6.7% TD rate), 8 INT (2.7% INT rate); 329 pre-sack rushing yards (-1.2 Adj. POE)

    E.J. Manuel: 861 yards (70% completion rate, 9.3 per pass), 4 TD (4.3% TD rate), 4 INT (4.3% INT rate); 193 pre-sack rushing yards (+0.9 Adj. POE).

    Manuel's style was both more high-risk (higher INT rate) and high-reward (2.5 more yards per pass); we'll see what happens with more experience and maturity.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 32 39 31
RUSHING 40 52 34 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 27 31 25 70
Standard Downs 19 34 13 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 51 35 66 11
Redzone 7 5 12
Q1 Rk 25 1st Down Rk 16
Q2 Rk 16 2nd Down Rk 20
Q3 Rk 75 3rd Down Rk 86
Q4 Rk 23

Though they still had a lot to offer, the Florida State offense actually regressed slightly in 2010; the Seminoles' overall surge took place because of some incredible defensive improvement, particularly in the area of big plays allowed. They improved from 92nd to 31st in PPP+, 97th to 34th in Rushing PPP+ and 79th to 25th in Passing PPP+. (Their biggest improvement came on standard downs: they surged from 104th to 21st in Standard Downs Rushing PPP+ and from 108th to seventh in Standard Downs Passing PPP+.) They still got pushed around a bit against good run blocking (their Adj. Line Yards rankings actually fell slightly), but they were one of the best in the country at getting to the quarterback. In all, there is still some improvement to be made -- if they didn't get to the quarterback on a passing down, they were likely giving up a lengthy gain -- but this defense improved about as much as one possibly can in one season.

Though Florida State was only good on a play-by-play basis, and not great, their ability to prevent big plays and bend without breaking typically eventually paid off. Their ability to go after both the quarterback (11th in Adj. Sack Rate) and the ball (14 forced fumbles, 77 passes defensed) meant that living to play another down gave them more opportunities to make plays, and their stout redzone defense allowed them to turn touchdowns into field goals. For this reason, the Seminoles ranked quite a bit higher in the drive-based DFEI measure (18th) than in the play-based Def. S&P+ (32nd).

In 2011, it appears their strengths should get stronger and, with more experience, their weaknesses might get tamped down a bit. We'll start with the strengths: wow, is their defensive line full of playmakers. You've probably heard of Brandon Jenkins (52.5 tackles, 21.5 TFL/sacks), but FSU returns four other linemen who recorded at least 5.5 tackles for loss in 2010, six who recorded at least 3.0. Ends Bjoern Werner (14.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) and Dan Hicks (15.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) had some moments as a freshman and redshirt freshman, respectively, and a blue-chip junior college end (the wonderfully-named Cornelius Carradine) joins the fray this fall. Meanwhile, the depth at tackle is strong: Everett Dawkins (29.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks), Anthony McCloud (26.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks), Jacobbi McDaniel (23.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) and Demonte McCallister (12.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) all showed playmaking ability. The next step for this unit, of course: consistency. For every play they made, they allowed an easy passing downs conversion or got punctured for a decent gain on the ground. An increase in overall size helped this unit, but size alone is not a cure-all.

Other tidbits:

  • When I see that a team improved in its ability to prevent big plays, my eyes immediately gravitate toward the safety position. You can manage a strong PPP+ without good safeties, but it's difficult. That FSU returns three of their top four safeties -- Nick Moody (61.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU), Terrance Parks (36.5 tackles, 2 FR, 6 PBU), Lamarcus Joyner (20.5 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU as a freshman) -- can only be considered a good thing. Throw in an incoming five-star prospect in Karlos Williams and the return of the top three cornerbacks -- Greg Reid (59.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 14 PBU), Xavier Rhodes (53.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 12 PBU as a redshirt freshman) and Mike Harris (37.0 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PBU) -- and you've got yourself a potentially devastating secondary. Again, all they need is more consistency. The stats are there, now just shore up the poor efficiency.
  • Though the losses from 2010 are minimal, the most significant departures took place at linebacker, where Kendall Smith and Mister Alexander (combined: 125.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks) are both gone. But this is an area where the freshman-to-sophomore leap could reap a whirlwind of production. Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Jeff Luc combined for 35.0 tackles and 5.5 TFL/sacks as true freshmen last year; Smith and Luc were four-star signees in 2010, Jones a five-star, and if two of the three take nice steps forward as sophomores, then with Nigel Bradham (76.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU) still in the mix, the linebackers should be fine. Despite the potential, this is still an 'if,' however.

Florida State's 2010 Season Set to Music

We'll go with one of my favorite songs from 2010: Reflection Eternal's "Back Again."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 23
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 8
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +4 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -5.8

We spend a lot of time at Outsiders warning people about the ills of over-reacting to single-year spikes. It's why we told you Nebraska wasn't a national title contender last year, and it's why we're saying the same thing about Texas A&M this year. But despite their spike in 2010, despite some fumbles and YPP luck, when the college portion of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 comes out (soon! I swear!), you will see Florida State projected in the F.O. top ten. How is this possible? A number of reasons actually.

1. Recruiting has been solid. This has obviously never been a problem with FSU. In fact, the only recruiting-related problem the 'Noles have suffered has been their recent propensity for topping the "biggest underachievers as compared to their recruiting rankings" list. They pretty much owned that list for a while. But their surge last year was fortified by top ten talent, making it infinitely more sustainable.

2. The offense has been good for a while. This wasn't a situation where both the offense and the defense rose from the 60s to the teens. FSU had a top-flight offense in 2009, and they had a (slightly less) top-flight offense in 2010.

3. The surge wasn't actually much of a surge. FSU's four-year F/+ average ranks them in the Top 25; they've finished in the Top 30 in each of the last three years, and last year's "surge" only took them from 29th to 15th. The major difference was, before 2010, this was certainly a "whole less than the sum of its parts" situation. The foundation has always been rather strong.

The biggest issue for FSU in 2011 is quite simply the schedule. They will still be a rather young team in September, when they face off against a Top 5 team in Oklahoma (at home) and a Top 20 team in Clemson (on the road). If the 'Noles are 4-0 at the end of September, then they will almost certainly be 8-0 at the end of October, and things will begin to get very interesting. The pieces on the board are positioned nicely; now it's up to Jimbo Fisher and company to prove they can not only execute strategies at a high level, but they can pull off the tactics to score a checkmate on the Oklahomas and Floridas of the world.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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