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The numbers love Miami's chances vs. Florida State. Can Canes seize opportunity?

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The Hurricanes have played like a nearly-elite team in recent weeks. Are they ready for a breakthrough in the spotlight, or will 2.5-point favorite FSU add yet another to its streak? (8 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC.)

There's always a team that seems out of place.

In 2011's F/+ rankings, 9-4 Florida State was 10th, 8-5 Notre Dame was 13th, and 7-6 Texas A&M was 15th. In 2012, 8-5 Oklahoma State ranked 13th, 7-6 Michigan State was 15th, and 8-6 Wisconsin was 16th. In 2013, 10-4 USC and 10-4 Arizona State were 11th and 13th, respectively, ahead of 12-2 Missouri and 11-2 Clemson.

Because of the general zaniness of 2014, some seem out of place in the current rankings. By virtue of having played each other, No. 2 Ole Miss, No. 5 Auburn, and No. 10 LSU have combined for seven losses. That much, we can understand.

It's more difficult to explain No. 12 Miami. The Hurricanes lost by a combined 39 points to Louisville, Nebraska, and Georgia Tech, but Miami ranks ahead of No. 14 Nebraska (8-1), No. 16 Arizona State (8-1), and No. 21 Notre Dame (7-2), and the other two teams it lost to. How?

1. Returns and bad timing

The scoring margin may not have been close, but the yardage in all three of Miami's losses was tight.

In Louisville's 31-13 Week 1 win, the Cardinals outgained the Hurricanes by 4.7 yards per play to 4.4. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, playing in his first game against what would turn out to be one of football's best defenses, threw a couple of interceptions. In six trips inside the Louisville 40, Miami came out with one touchdown, two field goals, two turnovers, and a turnover on downs. Plus, Louisville returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That's not a replicable recipe.

Three weeks later in Lincoln, a very good Nebraska held off the Hurricanes, 41-31, in part because of a 57-yard fumble return touchdown. The yards-per-play margin was Nebraska 6.8, Miami 6.7. Kaaya threw interceptions from the Nebraska 28 and 35, and Duke Johnson lost a fumble at the Nebraska 43.

Miami managed to lose to Georgia Tech despite outgaining the Ramblin' Wreck, 8 yards per play to 5.2. Tech's tremendous option offense, currently second in Off. F/+, was able to play keep-away, snapping the ball 72 times to Miami's 44. And with the game shrunk down to seven real possessions each, a pair of failed Miami opportunities (Kaaya threw picks from the Tech 10 and 27) basically counted double.

Failing to score when you have the chance isn't bad luck. It can be endemic; just ask Stanford, which ranks 120th in Points Per Scoring Opportunity. Sometimes you just stink at turning opportunities into points.

But Miami doesn't. It isn't a strength -- the Hurricanes rank 41st in the category -- but outside of those losses, Miami's been solid. That the failures were bunched into those specific games reeks of randomness. Throw in some ill-timed return touchdowns, and you have losses that would be tough to replicate.

One would expect freshman mistakes from Kaaya, and most came in those games. He has five scores to six picks in the three losses, and 15 touchdowns to three interceptions in six wins. He wasn't efficient in Miami's 30-6 win over Virginia Tech's No. 5 defense, but he was mostly mistake-free. Since the Georgia Tech loss, he has seven touchdowns to zero interceptions.

2. The defense is coming around

In Al Golden's first three years, the offense had impressive moments. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in Off. F/+ in 2011 and 12nd in 2013, thanks to big-play ability. They potentially had a top-five offense last year until star Johnson was lost for the season in the Florida State game. With Johnson healthy, they rank 10th, which is impressive with a true-freshman quarterback, but isn't out of character.

What is out of character is the defense ranking 18th in Def. F/+. From 2011-13, Miami ranked 73rd, 88th, and 91st. The defense had held Miami back; the Hurricanes lost nine games in 2012-13, allowing at least 33 points in eight and at least 41 in six.

The national average for yards per play hovers around 5.8. Miami has allowed more than 5.2 once in 2014 -- 6.8 against Nebraska's No. 33 offense. Georgia Tech (No. 2) managed 5.2. Four other top-50 offenses (UNC, Louisville, Cincinnati, Duke) combined for a paltry 4.2.

The strength is big-play prevention; the Hurricanes rank fourth in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of an opponent's successful plays. Basically, the Hurricanes allow smaller big plays than almost anybody else. You can credit one of the nation's more underrated linebacking corps -- Denzel Perryman, Thurston Armbrister, Jermaine Grace, and Raphael Kirby -- for that.

Golden stuck with defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio despite iffy years, and it appears to be paying off. And defensive experience is finally not a weakness. Of the 26 players on Miami's two-deep, six are seniors and 11 are juniors.

3. So what does that mean?

This says good things about Miami's prospects in 2015. What does it say for Miami's chances of upsetting Florida State Saturday?

Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles come to town a wounded champion, winners of 25 straight and 37 of 39. But injuries, inexperience, and flaws have led to near-disaster. In 14 wins in 2013, one came by fewer than 14 points and two by fewer than 27. This fall, only one win has come by more than 27, six by 15 or fewer, and three by one score.

The Seminoles have relied on late-game play-making to remain undefeated, but just as Miami's losses have been of the hard-to-replicate variety, so have a few of FSU's wins. You can only get away with spotting opponents double-digit leads so many times before an opponent finishes the job. The stats see this; despite the 9-0 record, FSU ranks ninth in the F/+ ratings, three spots ahead of Miami.

Caveats apply. FSU's offense got dinged when Jameis Winston was suspended for the Clemson game; the Seminoles still rank fourth in Off. F/+. The defense has suffered statistically from the fact that Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh got injured soon after the FSU game, and the Cowboys' offense has fallen into a tailspin in his absence. Without these two issues, it's possible FSU would rank at least seventh.

Still, FSU is winning. The Seminoles have made the plays that the Hurricanes haven't in do-or-die moments. "Some teams just know how to win" is a stat-unfriendly statement, but -- some teams just know how to win. FSU has one of the nation's best coaches and the reigning Heisman winner.

This might come down to which team "knows how to win," but specific matchups will play decisive roles.

Playoff projections

4. FSU vs. The Duke

Kaaya is maturing. But the biggest reason why Miami's offense has been strong despite the first-year signal caller is the guy who shares the backfield.

Johnson rushed 20 times for 90 yards in the loss to Louisville. In the eight games since, he has only once averaged fewer than 6.2 per carry (5.2 against Nebraska). In his last five games, he has carried 97 times for 843 yards, a ridiculous 8.7 per carry. In his last three, he's carried 58 times for 588 yards (10.1).

You can run on Florida State. Severe injury issues at tackle and linebacker have made the Seminoles far less imposing up front. Star end Mario Edwards Jr. and tackle Eddie Goldman, who have had their own nagging injuries, have only been able to pick up the slack so much.

FSU ranks a staggering 91st in Rushing S&P+. One assumes the Seminoles will load up against Johnson and force Kaaya to beat them. But everybody gears up to stop Johnson. Nobody has done so since September. And if you stick too many defenders in the box, Kaaya could find spaces for throwing to all-or-nothing receiver Phillip Dorsett (37 targets, 19 catches, 572 yards, 6 TD) or efficiency options like tight end Clive Walford and wideouts Herb Walters and Braxton Berrios.

When you've got a player as good as Johnson, less-than-elite defenses take risks. FSU's defense has been far less than elite.

5. Miami vs. big plays

Winston has spent a good portion of the season frustrated. He has wideout Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary, two of the best in the country, at his disposal. But his other options are underclassmen, and miscommunication has been at the heart of a few of Winston's 11 interceptions.

The freshmen have picked up their games as of late. Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane had long touchdowns against Louisville, and running back Dalvin Cook chipped in a long touchdown run. FSU's offense has been more efficient than explosive overall, but that has shifted.

Now the Seminoles take on one of the country's best defenses at big-play prevention. Can FSU stay efficient if the big-play spigot is off?

6. Miami vs. the goal line

Miami has struggled to finish drives in its losses. While it hasn't been a weakness on the year, it hasn't been a strength, either. It's a strength for FSU.

Points Per Scoring Opportunity*
Offense Defense Margin
Florida State 5.1 (13th) 3.9 (33rd) +1.2 (11th)
Miami 4.7 (41st) 4.2 (55th) +0.5 (41st)

* A scoring opportunity is defined as a drive that includes a first down inside the opponent's 40.

The Seminoles are still elite, or close to it, when points are on the line. Can Kaaya avoid the mistakes that have doomed the Hurricanes? Can Miami's defense stiffen better than it has? Miami isn't going to beat the Seminoles if it fails near the goal line again.


Golden walked into a tough situation, coming to Miami in time to deal with fresh NCAA sanctions. On paper, he has brought stability and recruiting, but early losses prevented any demonstrative breakthrough in 2014. Saturday offers Golden's squad its most realistic opportunity to prove it's on the right track.

Taking down a huge rival that has won 25 straight would be a way to make a statement. Can the Hurricanes pull it off, or will we still be defending them with "on paper, they were pretty good" this offseason?