The last time Florida State lost a regular season game, it was to an in-state rival at home. Florida took down the Seminoles, 37-26, in November 2012. Since, FSU watched Will Muschamp's Florida tenure fall apart. Now, the Seminoles have the opportunity to all but finish off another rival: Miami's Al Golden.
When FSU and Miami meet on Saturday night at Doak Campbell Stadium, Golden might still have a route to surviving the year with his job intact. But his seat managed to get hotter as his Hurricanes were starting 3-0. And following Miami's frustrating loss to Cincinnati, his firing became a foregone conclusion, at least in the world of fans and analysts.
There is a dwindling number of scenarios wherein Golden keeps his job, but all of them include Miami winning in Tallahassee (and then doing quite a few other things). And the Hurricanes haven't beaten the 'Noles in any locale since 2009, when Randy Shannon's Hurricanes beat Bobby Bowden's Seminoles.
So how does Miami, a 9-point underdog, pull off the upset? What's most likely to trip the Hurricanes up?
Can Miami slow down the run? What if it includes Dalvin Cook?
Sometimes looking at stats requires nuance; sometimes they smack you in the face. Florida State's offense ranks first in Rushing S&P+, and Miami's defense ranks 123rd.
You almost don't need another stat. FSU sophomore Dalvin Cook is averaging 8.6 yards per carry with decent explosiveness (41 percent of his carries gaining at least five yards) and magnificent big-play ability. Of the 99 FBS players to rush at least 60 times so far this season, Cook's explosiveness is second to none.
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Highlight Yards per Opportunity (power-conference rushers)
- Dalvin Cook (13.9)
- Qadree Ollison, Pitt (12.2)
- Markell Jones, Purdue (9.2)
- Leonard Fournette, LSU (8.9)
- Nick Chubb, Georgia (8.9)
Cook is untouchable when he gets to the second level. And while Miami's problems have been tied more to efficiency than explosiveness, they're still allowing backs quite a few open-field opportunities.
Of course, one of the biggest outcomes will happen before the game even starts. Cook injured his hamstring against Wake Forest; his status is day-to-day. With backup Mario Pender out because of a collapsed lung, Cook's absence would mean a lot of opportunities for sophomore Johnathan Vickers and freshman Jacques Patrick, who have combined for 13 carries this year. And if Cook plays, hamstring injuries tamp down your explosiveness.
Even without Cook at 100 percent, FSU's offensive line appears to hold a big edge over Miami's front. FSU has yet to fail in a short-yardage rushing situation, and while the Seminoles do let defenders into the backfield, Miami defenders haven't proved they can take advantage. Cook will determine whether this is an FSU advantage or a significant FSU advantage.
Florida State is favored for a reason, but the Hurricanes have opportunities ... if Good Miami shows up.
If FSU has the most important player, Miami has No. 2.
We sometimes overstate the importance of one or two players. But in the last two games, it has become almost impossible to overstate the impact of Miami safety Deon Bush.
Bush was ejected for targeting early in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game. Fellow safety Jamal Carter, a part-time starter, followed suit later in the same quarter. They were both forced to sit out the first half of the Cincinnati loss, and the difference with and without Bush in particular was stark:
- Nebraska and Cincinnati (with Bush): 15-for-37, 207 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT
- Nebraska and Cincinnati (without Bush): 28-for-41, 381 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT
There are extenuating circumstances, and there are plenty of possible reasons for the differences -- Nebraska was in hurry-up mode and finding a rhythm late, Cincinnati had few reasons to take chances in the second half with Miami's offense struggling, etc.
But damn. With Bush, NU and Cincy completed 41 percent of their passes at 5.6 yards per pass. With him out, they completed 68 percent at 9.3 per throw.
Bush and Carter will be on the field to take on an FSU passing attack that has been ... okay. Everett Golson has put a lid on last year's turnover issues, when he was at Notre Dame. He has yet to fumble or throw an interception this year. Plus, he's completing a decent 64 percent. But he's taken quite a few sacks, and he's averaging a mediocre six yards per pass attempt (including sacks).
Big plays have been virtually nonexistent through the air. FSU has managed just 11 passes of 20-plus yards, 92nd in the country and fewer than USF and Tulane. If Cook isn't 100 percent, the 'Noles almost completely lack proven big-play ability, especially with Bush and Carter patrolling on a defense that controls big gainers.
Inconsistency is still an issue for Miami's offense.
Brad Kaaya is still a true sophomore. It's hard to remember that, because when he looks good, it seems so natural. His upside is immense, and he's built a rapport with a trio of big-play receivers (Rashawn Scott, Herb Waters and Tyre Brady combined: 72 targets, 45 catches, 660 yards). And the guy can make some sexy throws.
Kaaya's got massive potential, and the fact that he often lives up to it makes it easy to forget that he's still got some growing to do. He completed just three of his final nine against Cincinnati as the Hurricanes tried to erase a late deficit; his passer rating for the game was a mediocre 116.5.
Now Kaaya gets to face the best pass defense on the schedule so far. FSU ranks 14th in Passing S&P+ and has been as good at preventing big pass plays as its offense has been bad at creating them. Opponents are averaging just 8.1 yards per completion, and when FSU leverages you into passing downs, you'll be punting. The Seminoles rank 15th in Passing Downs S&P+, and on third-and-4 or more, opponents have completed just 12 of 33 passes for 59 yards. And that's without much of a pass rush.
Miami created big plays last year against FSU's younger defense. Kaaya completed just 16 of 34 passes but averaged nearly 20 yards per completion and threw two touchdowns. He certainly can be efficient, but he'll need to be on Saturday. The 'Noles probably aren't going to let the Canes bail out with big plays.
Injuries create opportunity.
Miami was supposed to enter 2015 with a fun duo of running backs in junior Gus Edwards and sophomore Joseph Yearby. In backing up Duke Johnson last year, Yearby hinted at solid efficiency while Edwards showed nice explosiveness for his 230-pound frame.
Edwards was lost for the season with a knee injury, which opened the door for Yearby to become the feature back. Wow, has he taken advantage.
Yearby's getting 15 carries and three targets per game, and he's averaging 7.5 yards per intended touch. After getting just six carries in the season-opening blowout against Bethune-Cookman, he's averaged 162 rushing and receiving yards over the last three games. Blue-chip freshman Mark Walton hasn't yet found his groove (four yards per carry), but the Miami run game has flashed potential.
Now comes a stiff test. Miami probably isn't going to win if it falls into passing downs, but the Hurricanes can be potent with their 50-50 run-pass split on standard downs. Kaaya's arm and Yearby's legs will be equally important when it comes to staying on schedule. And FSU will be without one of its two strong play-making linebackers; sophomore strongsider Ro'Derrick Hoskins is a load, but weaksider Terrance Smith is expected to miss the game with a leg injury.
Uncle Luke on Miami's faded swag
Uncle Luke on Miami's faded swag
The Seminoles rank a healthy eighth in the overall F/+ rankings because of the run game and big-play prevention, and while they don't have the star power of Jameis Winston, they are a stable entity in a land of unstable teams.
Injuries could open a door for Miami. If Cook isn't full speed, FSU's single biggest advantage is negated, and in theory, Miami could have the balance and big-play ability to poke a couple of holes in a Seminole defense that is without Smith. (Unfortunately for the Canes, corner Jalen Ramsey and safeties Trey Marshall and Lamarcus Brutus are still healthy.)
With Bush, Yearby and a good receiving corps, Miami can match the Seminoles from a pure playmaking standpoint. But the Hurricanes had more playmakers than Cincinnati and Nebraska. FSU is the favorite because of the mistakes it doesn't make, but you want to watch this on the chance Good Miami shows up.