It was a race against time on Monday night in Orlando. Could Ole Miss' deep receiving corps take advantage of Florida State's new secondary before its offensive line weaknesses became too costly? Could FSU take advantage of Ole Miss' immediately banged up secondary enough to offset its own disadvantages in the trenches?
To the former, the answer was yes ... and then no. To the latter, the answer was no ... and then yes.
The clear advantages and disadvantages created a game of wild runs -- 21-3 Ole Miss, then 33-0 FSU, and finally 45-34.
But after 60 minutes, Florida State had proven itself the high-upside, potential title contender many suspected they were. Ole Miss had proven itself the high-upside, intensely volatile team it has been for much of Hugh Freeze's tenure.
In my 2016 Florida State preview, I called the 'Noles a "high-ceiling, low-variance squad," one experienced enough to handle a rugged schedule (six games against projected top-30 teams) and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Granted, there was quite a bit of variance in the season's first four quarters, but the Seminoles won this game with maturity and stability despite starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback.
Here were three concerns I had with FSU:
1. Standard-downs (non-passing situations) offense
Despite Dalvin Cook's proficiency, FSU ranked just 45th in Standard Downs S&P+ in 2015; the 'Noles made up for some of that by ranking eighth on passing downs, but they still dug themselves quite a few holes.
On Monday, first-down misery was a major cause of their early deficit.
Yards per play on first down, while falling behind 28-6: 3.4.
First-down dominance was a major cause of the turnaround.
Yards per play on first down, beginning with the final drive of the second quarter: 6.8.
Penalties also helped to dig holes for FSU in the first half. The offense committed six of them before halftime: three false starts, a hold, an illegal participation, and a personal foul. After halftime: just two (both false starts).
2. Efficiency options at receiver
Z-receivers and tight ends did not contribute enough to last year's offense, and FSU was forced to rely more on the X-receiver, the slot, and running back Cook. A lack of well-rounded receiving play contributed to inconsistency.
On Monday, FSU got production from the X (Travis Rudolph: 10 targets, six catches, 74 yards, 1 TD), the Z (Jesus Wilson: 13 targets, 9 catches, 125), the slot (Kermit Whitfield: seven targets, five catches, 53), the backs (Cook and Jacques Patrick: nine targets, eight catches, 114), and the tight end (Ryan Izzo: six targets, three catches, 41, one TD).
First-time starting quarterback Deondre Francois looked overwhelmed at times during Ole Miss' second-quarter dominance. But beginning with the late-Q2 drive that turned the game around, his passing line was absurd: 22-of-33 passing, 276 yards, two touchdowns, only one sack, and 8 yards per pass attempt. Plus, not including the sack, he rushed five times for 85 yards.
Francois used the entire receiving corps, rebounded from some early hits, and took complete control of the game. His redshirt freshman season lasted about 28 minutes. Then he looked like a veteran.
3. Defensive fades
In 2015, FSU ranked fifth in Def. S&P+ in the first quarter and 11th in the third. The Noles faded to 24th in the second, however, and 60th in the fourth. They didn't necessarily play with a huge rotation, and they appeared to wear down as a game progressed.
We don't yet know that this has been rectified, though signs are certainly encouraging.
- Q1: 14 plays, 95 yards (6.8), 7 points
- Q2: 24 plays, 213 yards (8.9), 21 points
- Q3: 10 plays, minus-9 yards (-0.9), 0 points
- Q4: 15 plays, 75 yards (5.0), 6 points
Another way to put that: FSU allowed 8.1 yards per play in the first half and 2.6 in the second. FSU's second-half defense was dominant, allowing 75 yards on one drive, and a net of zero (with three turnovers) in the other four. Technically there was still regression in the second and fourth quarter, but you can probably get away with that if you're allowing negative yardage sometimes in the first or third.
What about Ole Miss?
I came away far more impressed with FSU than I was discouraged by Ole Miss, though maybe that had something to do with expectations. Freeze has built his Rebel squad around physical dominance, looseness, and volatility. It’s what makes them so entertaining, even (or especially) when they fail, and we saw all of those things in Orlando.
4. A push up front
The Rebels held Cook to just 4 yards per carry (23 for 91) and dominated short-yardage rushing situations. The FSU offensive line got no push and committed five false starts and a hold. The Seminoles couldn't protect Francois for the opening 30 minutes and allowed some pressure in the second half, as well.
Francois' ability to take advantage of over-pursuit in the second half made a huge difference. His three long runs were like hitting the release valve on the pressure cooker, and his willingness to check down to the running back helped, too. And eventually he was able to take advantage of a secondary that lost cornerback Ken Webster to an early, awful-looking knee injury and doesn't appear to have a full-speed Tony Conner yet.
Still, most Ole Miss opponents won't be as impressive as FSU. The Rebels should be able to overwhelm a majority with dominant line play and aggression.
5. Swag ... and a sudden lack thereof
There's an element of "PSYCHE!!" to Ole Miss' offense when it is clicking. They leverage defenders in different directions, then send the ball in behind them. Chad Kelly faking the option, then bursting up the middle. Kelly faking a screen to the halfback, then throwing to a wide open receiver behind the defense. Kelly pump faking like an undersized power forward, even after committing to running downfield.
This is a tricky offense to beat, and in 2016 it will feature Kelly (one of college football's legitimate "can make every throw" prospects) and a deep receiving corps.
For a while, it will also feature a shaky line. Ole Miss has to replace five linemen who combined for 143 career starts, and while injuries led to plenty of returnees also getting starting experience, the game turned when FSU began to adjust and dominate up front. (And by "FSU," I mean "DeMarcus Walker," who had 4.5 sacks by himself.
Suddenly Kelly had no time to throw, and after going 15-of-23 passing for 235 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and no sacks in the first half, he was a miserable 6-of-16 passing for 78 yards, a touchdown, two picks, and five sacks in the second. Yards per first-half pass attempt: 10.2. Second half (including sacks): 1.8.
In 2015, Ole Miss beat Alabama, then got its doors blown off by Florida and Memphis, then finished the year by outscoring LSU, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma State by a combined 124-64. On Monday in Orlando, we saw all of the different aspects of that volatile personality.
In my 2016 preview, I called the Rebels the most fascinating team in college football. I see no reason to change my mind on that just yet.
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