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The Big USF vs. Florida State Preview

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This is undoubtedly USF's toughest game of the season. What must they do in order to pull the upset tomorrow?

Will I ever stop using this photo? Nope.
Will I ever stop using this photo? Nope.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I don't think a single person pictured us heading into USF's biggest game of the season in such bizarre fashion. It's not necessarily surprising that USF was able to sweep the first three games of their nonconference schedule, or even that Florida State already comes into this game with a loss-- it's the way that FSU was just torn apart at the seams by Louisville last week that lends the game a sort of deflated-balloon feel that we never could have seen coming a few weeks ago. In fact, I'd wager that most USF fans actually feel more nervous about this game after seeing the Noles get walloped by 43 points than they would have had FSU won. Such is life with a behemoth like FSU-- when someone beats them, let alone embarrasses them in the blowout to end all blowouts, you tend to assume that the game will serve as a wake-up call for the team's inner demon rather than a harbinger of things to come.

Still, one team enters this game as the road team facing a decent-sized motivation disadvantage, and just having witnessed Lamar Jackson take a chainsaw to their national title and conference championship dreams, and the other is 3-0 on the heels of three consecutive blowout wins and is hosting their biggest game in years. The Noles are shaky, littered with injuries, and searching for a team identity, while the Bulls are in an absolute groove, playing some of their best football in at least seven years. One gets the impression that even if FSU beats the living daylights out of the hosts on Saturday, USF fans will still leave Raymond James Stadium as the more self-assured of the two fanbases.

And yet, an injured, paranoid, stumbling Florida State could very well still beat the living daylights out of USF this weekend. Such is a benefit of being Florida State.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. FSU D) S&P+ (USF D vs. FSU O) S&P+ (ST)
USF 38 24 68 13
FSU 10 30 7 3


After last weekend's debacle, it's already become pretty easy to forget that FSU notched one of the most impressive wins of the season in Week One, falling behind big against a pretty great Ole Miss team and then looking like a shoo-in playoff contender the rest of the way, outscoring the Rebels 39-6 from the end of the first half onwards.  I mean, this team looked terrifying. When they're clicking on all cylinders, they're a top five team in the nation, easy.

They obviously weren't clicking on all cylinders last week, and with injuries to stud safety Derwin James and defensive end Josh Sweat-- plus a banged-up Dalvin Cook, who still might be the best player in the nation when healthy-- it's unlikely that they're clicking on all cylinders on Saturday.

They're still loaded, of course, and a lot of that has to do with young redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, who has led a potent offense that grades out quite a bit stronger in S&P+ than the USF defense does. In last season's game, USF really didn't have a prayer of moving the ball against FSU consistently; I think they'll be more than able to do that this year, but it might not matter if the defense can't slow down the Noles on offense.

When FSU Runs...

Team Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
FSU Offense 59 58
USF Defense 41 4

Keep in mind when looking at these running and passing-specific numbers that it's still a bit early in the season for opponent adjustments to factor wholly into S&P+, so these are pretty raw stats. As such, FSU's otherwise-middling running numbers disguises what's been a pretty good rushing attack, albeit one that's had to go up against Ole Miss and Louisville defenses.

"Pretty good," though, is a huge step down from the absolutely terrifying running game that the Noles boasted last year behind a healthy Cook, as I'm sure USF fans remember all too well. FSU has been pretty hush-hush about Cook to this point, but the general consensus among those in the know is that he's still feeling some lingering effects from the shoulder surgery he had during the offseason. Whatever it is, it's taken a toll on his play: a season after rushing for nearly 1,700 yards on 7.4 yards per carry, Cook is averaging just 4.6 yards per carry in 2016 and has yet to crack 100 yards rushing in a game. It doesn't help that the Noles' offensive line has been shaky, though the blocking issues extend far beyond the big men up front.

Massive sophomore back Jacques Patrick got seven carries in Cook's stead on Saturday, and took them for an impressive 79 yards; perhaps we'll see more of him on Saturday if Cook's injuries continue to bother him. Point is, FSU will have a great running back in the backfield no matter what, and Francois is a threat running the ball as well. No one matches up to a healthy Dalvin Cook, though.

On the other side of the ball, USF has been solid against the run so far, though they did let Syracuse, whose running game is borderline nonexistent, move the ball on the zone read a bit too easily for comfort early in the game. They've been fantastic in not getting gashed for big plays on the ground, though, and that's a skill that will come in handy against an FSU running game with the potential to explode at any moment. I don't think USF will be able to shut down the Noles' running game the way that Louisville did, but if they can keep the FSU running backs from breaking into the second level, they'll go a long way towards keeping the visitors off the scoreboard. If nothing else, the USF defense should be able stop the banged-up Cook from ripping them apart via huge gain after huge gain like he did last seas--Dalvin Cook bursts through my wall and runs me over en route to end zone.

When FSU Passes...

Team Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
FSU Offense 14 88
USF Defense 71 4

You really have to give the young Francois credit for how he's played thus far, especially given that his pass protection was horrendous against Louisville (this isn't just the offensive line's fault-- Cook had a really rough game pass blocking, which is something I would definitely expect Jimbo Fisher to try to fix). He's got a host of talented receivers, but none of them have really proven to be gamebreakers-- his two favorite targets are Travis Rudolph and Jesus "Bobo" Wilson, and they're both averaging 10 yards per target or less (for a comparison point, Marques Valdez-Scantling is averaging 15.5 YPT and Ryeshene Bronson averages 11.1). Still, the Noles have been largely efficient moving the ball through the air, especially on early downs. Against a USF defense that has allowed teams to nickel-and-dime a bit through the air, I would not expect that to change on Saturday.

The key here is what happens on passing downs, when (if?) the Bulls force the Seminoles into third-and-longs. Against Ole Miss, Francois had a clean pocket in these sorts of situations and was able to pick the Rebels apart on passing downs to the tune of a 13-for-20, 193-yard line (which is remarkable when you consider the fact that these are almost all second or third-and-longs). Last weekend, though, the Cardinals got a ton of pressure on the young quarterback and never let him get comfortable, which threw a wrench into the Noles' offense before it could even start moving. Francois is really impressive, but he can struggle when he gets flustered, and FSU hasn't exactly found a way to build a wall around him.

This is a big question for USF and defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie. Do you play conservatively on defense, aiming to stay in your gaps, limit big plays and out-duel the Noles on the offensive side of the ball? Given USF's offensive acumen, that's not an bad idea, but Francois has shown he can move the ball effectively when he's not getting pressured. Alternately, do you gamble and send some exotic blitz packages at FSU, hoping to take advantage of the Noles' iffy pass blocking and force the young QB into mistakes? This option certainly makes sense on paper, but the Bulls have struggled to get a decent pass rush going thus far this year, and it's a lot to ask of your defensive front to start ramping up the pressure now against likely the best team they'll play all season.

Whatever method USF decides here, and how effectively they execute it, will go a long way toward deciding this game.

When USF Runs...

Team Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 23 18
FSU Defense 126 85


USF wasn't awful on the ground against FSU last season, but they hadn't yet blossomed into the frightening, four-headed monster that they became later on in the season. It's very important to note that FSU's run defense numbers are very skewed thanks to getting obliterated on the ground against Louisville to the tune of 7.6 yards per carry and an unreal 72% success rate... but I really like USF's chances at moving the ball on the ground nonetheless.

I'd expect the Seminoles to sell out against the run and try to force Quinton Flowers to beat them through the air. This is a very sound strategy, and I would respond by spreading the love around in the backfield. This doesn't mean limiting Marlon Mack's carries in favor of D'Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice-- in fact, I think this game would be a rather poor time to do that-- but giving Rodney Adams a fair chunk of carries on jet sweeps to let him use his speed on the edge, and letting Flowers use his legs on designed runs more than he's been called upon in the first three games. The Noles aren't tremendous in run support at the second level, so there could be some yards to be had if the Bulls get on the edge.

When USF Passes...

Team Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 71 4
FSU Defense 14 88

USF has been boom-or-bust in the passing game this year, as Flowers has been highly erratic in the short-to-intermediate passing game... and, at times, sublime on passes over the top of the defense. It's not worth comparing USF to Louisville and Lamar Jackson, because Louisville are playing out of their minds right now, but it is vaguely reassuring that FSU really struggled to stop a lot of the same concepts last week that USF will bring to the table on Saturday. Louisville wasn't uber-efficient throwing the ball, but they sliced up the Noles' secondary for big play after big play. I trust that Flowers will make enough throws (and that Willie Taggart will call enough safe throws) to keep FSU honest, but if they're going to test the FSU defense consistently through the air, Q will have to hit some of those open intermediate throws he's been missing in recent weeks.

Florida State's defense isn't half as bad as they looked against Louisville, but USF absolutely has the players to move the ball against the Noles' D-- and better yet, what FSU has struggled stopping (running on standard downs, big plays in the passing game) are the areas in which USF has excelled. USF should score more than enough to win this game; it's a question of whether or not they can stop FSU from matching every score.

Summary & Prediction

USF can absolutely win this game. I really don't doubt their ability to move the football against FSU's defense-- I don't think there's any chance that they run wild on them like some Bulls fan think they might, but I think the Bulls match up pretty well against a banged-up Noles D. I just don't know if I trust the Bulls' defense to get enough pressure on Francois to disrupt the Florida State offense, and that's not accounting for the ticking time bomb that is Dalvin Cook, who will probably go absolutely bonkers against some poor team any day now.

Every prediction I've made thus far has wound up being too conservative, as USF has won each game by a bigger margin that I thought. Still, this is the first time they'll be facing a team with (significantly) more talent than they have.

At the end of the day, maybe it just comes down to this: when you've watched a team struggle mightily for about four years, it's hard to have complete, full-throated faith in them. I think FSU will come out in must-win mode. I think we'll see a thrilling, back-and-forth game. I think the Noles will play a tremendous second half, and that the Bulls are going to have to either force a few key turnovers or match them play-for-play down the stretch.

I want to believe that will happen. Make me believe again, USF.

Florida State 34, USF 27