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ACC Championship Countdown Q&A: Florida State

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Florida at Florida State Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the season started I assumed the thirteenth edition of this series in 2023 would be highlighting a bowl game against a solid opponent, but likely one we didn’t have much familiarity with. I was wrong. Not only do the Cards have the opportunity to compete for the ACC Championship but it’s against a very familiar foe in the Florida State Seminoles.

Florida State just finished an undefeated regular season and appear to be in the drivers seat for a College Football Playoff birth if they can take of business against Louisville...BUT...they have to take care of business against Louisville, a team they haven’t necessarily dominated as of late. To learn more about the Noles I reached out to our friends over at ‘Tomahawk Nation’ and talked with Perry Kostidakis to learn more about Florida State and what to expect as they fight the birds for a conference title. Lets get it.

It’s only fitting that in the first year of “division-less” ACC football two teams from the former Atlantic Division align in the championship game, the stronger of the two divisions the last decade. Since joining the ACC Louisville is 4-5 against FSU and has a few “program defining” victories over the Noles in their history. At a high level, how does the FSU fanbase view the Louisville program, and more specifically this team?

Florida State v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I promise I am saying this out of respect (or at the very least, without offense intended) — Louisville has been extremely annoying, and mainly because the Cardinals have seemed to be a consistent thorn in Florida State’s side. Of those nine games, only three weren’t sweatfests — and two of those were Louisville blowouts! There was a collective sigh of relief for most of the fanbase when Louisville wasn’t paired up with FSU after the move away from the divisions, and of course, the team that has given more stress to the Seminoles outside of NC State is the one standing in the way of a playoff berth.

There are some fans who are pinpointing Louisville’s loss last week to [NAME REDACTED] as confirmation bias that the ACC Championship should be business as usual, but from the point that it became pretty obvious the two were going to matchup, there has been an element of nervousness from both soft factors (Louisville loving being a Florida State killer) and real ones (that Cardinals’ front is no joke.)

While Rodemaker, in my opinion, has done a good job stepping into the national spotlight in the absence of Jordan Travis, the Cards got the full Rodemaker experience last year where he led a come from behind victory for the ‘Noles in Cardinal Stadium. What does he bring to the table for this team? Has he been asked to be more of a game manager, or is the playbook open?

Through two games this season, it’s been a little bit more game manager. The way the game against Florida went, he didn’t have much of a chance to just bomb it deep and let it fly like FSU has in some games this season (to their detriment, occasionally) and instead emphasized mistake-free football and getting it to his guys — which, while he missed on some needed throws, showcased some pretty high-level ones in crunch time. He’s been in the system now for three years and while his first start in 2020 was enough to shake his confidence to the point people didn’t know if he’d be serviceable, that performance against Louisville last year was major for both the fan perception and his own sense of self.

The main concern with Rodemaker, to me, is his penchant for holding the ball just a little too long. It led to some sacks against UF (one being a safety) and prevented a few balls from either being in the right spot or allowing the receiver to get a little more yards after the catch. Combine that with an offensive line that has flashed some weakness over the course of the season and the Cardinals could be feasting in the backfield.

One guy who still gives me night terrors is wideout Johnny Wilson. I know he’s been forced to miss a few games this year but I was surprised at what appears to be a drop in production statistically from last season. His TD total this year equals what he had against the Cards alone last year. Is he still the number one target for this offense? Who else offensively should we be concerned about?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Florida State at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The combination of injuries, drops and emergence of Keon Coleman is the explanation there — Wilson hasn’t been the same secondary-beater he was in 2022, but he’s still managed to come up big in moments. He had shown an issue with drops in the offseason when he arrived and last year, we saw some examples of that but he managed to keep it relatively in check. This year it has stuck out more, especially with Coleman’s ascension starting from the first game of the season.

The thing that changes that, though, is Rodemaker — you saw the connection between the two against Louisville last year and against the Gators, Wilson (12 targets, six receptions, 64 yards) had double the targets of Coleman (6 targets, one completion, 24 yards). That can be chalked up to the emphasis placed on shutting down Coleman, but speaks also to the familiarity between Wilson and Rodemaker. Jaheim Bell, who came over from South Carolina, is a do-it-all tight end that won a state title with Rodemaker in high school and has been essential in the pass game this season.

In the run game — it’s all Trey Benson. Lawrence Toafili will come in as a relief back and is more than capable of reeling off highlight runs, but Benson’s ability to turn 7-yard gains to touchdowns is the reason while the rushing attack didn’t completely fall off a cliff this season.

Speaking of Benson, the Cards have done a fairly decent job bottling up primary backs this year, but Benson has had some explosive games, including last week against the Gators. You think FSU leans on the ground game a bit more with Rodemaker behind center?

Not really, and that’s just because by nature, Mike Norvell (and Alex Atkins’) offense is designed to be balanced and already places an emphasis on the run game. The only time there has been a noticeable difference in pass vs. rush attempts was against Clemson (37 vs. 20) and that’s because FSU only had 22 total yards on the day rushing (non-sack adjusted).

Tell me about the FSU defense. The Cards have won games this year in a few ways, early in the season being a bit more aggressive with deep shots and unique playcalls but as of late they’ve become a bit conservative in the offense and really look to ground and pound and let Plummer manage the offense with quick throws to keep the defense honest. How does FSU stack up in those scenarios?

Which half of football are we talking? Throughout the course of the season, teams have employed the quick throw and keep the chains moving method to shave down any possible time FSU can have with the ball, especially in the first half. Combine that with some offensive rhythm struggles (again, even with Travis under center) and that’s why FSU was finding itself in sudden double-digit deficits. The main issue we saw there was an inability to get off the field on third down and that a good bulk of those conversions would turn into explosive plays.

The depth that the Seminoles have, however, has been a key factor in them getting their feet underneath them as the game wears on. We’ve seen them be able to dominate teams once they switch to game manage mode (vs. Florida) as well as when they try to keep it pushing (vs. Miami).

FSU is funny because they’re both extremely capable and extremely exploitable — the trenches are littered with talent, Kalen DeLoach at linebacker is an NFL talent, the secondary has taken a major step forward (especially Jarrian Jones), but we’ve seen them fail to assert themselves early and often.

While the injury to Travis is a big blow, there is no question FSU still has a lot to play for (if you consider a chance to win a ‘Natty “a lot”) so I don’t expect any sleepwalking into this one, but I do think Louisville, coming off a tough loss, will be ready to give them a battle. Late night, neutral site, ACC trophy on the line….what do we see in Charlotte?

If this game was in Louisville, I would feel a lot worse — it was clear that the team was a bit rattled by the noise in Gainesville last week and it had trickle-down effects from lost speed in execution to penalties.

The Cardinals have the pieces needed to be successful against FSU: a tough defense, an offense capable of keeping drives alive and non-terrible coaching (you’d think this wouldn’t have to be included, but FSU has faced off against Billy Napier and Mario Cristobal this season after all). There isn’t a realistic scenario in my mind where it’s an FSU blowout — if it is, it’s one that happens late if Louisville has to start forcing things. Just based off how FSU has approached each game this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Louisville pull out something like 10-0 early — but there’s only so many times that Florida State can play with fire before getting burnt.

The nightmare scenario is where Louisville does take that early lead but FSU doesn’t get the big break it needs to overcome that deficit or further self-inflicts adversity via turnovers.

Realistically, I see the two trading points pretty evenly until the third quarter, which is when FSU has managed to separate itself throughout 2023. If Florida State can grab a lead, it has the tools needed to hold it without sacrificing its attack on either side of the ball for the sake of game management. I’m feeling a 31-27 type game, but if FSU fails to cover the current 2.5 spread and still win, I wouldn’t be shocked either.

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A big thanks to Perry for his time and good coverage of what FSU brings to the table. Feel free to check out Perry and ‘Tomahawk Nation’ on TwitterX right here for news leading up to the game.

Lets be real, no one expected the Cards to be sitting here in Year One of the ‘Brohm Era’ so it’s not lost on me how this team made the plays necessary to not only position themselves to win, but to actually win the games that mattered down the stretch. While this is a different FSU team and a different Louisville team, the Cards have made national attention more than once knocking off the Noles in a primetime contest, and have held their own over the last decade in the ACC against this program. While I would love to predict the upset, the defensive issues the last few weeks make me nervous, and the threat of Wilson having another big day is a concern. I think Jeff has some things tucked away he will pull out Saturday and the offense has enough weapons to keep it close, but a late TD makes it look worse than it is. Noles 30-21