Mark Richt doesn’t have to say much to his players, or publicly, about this game. The stakes and storylines are clear to many.
“The deal is, FSU has been doing it, and Miami hasn’t,” he said on the ACC teleconference on Wednesday. “We’ve got to do that, and we’re working hard toward that.”
Richt was somewhat insulated from this rivalry in his 15 years as Georgia’s coach (2001-15), but had plenty of experience as a Hurricanes player (1978-82), and Seminoles assistant coach (1985-2000, with a one-year break in 1989).
He has lived it on both sides. After Saturday, he’s hoping only people wearing orange and green are celebrating.
“It’s a game that means a lot to us and our fans,” Richt said. “Our fans have suffered through it more than anybody because they’ve been through it the longest. We owe it to them to make them feel better.”
The Hurricanes (3-0, 1-0 ACC) enter the 3:30 p.m. game at Doak Campbell Stadium as a 3-point favorite, ranked 13th in the latest Associated Press poll. The Seminoles (1-2, 1-1) are struggling, but have the confidence of a home crowd, and the knowledge they have won the last seven games in this series.
In a series that dates to 1951, neither side has won eight in a row. Miami lost seven straight between 1963-72, and had a six-game winning streak from 2000-04, including an Orange Bowl victory.
Should Miami win this year’s meeting, the Hurricanes would be on track for an ACC Coastal Division title and a major bowl, such as the Orange. The end of the losing streak would be a major boost to a program that had its hearts broken in recent seasons, losing its last three against its biggest rival by a combined 10 points.
“On a national basis, it’s not quite as exciting as it used to be because Florida State has been dominating it lately, and Miami really hasn’t been in position where people are talking about the Canes,” Richt said. “When we win our share of these, it’s going to be fun again for everybody.
“I’ve been here for a year of it. Our players have been here one, two, three years of it. It’s time to make this a true rivalry.”
BREAKING DOWN THE MATCHUPS
When the Hurricanes pass
Malik Rosier has been one of the biggest surprises of this college football season, ranking 12th nationally in passer rating after taking over for departed three-year starter Brad Kaaya. He can beat the Seminoles through the air, though he’ll have to be wary of an ultra-athletic defense that includes multi-talented players like safety Derwin James and linebacker Matthew Thomas, and one of the ACC’s top defensive lines.
Miami’s offensive line has allowed five sacks in three games — 54th nationally on a per-game basis — and hasn’t faced a front seven like FSU’s, which features ends Brian Burns and Josh Sweat and tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas. UM wideout Ahmmon Richards, who returned from a hamstring injury last week and looked every bit his usual self, is the biggest pass-game threat on either side. If FSU cornerback Tarvarus McFadden can cover him one-on-one, the Seminoles will have an easier time handling Braxton Berrios and Mark Walton on short and intermediate routes. If not, it could be a long day for a defense that has busted coverages several times this year. Edge: Miami
When the Hurricanes run
Despite ankle trouble, Walton (44 carries, 403 yards, three touchdowns) has been the best back in the ACC so far, and sophomore Travis Homer (22 carries, 178 yards, three touchdowns) has broken big gains in relief. The pair is averaging 8.8 yards per carry. Rosier (97 yards, two touchdowns on 23 carries) will take off if the opportunity presents itself. That has added an option-based dimension to Richt’s offense that was missing last year with the statuesque Kaaya under center.
The aforementioned defensive line makes FSU stout against the run. The Seminoles have played three games while many teams have played four or five, but they have done well to limit big rushing plays. FSU, 30th nationally in yards per carry allowed, has given up 10 rushes of 10-plus yards and none longer than 40. No ACC team has allowed fewer. UM needs to improve its third-down run game; in lats week’s 31-6 win at Duke, it converted 1-of-5 times it tried to run the ball, and gained just 1.6 yards per third-down rush. Edge: Even
When the Seminoles pass
The game may rest on the skinny shoulders of James Blackman (6-5, 169). The Belle Glade native — who was in fifth grade the last time FSU lost to UM — has not had an easy time since taking over for injured starter Deondre Francois. The true freshman has been sacked nine times in two games as a starter.
His 40-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate to beat Wake Forest last week showed his skill as a downfield thrower, though those bright spots have been rare (and he’s working with a limited playbook, given his inexperience). His team’s pass-protection must improve greatly for FSU to be able to move the ball against Miami, which ranks 28th in opponent passer rating (109.14). Florida State is last — 130th of 130 FBS teams — in tackles for loss allowed per game (10.33), and fourth-worst (127th) in sacks allowed (4.0). Edge: Miami
When the Seminoles run
FSU has lots of talent — junior Jacques Patrick is a big (6-3, 234), speedy veteran and five-star freshman Cam Akers was arguably the top running back recruit in last year’s class — but FSU’s run game has been inefficient (3.05 yards per carry, 119th nationally), thanks in large part to poor blocking. In an otherwise dominant defensive effort at Duke, Miami allowed 6.9 yards per carry on third-down rushes (though the opponent converted 2-of-7 such tries).
In general, Miami made it hard for Duke’s offense to get moving. It allowed 4.3 yards per first-down rushing attempt, and 4.5 yards per pass. The Seminoles, in their 29-19 win at Wake Forest, gained 6.7 yards per first-down rush, but just 0.4 yards per third-down rush. Passing on first downs, FSU was 3-of-7 for 45 yards. On third-down pass attempts, the Noles were 6-of-8 for 76 yards. However, it converted 3-of-8 tries passing, and 1-of-7 on the ground. Edge: Miami
Some games, kickers are well out of the spotlight. Not so here. Both Miami senior Michael Badgley and FSU sophomore Ricky Aguayo are solid, with range of 50-plus. At Duke last week, Badgley missed a 53-yarder with Miami up big in the fourth quarter, and hit a 20-yard chip shot. At Wake, Aguayo was 4-for-4, connecting from 51, 27, 37 and 35 yards. UM didn’t block FSU well on last year’s missed point-after try that gave the Noles a 20-19 win. The Canes haven’t missed a PAT in 2017.
Though its blunders on special teams (Keith Gavin lost a fumble) contributed to its season-opening 24-7 loss to top-ranked Alabama, FSU’s coverage has been significantly better since. The Noles rank 11th nationally in long kickoff returns, with three of 30-plus yards (including Gavin’s 81-yarder against Wake Forest, and not including James’ 100-yard return that was called back on a penalty). On the whole, UM has allowed next to nothing in the return game. Edge: Even
Jimbo Fisher clearly had Al Golden’s number, as evidenced by any number of sequences in Miami-FSU games from 2011-15. One that stands out: Dalvin Cook’s 72-yard touchdown on an option pitch for the first points of the 2015 game. UM wasn’t prepared for it. Richt is a much better coach than Golden, though UM has hardly been perfect this year, and hasn’t played the caliber of opponent Florida State has (Alabama, North Carolina State, Wake Forest is a tougher slate than Bethune-Cookman, Toledo and Duke).
Richt may look better than Fisher this week because he has a quarterback who can carry out more of his playbook, but Fisher should have a few tricks up his sleeve. Those are two of the best offensive coaches in the ACC. This could be a week for Miami’s Manny Diaz to bolster his reputation as one of the game’s brightest defensive coordinators. Edge: Even
Florida State, which is 79-19 under Fisher, is 9-5 in its last 14 games and just 4-3 at home. Miami, 12-4 under Richt, is 5-2 on the road. The Hurricanes have won eight straight since a four-game losing streak last October.
FSU expects a capacity crowd (79,560) and a slew of official recruits to attend. This is the biggest recruiting weekend of the year for the Seminoles — and even though it is an away game, the most important for Miami as well.
“Sometimes it reveals to a young man where his allegiances are,” Richt said Wednesday. “Sometimes he’ll watch a game like that and he’ll start cheering for somebody, like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s my team.’ I think, win or lose, sometimes the kids know going in. Sometimes they learn in the middle of the game because of how they feel in their heart. And sometimes, whether a team wins or loses … obviously winning attracts people. That’s for sure.”
With Francois and a healthy offensive line, a slight advantage would go to the Seminoles at home. But Blackman would have to improve immensely as a passer and a pocket presence to have a shot to beat Miami through the air, and UM’s offense and defense are clicking so far.
That’s enough for the Hurricanes to beat an opponent that just can’t push the ball downfield with any consistency. FSU will have to grow up rapidly on offense and keep from busting coverages against a team that’s just as talented, if not more so.
When I made my preseason prediction for Miami — 11-1, which felt on the bold side at the time — I had the Hurricanes losing at Florida State. If they don’t lose this game, I’m not sure who else will beat them.
The streak ends here, and the nation starts talking about Miami as a long-shot playoff contender. Miami 28-13
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