I have to admit, this doesn't feel like much of a rivalry game.
Miami is a top-10 team in ranking only. Certainly not in play or talent.
The Hurricanes have been extremely lucky to come away with single-score wins against three teams in Florida, North Carolina and Wake Forest, who have a combined 10-9 record against teams other than Miami. Elite teams consistently blow out bad competition. Miami has not done that.
But make no mistake. Miami is a better team than it was in 2012 by a good bit. They are indeed bigger and stronger, thanks to many of their youngsters growing up. They make fewer defensive mistakes than in previous years.
But much improved does not an elite team make.
How can the Hurricanes hang with Florida State and avoid losing by 21+?
The approach will be very important. Is Miami's primary goal to win? Or, knowing that hundreds of recruits will be in attendance, with Virginia Tech on deck, and a likely rematch against Florida State in just six weeks at the ACC Championship Game, is Miami's primary goal to avoid being blown out?
This is probably offensive to some Miami fans, but I think it is a real question at issue.
And I don't necessarily think the strategy completely eliminates the opportunity to win.
Miami on offense
To do this, Miami needs to limit possessions. The Hurricanes want each team to get 9-11 possessions, not 12-14. Limiting possessions limits the potential final score, no matter how each team plays.
And that means a lot of running the football. Miami's offensive line is good (but not necessarily great), and it has an awesome running back in Duke Johnson who would probably start for FSU (though FSU has the superior overall backfield).
To avoid being blown out, Miami must stay committed to the run game even if it is ineffective. The run game runs the clock. Running clock limits the number of possessions in the football game. It also limits turnovers. The passing game results in far more turnovers, as a percentage, than the run game.
That's not to say that certain shots won't be taken down the field, as Morris has a very strong (though often inaccurate) arm. 1-on-1 matchups down the field, if available, are relatively unlikely to result in a turnover and should be taken.
That said, the goal for Miami need not be big plays. It needs to be staying on the field. That means limiting negative plays and incompletions leading to third-&-long. If Miami can average two first downs per drive, even if the drives are short, it can keep the score somewhat respectable. But that is a big if.
But if Steven Morris drops back more times than he hands off, Florida State will have a strong chance to cover the line of three touchdowns.
For Miami, punting and playing field position while running the clock and limiting possessions, is winning. Giving Florida State the ball repeatedly without milking much clock, or giving it to them on short fields via turnovers, is a recipe to get blown out.
And if I coached Miami, I'd stick with this strategy even if my team got down big early. The chance that Miami actually gets back into a game by throwing is far outweighed by the chance that Florida State embarrasses a quarterback who has to throw without the threat of the run. That could lead to a big blowout. And in front of recruits who have seen Florida State win six of the last eight contests, that is not what Miami needs.
Miami on defense
What Miami likes to do on defense matches up pretty well with Florida State's offense, schematically speaking. Note that I did not say Miami's defensive talent matches up well with Florida State's offense.
But this could be culture shock for Miami's defense.
Florida State's offense is better than any sort of all-star team one could configure of the seven offenses faced so far by Miami's defense. And it is not close. At all. No players on the offenses of Savannah State, USF, Florida Atlantic, Wake Forest or Georgia Tech would start for the Seminoles. Florida's fullback (Hunter Joyer) probably would, and North Carolina's tight end (Eric Ebron) and tackle (James Hurst) would likely as well. But that's it.
Just like on offense, Miami's defense must stay extremely patient. Al Golden noted in his teleconference Wednesday that his defense must not allow the big play, and must tackle well. He is absolutely correct.
Playing soft coverage and not allowing big plays is pretty much how Miami plays defense. Its tackling of late has been questionable, and it will need to tackle better against Florida State if the strategy is going to be to allow the catch and then tackle it, limiting the yards after the catch.
Miami's defense is going to need to resist the urge to make something happen. This goes for Miami's coaches and its players.
Miami's players must play within the confines of the soft coverage called. If they get out of position and try to make something happen, Jameis Winston, who is the best quarterback Miami has faced under Al Golden, will burn them. This will be a great test of Miami's patience. Will players allow Winston to nickel and dime FSU's offense down the field? Or will they get fed up only to get set up for a big play?
Oh, and making the opposing offense run more plays and not allowing big plays means playing another play. And that means more opportunities to hit the opposing receivers and backs, and a potential to get a fumble or a tipped ball for an interception.
Miami's defensive coordinator must also remain patient. Many a defensive coordinator in 2013 have noted that Winston does not play like a red-shirt freshman. Yet, even after seeing how incredibly deadly he is against the blitz, they eventually become impatient, bring pressure, and get burned for big scores. Winston's numbers against the blitz are insane, and Florida State's offense leads the nation in frequency of plays over 20 yards against D1 teams.
Add into the mix that Miami is not a particularly good blitz team, and it will be interesting to watch just how patient Miami's defensive coordinator will be.
Of course, coaches often feel the pressure to show that they are doing something! In baseball, where bunting and hitting-&-running are usually a strategy that greatly reduces a team's chance of winning, managers still do it to take pressure off themselves. Miami's defensive coordinator has repeatedly come under fire from Miami's fans and media for his ultra-conservative approach. Will he feel the pressure to do something different?
The battle of patience also extends to Florida State's Jameis Winston. Winston has been almost perfect in 2013, but he does have a very slight tendency to get impatient and try for the big play, when he should check the football down. Miami is essentially tasked with waiting out Jameis Winston and seeing if he'll try to make things happen that are not there.
If Miami plays this way, FSU will have success running the football. Here, again, Miami's goal needs to be tackling the runner and preventing big plays. If Florida State is moving the chains with the run, but not hitting big plays, the clock will be moving, and the total possessions in the game will be limited.
With this strategy, Florida State will eventually reach the red zone. And that is where talent is slightly less important, and luck is more important. Red zone success if a high-variance endeavor. Even the best red zone offenses have games in which the only score touchdowns 33-percent of the time.
Miami must play red-zone roulette with the Seminoles offense. That is its best chance. If FSU gets seven red zone trips and Miami can somehow hold the Seminoles to three touchdowns and three field goals, that's only 30 points. And it is tough to get blown out allowing less than 40 points unless the offense does nothing.
Not only does this strategy allow more luck to enter the formula for the undermanned Hurricanes, but is also has the benefit of shortening the game. Explosive drives lengthen the game, give both teams more possessions, and more possessions leads to a greater winning margin for the dominant team. An offense can only have so many 5-minute possessions.
If Miami does a good job of executing the above strategies, it can avoid what Vegas thinks will happen in front of the 100+ recruits. Uglying the game up and losing 31-17 is a win for the Hurricanes against these Seminoles.
If other elements of typical upset anatomy show up, like a lot of turnovers or defensive/special teams scores enter the equation, Miami could do more than just cover.
Miami is likely to get another shot against Florida State in five weeks. That game will be in Charlotte, not in the confines of the Doak. And it won't be in front of hundreds of recruits. And if I coached Miami, my strategy in that game would be quite different.
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