It feels pretty good to chalk up another potential loss in the W column regardless of your expectations for the Noles this year. It feels even better when that W sends a rival into a wholly-expected institutional ennui. For those of you with (completely unrealistic) hope for a third straight undefeated regular season and/or a second consecutive playoff bid - breathe easy for now because the hope is still alive. But I advise you take a deep breath again Saturday morning because we're about to play the best three-loss team college football has to offer.
Before Louisville: The Rest of the Season
First let's take a look at what the rest of our season has in store... probabilistically!
With all due respect to Chattanooga, there are six games left with a non-zero chance of Florida State losing, which gives us 64 possible scenarios for the remainder of Florida State's season. If you're wondering what the odds of any specific scenario are, you can view all 64 of them here. For the actual interesting stuff, here's a breakdown of how likely it is for FSU to get to any number of total wins through the rest of the regular season:
The two biggest numbers diminishing those higher-end win totals are, of course, the two teams that have looked unequivocally better than FSU to date. S&P+ gives the Noles a win probability playing at Clemson of only 28%, down from 45% two weeks ago; and only 38% playing at UF, down from 55%. This makes sense given over the last two weeks possibly no non-Michigan team has done more to solidify itself as an elite squad than Clemson (with wins over former #6 ranked ND & GT) and UF (with wins over former #3 ranked Ole Miss and Missouri). Granted, these numbers have not accounted for Will Grier's suspension, so it's very possible the odds of FSU winning at Ben Hill Griffin could correct to a more favorable number for the Noles over the next six weeks.
The other significant number to look at here represents what many thought should be the main goal of the season: An ACC championship. We can't say what the odds are of winning an ACC championship, because we don't know who we're going to be playing in that championship yet, but we can at the very least predict with some certainty how likely it is that we even get to the game. It seems reasonable to think that at this point Clemson is the only real threat to winning the Atlantic (although in fairness Syracuse is a perfect 1-0 in conference play). It also seems reasonable that Clemson, a team that has not lost against an opponent outside the AP top-10 since 2011 and is looking stronger than it ever has, is not going to lose two conference games outside of Florida State. So in order for the Noles to be guaranteed an Atlantic division win they will need to a) beat Clemson and b) not drop more than one other conference game. The odds of FSU accomplishing both of those feats: 21.23%. Of course embedded in that number is a 28% likelihood that FSU beats Clemson. The odds of FSU accomplishing latter, given they get a win at Clemson rises dramatically to 75.81%. So it is already starting to look like, for the 6th year in a row, the road to the ACC title game goes through the Clemson-FSU matchup. But all of that could be thrown out the window if the Seminoles can't beat....
Louisville: They're seriously better than their record. Seriously.
Last week focused mainly on FSU's statistical identity, and aside from a few 3rd down percentages belying the results on the field last Saturday, much of what was said then remains true, so I'll focus on how Louisville has looked and what that means for us.
Looking at their national ranking for team rushing yards per carry you might be fooled into thinking Louisville is not very good at the run, with the 70th best team average yards per carry of 4.24. Don't be fooled though, Louisville is very good at running the football. Most of that threat comes in the form of the option-thriving true freshman Lamar Jackson, who on run plays - removing negative sack-yardage from the equation - has averaged 8.4 yards per carry so far this season. The need for contain has been made evident in Louisville's past two games, where Jackson has had touchdown runs of 65 yards or longer in each game. A run of that nature probably won't be in the cards for Louisville on Saturday, Florida State has averaged .4 carries of 20+ yards a game allowed so far (good for 6th nationally) and has not allowed a run of 30 or more yards yet this season (good for a 12-way nation leading tie). But reducing that number down to 10+ yards allowed, the Seminoles average a much less imposing 3.6 carries of 10+ yards allowed per game, good for 31st nationally, and taking that number even further by controlling for FSU'S opponent's rush attempts per game and the rushing quality of their opponents, the Noles drop to a 46th ranked explosive-run preventing success rate. Meaning that FSU could potentially be in for a long day dealing with some Lamar Jackson run plays of the hair-pulling first-down-converting variety.
In spite of that, there is plenty to be optimistic about defensively. Last week I called FSU the anti-Baylor, this week we should be able to pronounce this game the anti-Baylor game. Lamar Jackson is currently averages 6.2 yards per attempt passing with a 53.6% completion rate; which would put Louisville 106th and 105th nationally in those respective categories if he had comprised all of Louisville's passing attempts this year. In fact Louisville's opponent-adjusted explosive passing rate drops even further, down to 119th nationally. The raw numbers confirm that metric: Jackson is not top-100 nationally in passes of 10+ yards or 20+ yards, and has not thrown a pass for longer than 36 yards so far this season. On top of that, Jackson (with the help of a Louisville offensive line that returns 19 total starts, 124th in the nation in returning O-line experience, but still in front of 127th ranked FSU) has proved to be very sackable, he's been taken down 10.3% of the time on passing downs, good for 106th nationally.
Other Louisville running backs have proven to be not as threatening. Brandon Radcliff, the team's 2nd leading rusher, is averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry. But Jackson has taken team-leading 40% of the carries in games he has started. It looks like if Louisville is going to beat Florida State's defense it's going to be because Jackson did so on the ground.
But can Louisville stop the Seminoles? Definitely, Maybe.
In terms of overall run defense, Louisville is closest ranked to South Florida among FSU's past opponents. This seems like a good thing, because Dalvin Cook torched South Florida to the tune of 266 yards on 8.9 yards per carry. But the Noles should be a bit more trepidatious, as the identities of the Louisville and South Florida run defense are completely opposite. South Florida is weak in containing long run plays but quite good at denying consistent 5+ yard runs to its opponents. Louisville on the other hand has allowed at least 5 yards on 41.9% of its opponents non-short yardage run plays (69th nationally) but moves all the way up to 10th nationally in allowing explosive runs, with just three runs of 20+ yards allowed on the season. Given Dalvin Cook's ability to be successful in just about any kind of "yardage" situation - be it short, middle, long, or sideways, this doesn't necessarily mean Louisville has the Achilles heel for the FSU offense, but it does mean they should be a more capable inhibitor of the 40+ yard gashes Cook often delivers that haven proven essential to FSU's success.
Louisville's pass defense whistles to mostly the same tune, but to a much lesser degree. Their sack rate on opponent passing downs, 33rd nationally, could be a very real issue for this still young and every-changing starting lineup who looks like it will be without the dependable Kareem Are for a second straight week; but when Louisville's opposing QB's get the ball out of their hands, things tend to work out a bit better - allowing a 61.1% completion rate, good for 92nd nationally; and of those completions over 63% of them are "successful" passes allowed, defined as gaining more than 50% of the needed yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd down.
Losses to Auburn, Houston, and Clemson in consecutive weeks have painted the portrait of Louisville to the undiscerning eye as somewhere between a doormat and a mediocre team FSU has no business beating by less than two touchdowns. But two of the more well recognized computer models we have - S&P+ and F+/- rank Louisville 18th overall. with a 31% chance of beating Florida State and 32nd respectively, and most importantly, ahead of every opponent Florida State has faced to date. This game will more likely than not end with a 6th win for the Noles, but it's one I will certainly be cautious about in assuming victory.