Ahh it's that time of year again. Miami-Florida State has been one of the greatest rivalries in modern football history, peaking from 1987 to 1993 where both teams finished in the top four six years in a row and four national champions were crowned between them. If you're looking for a rivalry game between two of the absolute best teams in football with only each other standing in the way of national dominance... then I suggest you look up one of those games in a football archive somewhere.
This year both Florida State and Miami come into this game with some very real flaws that will probably play a large part in determining Saturday's winner. Rather than give you a detailed hypothetical of how each position group will match up for both teams, let's look at a couple of the more extreme statistics defining this season so far for both teams - and how those strengths or weaknesses could be exploited or rebutted. Details from the Miami profile and the FSU profile. Note: sample set is very small so these stats are not etched in stone as true team characteristics, but this is the best we have right now.
Dalvin Cook, please please please get healthy soon
It should be fairly obvious by now that Dalvin Cook is very good at playing the position of running back. Despite playing tougher overall run defenses (in both simple yards per carry allowed, and in S&P run defense rankings) Dalvin Cook has had a higher proportion of his runs go for 20+ yards than any of Ezekiel Elliot, Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb. He currently ranks 4th in yards per carry of all running backs nationally who have averaged at least 10 carries per game, and two of the three running backs in front of him have played at least three opponents who currently rank outside the top 100 in run defense, the third is Leonard Fournette. It's clear JImbo knows that Dalvin Cook is the key to our offense being successful this year, and if he can play at or near 100%, he's a very high risk of having a field day on Miami.
Miami is currently 86th nationally in yards allowed per carry, and 123rd nationally in run defense when adjusted for the strength of their opponent's run game. Opposing teams have been able to both gash them for long breakaway gains, and gain yardage with incredible consistency. There is very real potential for Cook to have a monstrous day if his hamstring is feeling up for it. And there is every reason to stick with the run even if Cook cannot play.
FSU may always be 8 yards away from a first down
Diving into another piece of the FSU run game v. Miami run defense is the added advantage FSU has in short yardage situations. Through four games this year - when FSU has attempted a run on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards for a first down, they have been successful 100% of the time. Literally every time. You could point to our competition so far, but how does Miami do defending these situations? They're currently ranked 123rd in the nation at defending these short yardage plays - allowing their opponent to be successful on these runs 90% of the time. Getting *to* the short yardage situations has been the tricky part for FSU, but they will certainly have an advantage in continuing drives if they can consistently get close enough.
FSU is the anti-Baylor
For all the reasons FSU's passing game has felt woefully inadequate so far, the lack of big play passing may be the worst offender. FSU currently ranks 126th in adjusted explosive passing rate, and has only 11 completed passes of 20 yards or longer through four games - good for 92nd nationally. This could be FSU's most glaring problem against Miami - whose talented secondary is ranked 23rd nationally in defending those passes. Unless a certain running back ends up breaking off for a long touchdown run, it looks like FSU will continue shorter passing opportunities where they have been much more consistently successful under Golson (43rd nationally in passing success rate - defined by achieving 50% of necessary yardage on first downs, 70% on second downs, and 100% on 3rd downs) and Miami is much more keen to giving up consistent yardage (86th nationally in successfully defending those passes).
On the bright side, we look to be about as far from a big-12 team on the defensive side as well. FSU is currently 2nd nationally at defending explosive passing from opposing teams, although it should be noted that most of FSU's opponent's offensive styles tend towards short, quick passes rather than the deep game-changing kind, and have limited talent to work with under center.
The trade-off: our nickel and dime keeps getting nickeled and dimed
Much like the passing game, Florida State has been extremely effective at limiting long breakaway runs, with just 18 of their opponents rushing attempts going for 10 yards or more, and just two of those going for 20 yards or more. This year's Florida State defense has been exemplary at forcing opponents to move the chains slowly and excruciatingly with small gain after small gain, the problem is that teams have been reasonably effective in doing just that. FSU's run defense has been able to tackle the opposing rusher at-or-behind the line of scrimmage 15.7% of the time, good for 103rd nationally - meaning that about 5/6ths of the time opposing teams are getting *some* positive yardage out of a run.
This could very well be an Achilles Heel on Saturday, because the Hurricanes are quite adept at not getting stuffed at-or-behind the line, ranking 21st nationally with just a 14.7% stuff rate. Despite losing four starters from their 2014 offensive line, including two with all-ACC honors, Miami has done an incredible job of pushing forward and getting 3-5 yards at a time from its backs.
That said, there may be an element of hope in those numbers - given the universal expectation of Brad Kayaa as the best quarterback in the ACC, it seems like teams are more focused on limiting the Canes passing game when that threat is present; but in some bizarre Jekyll/Hyde fashion that probably only Miami is capable of, those obvious short yardage situations in which Miami is 2 yards or fewer away from a first down, they succeed at converting only 13.8% of the time (good for 118th nationally) despite the fact that 85.3% of all their runs gain positive yardage. It appears stacking the box is a real kryptonite, and one that FSU, as previously mentioned, excels greatly at doing.
Florida State plays an incredibly slow tempo (120th out of 128), but Miami also plays somewhat slowly (71st).
To turnovers or not to turnovers?
Here's a fun little anomaly - FSU is currently the only team left in FBS to have not committed an offensive turnover, this has also been the first four game streak in FSU history without an offensive turnover. Given the perpetual concern by talking heads this offseason about what a high risk Golson was this year due to his struggles with both fumbling the ball and throwing interceptions, I think Florida State fans can all feel a little bit relieved this is not one of the problems the Noles have had to deal with on top of the others, though much of this is attributable to good luck.
This looks like it will be challenged quite seriously by a Miami team that is feasting on the mistakes of their opponents. Miami is currently 2nd nationally in turnover margin per game, averaging 2.25 more takeaways than their opponent, and 7th nationally in turnovers forced per game at 2.75.
So which one of these statistics is going to give way to the other? Well 8 of those 11 total forced turnovers by Miami have been interceptions, as opposed to the more random and unpredictable fumble recoveries; so it's plausible to think Miami's stingy defense could be a problem for Golson's turnover-less run; on the other hand Miami is currently 8th nationally (of the 75 teams who have averaged at least four passes defended per game) in the proportion of total passes defended that resulted in interceptions, at 36.3%, higher than any team in the nation over the 2014 season, and that ratio typically is a matter of luck that generally regresses back to the mean over time.
Against Cincinnati and Nebraska, Miami allowed 17 points in the five quarters with superstar safety Deon Bush, and 50 (FIFTY!!) in the three quarters in which he was suspended for targeting. Bush will be playing the entire game against FSU. He is Miami's best defensive player, and perhaps its best player.