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Florida State offense aims to fix red zone woes in 2016

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FSU's receivers rarely made contested catches in the red zone in 2015 and the results showed with some dreadful red zone numbers. It could change in 2016.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Seminole offense was a modern marvel. A single-season FBS record of 723 points scored. Seminole running back Devonta Freeman eclipsed 1,000 yards for the first time since Warrick Dunn in 1996. Jameis Winston became the youngest quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. And within 22 months of the victory against Auburn in the final BCS National Championship game, all 11 starters would be playing in the NFL.

One key to the 2013 Seminole offense's success? Owning the red zone. In 73 red zone attempts, the offense would go on to score 58 touchdowns in 73 attempts (79.5%). Even against the better opponents, the red zone offense was simply electric: 32 touchdowns on 41 attempts (78.1%) against eight FBS opponents who finished with winning records.

So field an offense with a generational quarterback and future NFL players to dominate defenses in the red zone for a ton of points; got it.

The 2014 offense was still effective at scoring points, but the red zone production waned. With the NFL departures of wide receivers Kenny Shaw and first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and future NFL running back starters James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, the offense saw its production regress from an unearthly 78.1% red zone touchdown rate to the mean CFB rate that year at 58.3%.

Enter the 2015 offense, featuring exactly zero starters from the 2013 squad. We're familiar with the big changes in quarterback on the year, the relative health of Dalvin Cook, a new offensive line, and the ups-and-downs of FSU's talented but still raw receiving corps.

How did the Noles fare in the red zone?

Not great, Bob.

Overall, FSU was 89th in touchdown percentage inside the red zone (56.5%). And against FBS teams who finished with winning records in 2015, only 40% of FSU red zone scoring attempts went for touchdowns (109th nationally). That means, on average, 3 times out of 5 that FSU made it into an opponent's red zone they came away with 3 or no points.

Bold indicates era-worst
Year G Attempts Att/G TD TD % National Rank
2008 9 35 3.9 21 60.0% 47
2009 9 41 4.6 23 56.1% 56
2010 10 44 4.4 25 56.8% 57
2011 6 16 2.7 9 56.3% 65
2012 6 25 4.2 15 60.0% 45
2013 8 41 5.1 32 78.0% 5
2014 9 36 4.0 21 58.3% 58
2015 6 20 3.3 8 40.0% 109

As you can see from the chart, 40% is the lowest mark of the entire Jimbo Fisher head coaching era and at least since the beginning of 2008. Even if FSU had converted an extra red zone TD in 2015, 45% would still put them 102nd nationally. There are some issues with sample size here, as red zone attempts are relatively rare per game (even in 2013!). And while a two-sample statistical test for equality of proportions says the change from 2014 to 2015 is a bit noisy, the change from 2013 to 2015 is significant. All in all, eight red zone touchdowns are FSU's fewest since Obama took office.

But there's reason for optimism in 2016.

The key to scoring touchdowns in the red zone relies more on offensive efficiency than explosiveness. One reason why is that defenses don't have to respect the deep ball in a compressed space. At most a defense needs to account for 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. That means you can play coverage that lets you keep more eyes in the backfield and more bodies in the midfield.

For instance, quarters coverage (4 DBs each responsible for 1/4 of the field beyond 7 or so yards) gets you twenty-two eyes on the ball and some tight passing windows for a QB to throw into. In short, the less space you have to defend the better an offense has to utilize the space.

The 2013 offense were kings at this. They were the most efficient offense in all of CFB. While 34 of FSU's red zone touchdowns came on the ground in 2013, 16 came from passing. For instance, this one off play-action that you may remember.

Kelvin Benjamin touchdown rose bowl

Having an offense that can consistently A) run the ball in short yardage situations and 2) complete passes accurately in compressed space is a "dog that'll hunt." You could argue that is the recipe for consistent success regardless of where you are on the football field.

But you need the players. More precisely, you need the offensive line to get push and pick up the right guys, backs that can bring the thunder, receivers who run the right routes and haul in contested balls because there's less room to get open, and an accurate quarterback who can throw with anticipation, knowing who will be open before he sees that they are. While recreating the 2013 offense seems unlikely to ever happen again, it is likely that the 2016 season will more resemble that configuration than the 2015 offense.

We'll table the QB discussion for the future. But the 2016 offensive line stands to show on-field improvements given that that last year's line featured five new starters. The running backs - well, somehow they'll be better than last year which seems impossible.

The biggest reason for optimism for a more efficient offense, especially in the red zone, come 2016? The emergence of Auden Tate. From David Visser last month:

Early returns from 2016's spring practice sound promising, in the form of 6-5 sophomore Auden Tate. After Tate missed last week's first scrimmage with a groin injury, he turned heads catching balls from quarterbacks today, stepping up to grab some of the first WR reps. After the scrimmage, when Fisher was asked about which receivers stood out, Tate's name was mentioned right after that of Travis Rudolph, who's drawn as much, if not more, praise than any other Seminole this spring.

Said Fisher of Tate: "Auden made a play or two." Now, those words may not exactly jump off the page at you, but here's the thing: the 'Noles don't need another volume receiver-- a big red-zone play or two a game could be perfectly sufficient. And according to Rudolph, Tate has been providing that explosiveness throughout spring: "He is having a heck of a spring. He is definitely making big plays out there, making some great catches. (His physical frame) Gives him a lot of advantage because he can box a lot of guys out, making acrobatic catches and he's got good body control."

A more efficient run game led by an older offensive line with excellent backs and the emergence of a big WR in Auden Tate might give FSU fans visions of 2013 in 2016.