Christian Ponder #7 of the Florida State Seminoles reacts to a play against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game at Carter-Finley Stadium.
If you like, you can look at last year's Florida State game as the difference between the good season UNC had and the great one that could have been. The Heels came in on a twelve day rest and with a middling 4-2 record, mostly the result of a decimated offensive line. They were facing a high-octane offense, no-defense Seminole team that had lost three straight. And the Heels came out on fire, leading 24-6 early in the third, before things fell apart. Christian Ponder put together an incredible second half, finishing with 395 yards on 33 of 40 passing, while the Carolina offense sputtered and flailed their way into a loss.
The game has had lasting effects on the Heels. They won their next four, including upsets over both Virginia Tech and Miami, before losing close games to State and Pittsburgh to finish off the season. The offensive play calling also became more daring, after a fourth-quarter punt on 4th and 5 from the FSU 44 basically ended UNC's hopes of winning the game; the Heels have attempted 15 4th down conversions this season. And now Carolina finds themselves in a very similar position, meeting FSU after an FCS tune-up game, with any chamce of making the ACC Championship game requiring winning out the season.
This isn't the same Florida State, however. The Seminoles have turned their defense around from last season, and currently lead the conference in scoring defense. They're especially good at defending the run, as opposed to last season when UNC put up 238 yards on them (40 from Johnny White on three carries). Now, some of that impressive rushing defense can be chalked up to a schedule of very weak teams (Wake, BC, UVa, BYU) and good teams that rely more heavily on passing (Oklahoma, Miami). Nevertheless, with UNC's passing game in a tailspin since losing Zach Pianalto, Johnny White is going to have to have a big game.
On offense, the good news is Christian Ponder isn't what he was last season, either. He finds himself behind T.J. Yates in most statistical categories, and his preseason Heisman campaign is now just a distant memory. Which isn't to say he can't put together another jaw-dropping performance, just that it isn't nearly as likely. In part that's the fault of his receiving corps, a pretty young crew. Their offensive line has also suffered – they're down to their fourth right guard on the depth chart – but the Heels haven't been going for a lot of sacks this season. Ponder may have more time throw today than he has in recent weeks.
The running game for FSU will be interesting. They have the third-best rushing offense in the ACC, but don't put a single back in the Top 10. Some of that is due to their primary back Ty Jones missing two games to an ankle injury, but the Seminoles will also rotate in Chris Thompson and Jermaine Thomas. All are capable, but not fantastic backs. UNC's run defense has been spotty, but with more players back and healthy, they should be able to hold.
It's difficult to draw any conclusion about this game in advance. FSU absolutely destroyed the Miami team that easily handled UNC, but they've also struggled since, barely beating Boston College. The Heels are equally erratic; I want the team that one four straight to return the field, but I don't know if that team is gone for good or returning just in time for the home stretch. I guess I'll believe it when I see it, and otherwise expect the Seminoles to come out on top.