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UNC Football vs. Florida State: Game Preview

Can the Tar Heels keep it rolling against a struggling FSU team?

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in 23 years, the North Carolina Tar Heels are ranked in the top five of the AP poll. After a high-scoring 56-45 victory over Virginia Tech, the Heels are now 3-0 on the season and set to face Florida State (1-3) on the road this Saturday night. The Seminoles have struggled perhaps even more than expected under first-year head coach Mike Norvell but they were competitive for at least the first half in a 42-26 loss to #4 Notre Dame. Here is your Florida State game preview:

FSU Offense

The Noles have been inconsistent on the offensive side of the ball all year long. In the opener against Georgia Tech, they scored a relatively quick ten points but managed just a field goal over the final three quarters. Similarly against Miami, FSU opened with an encouraging 14-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in a field goal, but the offense went stagnant for the rest of the half while the Hurricanes ran away with a 52-10 victory.

After struggling early against Jacksonville State, the Seminoles finally started clicking once they chose to go with sophomore Jordan Travis at quarterback. He led the offense to five straight touchdown drives en route to a 41-24 win. Travis was then named the starter against Notre Dame as the Noles put up 26, which is still more than they scored in the first two games combined.

There have been three quarterbacks that have gotten burn for FSU this season. Junior James Blackman and freshman Tate Rodemaker are the other QBs to see opportunities but it looks like the job is Travis’ to lose for now. Blackman and Rodemaker have combined to go 56/95 for 471 yards passing, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. Meanwhile, Travis is 26/44 for 426 yards passing, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. That’s not even including the 235 yards (5.5 ypc) he’s added on the ground. Travis’ ability to beat you with his feet is arguably the main reason for the FSU offense opening up and could be trouble for a Tar Heel run defense that just got gashed by Virginia Tech to the tune of 260 yards.

In the backfield, the Noles have a three-headed monster of Lawrance Toafili, La’Damian Webb, and Jashaun Corbin. Despite seeing the fewest carries, Toafili leads the bunch with 164 yards (7.1 ypc) followed by Webb (153 yards, 4.3) and Corbin (133 yards, 4.8). At face value, these numbers seemingly indicate the FSU rushing attack has been successful this season but dysfunction in other areas has prevented that from being the case. It’ll be interesting to see how well the Carolina defensive front is able contain Travis and these backs.

FSU Defense

I thought the Seminole defense played pretty well in the opener against Georgia Tech, all things considered. They forced three turnovers, special teams blocked two field goals and an extra point, and they shut the Yellow Jackets offense out in the first half. Georgia Tech ultimately ended up with 16 points, which is a number I’m sure Mike Norvell expected his team could top coming into the game.

Since the opener, though, FSU has given up 39.3 points per game over its last three contests. Jacksonville State was the only one of those three to not eclipse 40. The Seminoles haven’t been able to create as many big plays defensively and teams are really just picking them apart, especially on the ground.

Florida State’s opponents’ yards per carry (6.0) and opponents’ rush yards per game (238.0) both rank worse than 70th in the country (only 76 Division I teams have played a game). This is music to the ears of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams who combined for 383 yards rushing against Virginia Tech. These two could be in for a big day.

Through the air, the Noles defense hasn’t been quite as abysmal, but still not good. They rank 67th in terms of opposing completion percentage (67.59%) and are giving up 265.0 passing yards per game. Sam Howell looks like he’s officially settled in as he finally connected on some deep throws against Virginia Tech. Florida State ranks dead last among teams that have played in sack percentage (0.92%). Thus, Howell could have more than a few chances to sling the ball downfield on Saturday.

Other Notes

Turnovers are always important but could be a particularly big factor in this one. The Tar Heels have forced just one turnover this year while committing four. As a result, the Seminoles actually have a better turnover margin on the season. If the Heels want to force the Noles into some errors, linebackers Chazz Surratt, Tomon Fox, and Jeremiah Gemmel must bring some pressure to the quarterback. Carolina’s defensive line has struggled to do that on their own, and while the secondary might be exploitable with sophomore corner Storm Duck out once again, I think Jay Bateman will want to test Jordan Travis’ ability to throw the ball downfield.

Outlook

Ultimately, I think Carolina’s offense is just too much for FSU to handle. It felt like we were still waiting for Howell and company to find their rhythm despite UNC beating Syracuse and Boston College. Well they did just that against Virginia Tech, amassing 656 total yards and 56 points on the day. The Heels punted just three times throughout the entire game and two of those drives were killed by dropped passes. The Seminoles are definitely improving but I’m not sure they’ll be able to contain Carolina’s balanced attack.

Score Prediction: UNC 41, FSU 20