What: The Maryland Terrapins and Florida St. Seminoles - two teams who have failed to meet early-season expectations - meet on semi-national television. One will right the ship. The other will fall even further.
Where and When: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fl.; 3:30 on Saturday
Where to Watch: ABC for the East Coasters; ESPN2 for most of the Midwest and West Coast. Check your coverage here. Streams for weekend workers or those in the Southwest will be posted in the GameThread.
Gameday Weather: 71 and sunny at kickoff
Spread: Florida State -18. (I'd bet a fairly significant amount on Maryland covering the spread.)
- Slides. It seems like just yesterday Florida State was in the top 10 and Maryland had momentum after the opening win over Miami. Of course, those haven't held up: FSU has lost three of their last four, with the only win coming last week against Duke, which is hardly impressive; Maryland has lost four of their last five, with the only win coming three weeks ago against Towson. Whoever wins will have some much-needed momentum. Whoever loses will likely be able to close the book on a disappointing season.
- And so continues the C.J. Brown era. It's a little strange, I guess, but here we are, six weeks into the season with C.J. Brown starting at quarterback for the second straight game. He looked solid against Clemson, but they didn't know what to expect. Now that Florida State's athletic, talented defense does, can he have similar success? I guess we'll find out.
- History. Maryland has lost four straight against FSU, and has never defeated them in Tallahassee. It's a pretty well-known fact by now, but, y'know, just in case you forgot. Is this the first?
- Unleash the shellmet. Maryland will be wearing their new shell-themed helmet for the first time this season, after the Maryland Pride helmets in the opener and then five straight games of the matte-black. Given the bad mojo black helmets appear to posses, I'm all in favor of the move.
- Injuries. The Terps will be missing most of the players they've been without for the past few weeks (Demetrius Hartsfield, Kenny Tate, Andrew Gonnella, Matt Robinson, and so on), just adding Kevin Dorsey. Which is to say, they're still pretty well decimated by injuries. Good news: Darin Drakeford is likely returning this weekend. More good news: Florida State isn't in that much better of a boat. They'll be missing multiple starting offensive linemen, plus starting WR Willie Haulstead and RB Chris Thompson. Another starting WR, Rashad Greene, is questionable. Jimbo Fisher is calling the FSU offense-Maryland defense match-up the "Red Badge of Courage Game," and with good reason.
In a Turtleshell
Florida State offense vs. Maryland defense. As alluded to earlier, this is a battle of two battered units, but I still feel the Terps might have the worse deal. Florida State is missing seven players on offense, including multiple offensive linemen and a few starters at the skill positions, but their most important player - quarterback E.J. Manuel - is healthy. Nine defensive players are on Maryland's injury report, and of those a solid six are starters, including arguably the Terrapins' two most important players in Tate and Hartsfield. The real kicker, of course, is that Florida State actually has quality depth, whereas the Terps have resorted to playing out-of-position defensive backs, little-known JuCo transfers, and a boatload of freshmen.
Either way, neither of these units have been whole more or less since opening weekend. The Seminoles, especially, have seen quite a bit of variance, based around the injury status of Manuel, who missed a few games and was replaced by redshirt freshman Clint Trickett, who actually did surprisingly well. Still, Manuel is unquestionably The Man, and last weekend against Duke he made his first start since his injury, suffered back in mid-September against Oklahoma. He didn't air it out too much against the Blue Devils, but he didn't need to: despite only 14 pass attempts, he finished with 239 passing yards and four total TDs (two on the ground). The ground game did the rest.
That's somewhat of a departure from the norm for the Seminoles, who have been a passing team all year long. Since losing Thompson, they've lacked a feature back and have responded by airing it out significantly more, and in truth they're fairly efficient at it: they're averaging nearly 9 yards per attempt, a top-10 figure nationally. Compare that to the under-4 ypc average on the ground, and you figure out pretty quickly why they like the air so much.
That said, they did find more success against Duke on the ground, with true freshman running back Devonta Freeman emerging as a potential much-needed feature back, rushing 19 times for 109 yards (a 5.7 average). Then again, it's Duke, so, y'know. (Then again, Duke has a better rush defense - statistically, at least - than Maryland this year.)
Even with a neutered ground game and all those injuries, FSU's attack has been pretty consistently solid. After cleaning up against two cupcakes, they've had four straight games somewhere in between "decent" and "great". Getting 13 points against Oklahoma (the #11 scoring defense in the country) is nothing to sneeze at, and that was followed up by 30 point games against Clemson and Wake Forest before throwing down 46 on Duke. None of those scorelines are going to drop your jaw (especially after seeing Maryland's offense do even better against the Tigers), but given what the 'Noles were working with, you're certainly not going to think any less of them.
And for those of you hoping for a rest from facing elite athletes, you're probably not in luck. The skill positions in Tallahassee are as stocked as ever, even without Thompson and Haulstead - Freeman, Manuel, Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene, Christian Green, and more or less everyone on FSU's entire team is a former four-star. (And there's another super-freshman to face in James Wilder, Jr., a five-star running back ranked even higher than Sammy Watkins.) Past Manuel, Greene is the most player I just listed: emerging as FSU's best receiver in recent weeks, the true freshman is questionable for Maryland after missing Duke. If he can't go, it's one less proven athlete to deal with.
The good news for Maryland comes more in the experience department - that is, most of that talent isn't experienced thanks to the injuries, which levels the playing field a tad - and on the lines, where the Noles are perhaps hurting the most. Datko, an All-ACC left tackle, and Spurlock, a four-year starter at guard, are both big pieces to this line, and their replacements - Garrett Faircloth, a DT-turned-OT-turned-guard sophomore making his second start, and Bobby Hart, a true freshman - aren't nearly as imposing. That may open the way for Joe Vellano to wreak his increasingly-usual havoc, and will make the performances of David Mackall and perhaps Andre Monroe critical once again.
The other good news: this is a bit of a sloppy unit. They've had 13 turnovers, good for 85th nationally. Interceptions are a big part of that, with Manuel accounting for 6 and Trickett for 4. Getting some TOs would be an easy way to get a stop.
The real difference-maker is still the uber-talented Manuel, who showed his still-tremendous ability to just plain make things happen with the Duke game. His injury has perhaps overshadowed the fact that he's still been just about fantastic this year, and I'm sure he'll make Maryland's inconsistent, injury-riddle defense worry over how to limit his impact.
Maryland offense vs. Florida State defense. The $1,000,000 question: can C.J. Brown keep it up now that defenses know what's coming? Or, given that the competition just took a serious step up, can he even keep it close?
Clemson was a talented defense, but they were overrated and had some serious weaknesses that the Seminoles' group simply doesn't possess. Make no mistake: this is the best defense Maryland has seen so far this year by a fairly comfortable margin.
FSU's defense truly is top-notch: they're top-15 in total defense, top-25 in scoring defense, top-35 in passing defense, and a shudder-worthy 6th nationally in rushing defense, with a ypc average of under 2.4. Unsurprisingly, those marks are at or near the top of the conference in each category, with total D and rushing defense taking the cake.
That's not much of a surprise, given the talent on that side of the ball. Brandon Jenkins was one of the best DEs in football last year despite some early struggles this season; Nigel Bradham is an All-ACC type at linebacker; Greg Reid can be a spectacular corner; and that's roughly the way it goes down the line. The talent is a little scary. It's worth noting, though, that a few of their big pieces - DTs Jaccobi McDaniel and Moses McCray - are out for this game, which makes the front four slightly less intimidating.
For Maryland's run-heavy scheme, the low running numbers are pretty intimidating, but remember that they're partially due to big sack numbers (more on that in a sec). This group isn't entirely unbeatable on the ground: Wake Forest lit them up, remember, with running back Josh Harris going off for 136 yards on only 13 carries. There's a bit of a hole in the middle in the absence of McDaniel, which might even up the line battle a little, and they appeared to have some discipline problems as Harris tore them up. Perhaps Brown, who truthfully looks like the most explosive player on the roster, can benefit from that.
Still, Gary Crowton will likely have to test Brown's somewhat-shaky arm (and his receivers' more-than-somewhat-shaky hands) more than he'd like to, whether due to the score or the Seminoles' stingy D. When that happens, he'll have to contend with an increasingly unreliable wide receiving corps - no Dorsey, senior stalwarts like Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree dropping passes, and unproven freshmen seeing major time - as well as an experienced, hugely-talented secondary and an aggressive pass-rushing front four.
The defensive backfield features two of the best pure cover corners in the country between Reid and super-sophomore Xavier Rhodes, plus a wealth of options at safety. But perhaps more concerning is the Noles' pass rush, which is led by Jenkins - last year's team MVP - and sophomore Bjoern Werner, a German import whom you may remember from when Maryland was after him. Jenkins has struggled with only 2 sacks this season, but Werner has picked up the slack with five through six games.
The strange thing is, despite all this talent and athleticism defensively, they're not a team that really forces turnovers...like, at all. That great secondary has produced only four interceptions, and you can throw in two fumbles for a grand total of 6 TOs - good for 110th nationally. Maryland needs to refrain from turnovers to have a chance at games like this, and FSU not being a turnover-hungry team makes that goal a little easier.
Keys in Cliches
Please, please, please make a third-down stop. Maryland's opponents' 3rd-down conversion rate? 53%, worst mark in the conference. Florida State's 3rd-down rate? 47%, third-best in the conference. We saw the problems it could create against Clemson, and I don't think I can take much more of it.
Win the turnover battle: stay mistake-free offensively, make plays defensively. Fairly simple, no? FSU turns it over more than they should; they don't force turnovers as much as they should; as a result, their turnover margin is a woefully low -7, among the worst marks in the country. Compare that to Maryland's +6, among the best marks in the country. This is one of those things that teams just have to do to beat a more-talented foe, and it's especially important when it already matches up that way. Maryland doesn't have many advantages; they might as well take the ones they do.
Limit special teams errors. Perhaps not surprisingly, FSU's special teams is one of the better ones in the conference, in the top half of just about every stat that matters. Maryland can't afford another woefully below-average special teams performance.
Players to Watch
Rodney Smith, WR, FSU. While Rashad Greene has gotten all the praise, Smith has been solid, too. If Greene can't go again, Smith will be the #1 guy, and given how much the Noles pass, that's a pretty big role to fill.
Bjoern Werner, DE, FSU. Too obvious, perhaps, but the German DE has been too productive to leave off. He's leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss.
Marcus Leak, WR, Maryland. The true freshman is making his first career start, if the depth chart can be believed, in place of Kevin Dorsey and Ronnie Tyler. Let's hope he replicates the performance of the former more than the latter.
David Mackall, DE, Maryland. And throw in Joe Vellano, too. Maryland needs to pressure Manuel: the FSU line is missing two starters and was already allowing quite a few sacks - the second-most in the conference, in fact. Mackall appears to be alternating good and bad games, but at least it's time for his good one now.
I don't think Maryland will win this one, not on the road against an extremely talented team that has to feel their backs are against the wall. That said, the line being at -18 on this is absurd, and people should be putting quite a bit on the Terps to cover here. While an entirely healthy FSU is probably the most talented team in the conference, they lost to Clemson and I'd guess they'd lose to GT, too. Maryland played those two teams close, and I don't think they'll let FSU run away with this one, either.
I do have to say that I can imagine Maryland pulling one out, or coming close to it, depending on how well the offense clicks in its second game. I don't think it'll impress, but at this point it's really still one big wild card, and if it turns Maryland's way it could be interesting. Even if it doesn't, I still don't think the margin will be larger than 14. I'll say something like FSU 34, Maryland 21.