The Ultimate ACC Championship Preview: Can Florida State finish the job?
Everything you need to know about Saturday night’s ACC Championship Game showdown between No. 4 Florida State and No. 14 Louisville.
The hype began shortly after Florida State beat Oklahoma in the Cheez-Its Bowl last January, when quarterback Jordan Travis and edge rusher Jared Verse, a projected 1st-round NFL Draft pick, began a parade of stars deciding to return in 2023.
It only intensified after the Seminoles routed LSU for the 2nd straight year in their season opener, then went to Clemson and became the first ACC opponent in 7 years to win at Death Valley.
Even though the TV talking heads and social media know-it-alls have begun to put down Mike Norvell’s 4th-ranked team in the wake of Travis’ season-ending leg injury, FSU remains undefeated and undeterred in pursuit of its lofty goals.
Including a trip to the College Football Playoff.
“It all goes to the players. They’ve made the commitment. They put in the work,” Norvell said earlier this week. “You can set a standard. But (it doesn’t mean much) if people aren’t willing to push to the standard and hold themselves accountable to it.”
The Seminoles have certainly done that on the way to the 4th 12-0 regular season in school history.
They lead the ACC in scoring offense and scoring defense and have shown the kind of poise and determination to overcome any kind of adversity. Even the loss of their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback.
The fact that Tate Rodemaker, not Travis, is the one leading them on the final leg of their quest for championships isn’t even the biggest surprise heading into Saturday’s game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Their opponent is.
The matchup is set! 🏆
⬇️ read more: https://t.co/tUGHLSAppX
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) November 19, 2023
Louisville was picked to finish 8th in the ACC’s preseason poll in its first season under new coach Jeff Brohm.
But thanks to a combination of returning talent and key transfer portal pickups, including quarterback Jack Plummer, receiver Jamari Thrash and safety Devin Neal, the Cardinals have exceeded all expectations.
They answered criticism about their soft ACC schedule by playing their best against their toughest opponents, including an impressive win against Notre Dame on Oct. 7 that vaulted them into the national rankings. They rose as high as No. 10 before getting knocked down a peg and out of Playoff contention with last week’s upset loss to rival Kentucky.
But with a defense that leads the conference in sacks and the most prolific 1-2 running duo in the league, Louisville’s 10-2 record is anything but a fluke.
As the slim 2.5-point spread favoring FSU suggests.
“The margin for error is so small,” Brohm said. “When you play a team that is undefeated, very efficient, knows how to win and does all the small things correctly, you’ve got to figure out a way to do that for 4 quarters.”
That’s the task at hand.
When Florida State has the ball
1. Take care of Tate
Tate Rodemaker is no Jordan Travis. But he’s not chopped liver, either. He was the first player to commit to FSU after Norvell was hired in December 2019 and he’s in his 4th season in the program. And he has the confidence of his teammates, as running back Trey Benson proclaimed after last Saturday’s win at Florida.
But while Rodemaker has held up well so far under the pressure of being thrust into the starting role, the task will only get tougher from here on out. That’s why its incumbent upon Benson and those along the offensive line to make things as easy as possible for their new starting quarterback by running the ball effectively and giving Rodemaker ample time to throw.
Neither task will be easy. Louisville ranks No. 1 in the ACC and 12th nationally against the run at only 96.8 yards allowed per game. The Cardinals are also among the league leaders with 30 sacks and 12 interceptions.
Key matchup: FSU OTs Robert Scott and Jeremiah Byers vs. DE Ashton Gillotte
Guards Darius Washington and D’Mitri Emmanuel were among the 7 Seminoles named to the All-ACC first team on Tuesday. But it’s going to be the 2 tackles, Scott on the left side and Byers on the right, who will face the most difficult challenge against the Cardinals.
They’re the ones tasked with keeping Gillotte and his friends out of the FSU backfield and away from their quarterback.
Not many have accomplished those goals this season.
Gillotte leads the ACC with 11 sacks. He’s the only player in the league in double figures in that category. He’s doubly dangerous because of his ability to strip the ball away from the passer once he gets there. He has 3 forced fumbles this season, including one at a key juncture in the Cardinals’ win against Notre Dame.
Earlier in the NC State-Louisville game:
DB in the middle #13 and DE #41 took out the LG, C & RG and freed up #9 Ashton Gillotte to get the sack! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/xHsf6js5W6
— Video from: @TSV__1 (@TSV__1) September 30, 2023
The 6-3, 270-pound junior isn’t the only Louisville defender capable of creating headaches for the Seminoles’ offensive line. Gillotte’s bookend, Mason Reiger, has contributed 5.0 sacks and 4 quarterback hurries while playing in only 8 games.
2. Feed the playmakers
The absence of Travis’ ability to improvise and make plays with his legs has put even more of an emphasis on the Seminoles’ large arsenal of offensive weapons. And Rodemaker did a decent job of spreading the ball around to them in the come-from-behind win against the Gators.
Benson rushed for 95 yards and 3 touchdowns on 19 carries. Wide receiver Johnny Wilson caught 6 passes for 64 yards. Tight end Jaheim Bell added 3 catches for 38 yards. Still, the most prolific playmaker of the bunch, wide receiver Keon Coleman, was little more than an afterthought whose name was buried deep down toward the bottom of the boxscore.
Coleman touched the ball only twice against Florida, once on a key 34-yard punt return that set up FSU’s go-ahead score early in the 4th quarter. But whether Florida’s secondary put forth a concerted effort to take him away or Rodemaker simply couldn’t find him downfield, he was limited to only 1 catch for 24 yards.
Norvell and his offensive coordinator Alex Atkins will have to get creative to take advantage of Coleman against a Louisville secondary that is among the ACC’s best.
Key matchup: WRs Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson vs. CBs Quincy Riley and Storm Duck
Coleman has caught 46 passes for 639 yards and an ACC-leading 11 touchdowns. Wilson has added 39 receptions for 596 yards. While he has scored only twice, he’s still a big-play machine by averaging over 15 yards per grab.
On the other side of the ball, Riley and Duck are outstanding cover corners who have 15 PBUs between them – to go with Riley’s 3 interceptions. But no matter how tight they blanket FSU’s dynamic duo, they’ll still have their hands full keeping the ball out of their hands.
#FSU WR Keon Coleman
Monster night vs. LSU (9/122/3). Catch point aggression, hand strength, and dominance in the redzone. pic.twitter.com/7rErgW9Xd9
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) September 4, 2023
Wilson, at 6-7, and Coleman, at 6-4, will have a significant height advantage over their smaller Louisville defenders. Coleman is particularly adept at going up over his man and making 1-handed grabs of passes that would normally sail over a receiver’s head.
3. Play a clean game
The Seminoles have done a good job this season at not beating themselves. They’ve lost only 3 fumbles and their 5 total giveaways are the fewest among FBS teams.
Turnovers, however, are always a concern with inexperienced quarterbacks. Or in Rodemaker’s case, one with only a handful of high-leverage game reps in his career. They usually happen when the passer is subjected to a heavy rush or tries to do too much by forcing the ball into tight coverage.
Rodemaker has avoided making those mistakes so far. That includes taking a safety during the 1st half against Florida last week rather than putting a ball up for grabs and potentially costing his team a touchdown by throwing a pick-6.
He has yet to be intercepted since taking over for Travis late in the 1st quarter against North Alabama 2 weeks ago. He is a combined 25-of-48 passing for 351 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Seminoles’ starter.
Key matchup: QB Tate Rodemaker vs. FS Devin Neal
After completing only 1 pass to Coleman last week, Rodemaker will be looking to get his team’s top offensive threat more involved in the championship game. And he’s likely to try it early. But while he’s looking downfield for his talented receiver, he’d be advised to keep one eye on the lookout for Neal lurking in the shadows.
The Baylor transfer has been a ballhawk at the back end of the Cardinals’ defense. Not only does he have 4 interceptions, tied for the 3rd most in the conference, he’s also got 6 pass breakups from his free safety position.
When Louisville has the ball
1. Shake it off
Maybe the Cardinals got caught looking ahead to their shot at their first ACC championship. Or maybe their rival Kentucky simply has their number. Whatever it was, last week’s loss to the Wildcats put a disappointing punctuation mark on an otherwise memorable season.
But as any coach worth his salt will attest, you can’t let 1 loss beat you twice.
So it’s important for Louisville to flush the defeat quickly, regroup and not let this opportunity pass it by while also avoiding the trap of getting caught up in the moment and just being “happy to be here.”
While that holds true on both sides of the ball, it’s especially important on offense where Plummer has been known to make questionable decisions when he tries to do too much. The good news for the Cardinals is that after their 1st loss at Pittsburgh, they bounced back with 2 of their most complete efforts of the season – shutting out Duke and putting a thorough beating on Virginia Tech with Plummer completing 11 of his 12 passing attempts.
Key matchup: QB Jack Plummer vs. DE Jared Verse and LB Kalon DeLoach
Plummer has put together a solid season in his first season at Louisville after playing 4 seasons at Purdue and Cal. He’s completed 66% of his passes for 2,952 yards and 21 touchdowns. But he’s also been intercepted 11 times, the 3rd-most in the ACC and, as mentioned, many of those mistakes came when he was under pressure.
And the Seminoles can put as much pressure on a quarterback as anyone in the country. Verse is a disruptive force whose contributions go far beyond his 7 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
The attention defenses have to pay to Verse and the rest of a star-studded defensive front has given DeLoach the opportunity to wreak a little havoc of his own. He also has 7 sacks to go with a team-leading 63 tackles. He also has 2 forced fumbles, including a strip sack of Clemson’s Cade Klubnik that changed the course of that game and the entire season for both teams.
If Plummer gets the time to throw, he has plenty of receiving options. Fellow transfer Jamari Thrash ranks 3rd in the ACC with 56 catches for 801 yards and 6 touchdowns, and Chris Bell and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce are averaging better than 15 yards per catch.
2. Run the football
The best way to neutralize a pass rush is to run the football effectively. That fits right into the Cardinals’ wheelhouse thanks to the 1-2 punch of Jawhar Jordan and Isaac Guerendo.
The run that gave Louisville the win 🔥🔥🔥
Isaac Guerendo went untouched for 73 yards for the TD that would end up being the deciding score !
— Redshirt Heisman (@TasteOfSport) November 10, 2023
Both average better than 6 yards per carry and are threats to take it to the house. Jordan led the ACC for a good portion of the year before missing a game and still ranks 2nd in the conference with 1,076 yards. Guerendo, a transfer from Wisconsin, has added 639 yards. They’ve combined for 21 rushing touchdowns, including 7 on runs of 33 yards or more.
The more effectively Louisville is able to run, the more time Plummer will have to find his receivers downfield in the passing game. Even if they aren’t able to dominate on the ground early, the Cardinals need to keep pounding away in hopes that their physical running back tandem can wear down FSU’s defense and do damage as the game goes on.
Key matchup: C Bryan Hudson vs. DTs Braden Fiske and Fabien Lovett
Jordan and Guerendo are both punishing runners capable of breaking tackles before outrunning defenders the rest of the way to the end zone. But they have a much better chance of doing damage the more room they have to run.
While opening the holes falls on the entire offensive line, Hudson anchors that unit. The winner of the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, Hudson has played nearly 800 snaps this season. He has recorded better than 50 knockdown blocks and has yet to allow a sack.
He and his linemates will face perhaps their most difficult challenge to date in Fiske, Lovett and others on the interior of the Seminoles’ defensive line, run stuffers who are often overshadowed by the pass-rushing prowess of Verse and those on the outside.
3. Avoid the 3rd-quarter blues
Getting off to strong starts hasn’t been a problem for the Cardinals. They’ve outscored opponents 97-21 in the opening quarter. It’s the starts coming out of halftime that have given them trouble.
Their scoring advantage in 3rd quarters this season is only 94-86. And the disparity has been even more dramatic in their 2 losses.
Against Pitt, they gave up 17 unanswered points coming out of the break and were outscored 24-0 during the 2nd half, turning a 21-14 halftime lead into a 38-21 loss. Another slow start to the 2nd half last Saturday against Kentucky contributed to a collapse that saw Louisville give up a 10-point advantage and suffer its 5th straight defeat in the Governor’s Cup rivalry.
It’s a habit the Cardinals would be advised to break on Saturday. By contrast, FSU has played its best football after halftime, especially in the 4th quarter – when they’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 124-30 margin.
Key matchup: Jeff Brohm vs. halftime
There’s only so much a coach can do during the short time between the 1st and 2nd halves. But whatever it is that Brohm and his staff have been doing, they might want to try something different.
It would also be a good idea to remind their players not to take their foot off the accelerator, even if they’re a head late in the game. Five times this season, the Seminoles have trailed in the second half. And all 5 times – against LSU, Clemson, Duke, Miami and Florida – they’ve rallied to win.
FSU’s Ryan Fitzgerald and Louisville’s Brock Travelstead have made 15 field goals this season. The difference is that Fitzgerald has done it only 16 attempts while it’s taken Travelstead 22, the 2nd-most in the league. Travelstead might have an edge when it comes to his range. His longest field goal is 55 yards while Fitzgerald’s is 48.
The Seminoles also have an edge in punting, where Alex Mastromanno is a Ray Guy Award finalist who averages 46.2 yards per boot and is a weapon when it comes to the field position game. The Cardinals, however, have blocked a punt for a touchdown this season.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) October 22, 2023
FSU’s advantage figures to be even greater in the return game, where Deuce Spann has taken a kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown and Coleman leads the ACC with an average of 12 yards per punt return – including a 34-yarder that set up his team’s go-ahead score against Florida.
FSU and Louisville had 5 common opponents, and it’s tough to come to any solid conclusions based on the results.
Each had their way with Virginia Tech, with the Seminoles winning 39-17 on Oct. 7 and the Cardinals cruising to a 34-3 rout on Nov. 4. They both held on to win by a touchdown against Miami and beat Duke by 3 scores.
FSU’s 38-20 win against the Blue Devils, however, was much harder to come by than the 23-0 whitewash a week earlier. The Seminoles trailed heading into the 4th quarter, taking control by scoring 21 unanswered points only after Duke quarterback Riley Leonard left the game with a leg injury.
The ACC’s 2 best teams also had trouble against the league’s worst team, Pitt. While Louisville fell apart in the 2nd half on the way to a 38-21 loss punctuated by a pair of Plummer interceptions, FSU fell behind early and struggled offensively without top receivers Coleman and Wilson before coming away with a 24-7 victory.
The Seminoles are only favored by 2.5 points with the over/under set at 47.5, numbers that are much lower than they might have been had Travis been healthy and available to play. The folks in Vegas, like those on the Playoff committee, are still not sold on how good a team FSU is with Rodemaker playing quarterback.
There’s also the issue of pressure. While both teams are playing to become conference champions – Louisville for the first time since joining the ACC – there is considerably more on the line for the Seminoles. Their current No. 4 ranking puts them in a position to earn a spot in the Playoff with a victory, no matter what anyone else does.
Although the Cardinals have proven themselves to be a legitimate title contender and not the product of a soft schedule, FSU is much more talented than any team they’ve faced. Regardless of who’s playing quarterback. FSU has scored the most points in the ACC and allowed the fewest.
And Rodemaker has already enjoyed some success against Louisville. Subbing for an injured Travis, he came off the bench last season to throw a pair of touchdown passes and spark a 2nd half comeback that produced a 35-31 Seminoles victory.
The circumstances are different and the stakes are higher this time. But the result will be the same.
Florida State 33, Louisville 24