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Final thoughts: Rivalry wins are priceless, run the ball, recruiting

On Fridays in football season we take a look ahead to Saturdays game, reflecting on Florida State and Miami. The rivalry game will be played Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.

No ‘blah’ in this game or rivalry

If there ever were a year to “throw out the records” in an FSU-Miami game, this is it. The 10 combined losses are the most for FSU and Miami since 1975. Yes, a long time ago, with the Seminoles coming in with seven losses in a season that was just before Bobby Bowden arrived.

Neither team is ranked in 2021. Miami is even a longshot to win a division title, although it does have a tiebreaker edge over Coastal leader Pitt but does not over the No. 2 team in the division, Virginia. Florida State is a longshot to become bowl-eligible.

While it lacks the feeling of a dynasty era team, for either program, it is one where coaching eras can take shape. Is Manny Diaz able to steer his way through a difficult start with a quarterback who was far from a household name a month or so ago? Is Mike Norvell able to keep the Seminoles focused through the losses and navigate a difficult stretch of three rivalry games in five weeks? Two relatively young coaches — Diaz is 47 and Norvell is 40 — are seeking to shape their programs.

Norvell is set to begin his first game on the sideline against Miami after missing the 2020 game when he tested positive for COVID. This game is critical for Norvell, who has made sure a young team, one with a talent gap at a number of positions compared to a number of ACC opponents, has been highly competitive and been in position to win games. (As a reminder, 81.4 percent of FSU’s roster is a freshman or sophomore with many being classified as such because of the added year of eligibility due to COVID.)

In July and August, when discussion often turned to wins and losses we instead made a case for fun to watch and competitive. The Seminoles have often fallen short in the fun department but they’ve shown their character against FBS teams with their heart and how they’ve battled.

The rub with Norvell, the players and really the entire team right now is not just the 3-6 record but it’s in part the loss to Jacksonville State. We’ll question the coaching chops of Norvell and the staff and the mindset of players because of a home loss to an FCS team, a game in which Jacksonville State should not have been within striking distance on the final play. Those who have concerns will be put at ease if the coaching staff can devise a game plan and players can execute, delivering a win over Miami on Saturday.

That’s how much a rivalry game means. Florida State hasn’t defeated a rival in nearly four years and it may feel like eight or 10 years. It was Nov. 25, 2017 and FSU handled Florida 38-22 in Jimbo Fisher’s last game. A long time ago.

How you perform in a rivalry game is how you will be viewed by fans, boosters and recruits. Norvell’s biggest two wins have been over North Carolina and Mack Brown, confidence-building performances that didn’t deliver much momentum down the stretch in 2020 but still could this fall.

Norvell is not a desperate man, not like Diaz, who seems to be on a hot seat that has become less toasty of late. But Norvell is desperate to show what his players, staff and team can achieve. Wins over UNC are good, and that one in October felt unexpected at the time, but a win over a rival would bring a new level of affirmation for what Norvell and the staff have done in year 2. 

This isn’t necessarily a make-or-break game for the Seminoles but the way the first nine games went it feels more and more like a necessity that they knock off a rival, whether it’s Miami, Florida or both. November 2021 is significant for Norvell as part of his and FSU’s CLIMB.

Recruiting impact

In a normal year, it would be tough to argue that one game sways the long-term decision by a recruit to commit or sign with a school. But taking a look around the state right now, it’s easy to get the feeling that FSU has a golden opportunity.

Just for fun, let’s play a quick game. Which recruiting class would you prefer?

Team A has 16 verbal commitments, including two five-star prospects. It is ranked 13th nationally.

Team B has 13 verbal commitments, none of which are five-star prospects. It is ranked 22nd nationally.

Team C has eight verbal commitments, none of which are five-star prospects. It is ranked 61st nationally.

OK, that one was pretty easy. Take team A, which most FSU fans will know is the Seminoles’ group of verbal commitments with five-stars Travis Hunter and Sam McCall. Team B is Florida and Team C is Miami.

Recruiting rankings have flaws and of course nothing is official until the majority of the players begin to sign on Dec. 15. But anyone would prefer to have the quality and quantity of FSU’s class, which is a credit to Norvell and the staff for how they have evaluated not just football talent but also the character of players who have the desire to be a part of the rebuild here. 

There’s the potential for an uncommitted prospect can be swayed, FSU has a chance to make that impression with on-field performances against Miami or Florida. Dan Mullen is feeling the pressure at Florida, dismissing a chunk of his coaching staff in the middle of a 4-5 season (his fourth in Gainesville). Diaz is in the middle of a 5-4 season (his third in Coral Gables). While Norvell and FSU are 3-6, there is a feeling overall that the program is showing improvement on the field even while admitting it’s tough to find moral victories through losses.

Run the ball

FSU has used seven offensive line combinations in nine games. The return of Dillan Gibbons at left tackle (he missed the NC State game) should bring stability, helping center Maurice Smith. Pat Burnham took a look at the Hurricanes in his scouting report, and this game feels very much like one where the Seminoles must lean on its identity — run effectively and at times explosively with Jashaun Corbin, Treshaun Ward and Jordan Travis. 

There’s no real formula to victory with Travis dropping back 35+ times per game. In FSU’s wins where Travis has started, he has typically attempted passing totals in the teens (he was 11 of 13 at UNC in October and 8 of 19 vs. UNC in 2020, for example. His 22-of-32 performance against Syracuse in October feels like an outlier especially when factoring in the number of quick throws that were almost pseudo-runs (Corbin and Ward had five receptions apiece) or just getting receivers out in space.

The game plan should lean heavily on the run behind an offensive line that is at its best pushing forward as run blockers. Miami ranks 48th against the run, allowing 135.4 yards per game. But in three of the Hurricanes’ losses, Michigan State accumulated 193 rushing yards, Virginia racked up 181 rushing yards and UNC put up 228 rushing yards. 

Good teams have run on Miami. UNC is the No. 24 rush offense, Michigan State is 29th and Virginia is 85th. FSU is 41st in the nation, numbers that are inflated by 365 rushing yards against UMass but also deflated by the 100 yards combined in the losses to Clemson and NC State.

But if you’re seeking optimism in a matchup, it’s a sense that FSU is capable of running and Miami is susceptible to the run (as well as having issues with missed tackles).

Memory lane

Hope you will take time to enjoy Jerry Kutz’s video with Mickey Andrews and Billy Sexton who share thoughts on the FSU-Miami rivalry. In 2019, we also talked with 16 Seminoles about their favorite memories of games against the Hurricanes.

Here’s one more from Chris Thompson, who shared his story of the 2010 win at Miami in Fisher’s first year.

“Start of a new era at FSU,” Thompson said. “We scored 45 on Jimbo’s 45th birthday. One thing I won’t forget about that game and fans won’t let me forget either is going for 60 and getting it called back, to then score on a 90-yard run the very next play. When the penalty was called I looked to the sidelines at Coach (Eddie) Gran, my running backs coach, because I was tired. He just stared at me and said, “We got nobody left.” I’m glad he left me in because that’s one I’ll always remember.”