At this point, we're not sure if it's luck, destiny, pure skill, or a strange combination of all three that have gotten the Florida State Seminoles to 27 straight wins going into their rivalry game with the Florida Gators.
Coming off a national championship campaign, the loss of seven players to the NFL draft (18 over the last two seasons, tied with LSU more the most in that time), and the departure of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt for Georgia, one would think there would be some sort of a step back. That's partially true, at least statistically, with Florida State dropping all the way from the No. 7 total defense in the country last year to No. 53 right now. But why hasn't this translated to losses?
New defensive coordinator Charles Kelly was expected to run the same style of 3-4 defense Pruitt ran (and is still running now at UGA). But after 25 years as an assistant coach, Kelly's setting up his players in the pre-snap slightly differently than the wunderkind Pruitt did. Let's compare the two.
Here's a standard 4-2-5 set-up with a 3-4 base — meaning four defensive lineman, two linebackers and five defensive backs are on the field, but the alignment is using 3-4 principles. You see the three defensive lineman with their hands in the ground, and in the middle of the defense, you see nose tackle Timmy Jernigan. Florida State was able to build almost all of their 2013 success around Jernigan's ability to not only take up the center and guard every play, but also disrupt the pocket; that ability made Jernigan a second-rounder in the 2014 NFL Draft.
This year, there's no Tiimmy Jernigan in garnet and gold, which called for a change in alignment.
Not only did Florida State lose Jernigan in the middle, they lost linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones. For these reasons, there are two small changes in the way FSU stacks their front sev ... well, uh, six.
First, notice the spacing and positioning of the four defensive linemen. Florida State doesn't appear to play out of the 3-4, since it's more like a customized 3-3-5, but they still do with their personnel. The key change is in the way their two interior lineman are playing one true defensive tackle role and an adjacent nose tackle. With no Jernigan up the middle, FSU tries to exploit the guards more, as opposed to shifting their attack to one side or the other.
Here's a better look at what I'm talking about.
In a traditional 3-4 (and in Jeremy Pruitt's old 3-4), you'd see the defensive player on the right side on the screen with his hand in the ground at the 4-technique. But in this lineup, and in most lineups Florida State has used this year, you won't visually recognize a 3-4 with three true defensive lineman and a JACK linebacker (the role Dante Fowler Jr. plays for Florida) technically listed as a linebacker but used as a pass rusher.
Instead, you'll see what's pictured above: A nose tackle between the left guard and the center, a defensive tackle at the 3-technique and what appears to be two JACK linebackers on their side of the line. If some of that was confusing, here's a defensive alignment chart which helps explain.
Now, when Florida runs power, don't be caught off guard if you see FSU go to more of a "stacked" front line with up to five DL/LBs all at the line of scrimmage. Against Louisville, Florida State started the game off with that second JACK linebacker returned to a true defensive end. The purpose of this? Getting more size on the field for a run-heavy offense, and shifting the pass-rushing emphasis toward Mario Edwards getting one-on-one match-ups.
That right there is a true 3-4. One nose tackle, two bigger (gap control) defensive ends and two hybrid linebackers on the far ends on the trench. This is what Florida State tends to look like against power running teams.
So if we recap, in the screen shots against Clemson and Notre Dame, we see FSU try to get more speed on the edges with a second linebacker in the stand-up position without three down lineman, but in the tape against Louisville, we see them not only go back to a full 3-4, but play most of the game with even Mario Edwards down in a three-point stance when the 'Noles only rush four.
The reason I point these out is because Florida doesn't just run the spread option or the power formation; they run power formations out of the spread option. Against Florida, I expect Florida State to run more of what we see in the Clemson tape than the Louisville tape, but you can be sure they'll switch it up if need be.
Florida's not "great" at anything on offense, except maybe coming away from red zone trips with at least three points, but it's committed to its running game. And good running games have given the 'Noles — who have coughed up more than four yards per carry in six of their last eight games, and whose decent YPC numbers are boosted tremendously by total devastations of bad Wake Forest and Virginia running games (Wake Forest is dead last nationally in rush offense, and Virginia 90th) — fits.
After reviewing the assignments and execution of FSU's front four, one thing is clear to me: Charles Kelly knows a hell of a lot about defensive play-calling. He's been able to mix-and-match his personnel after losing so many starters from last season (including his two guys as the linebackers coach), and has still managed to keep his team in ball games.
FSU's secondary, which most observers dubbed a major strength of Florida State's defense entering 2014, has since turned out to be a bit of question mark. Florida State had the No. 1 and No. 2 recruiting classes in 2011 and 2012 with top DB recruits Karlos Williams (ha), P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. But when you watch FSU play, it's 2013 recruit Jalen Ramsey who seems to be making the biggest impact, not least because FSU is trying to recover from losing both starting safeties in Lamarcus Joyner and Terrance Brooks, and boy, can you tell they miss those two.
Pro Football Focus is an NFL-based site that breaks down performances of all players on a play-by-play basis. It's a great way to get perspective into how each player contributes individually. So far they have two games broken down for FSU, Notre Dame and Louisville.
There seems to be a theme here: Jalen Ramsey is good, and everyone else is bad. (To be fair: Darby did have a good game against Louisivlle, but he wasn't covering Devante Parker, so.)
Kelly's biggest X factor in any game will be how he uses Ramsey. To this point, he's used him well.
When people think of slot corners, they usually think of the third best defensive back on the depth chart, but that's increasingly not the case at all. In today's spread offense-based football world, teams play out of the 4-2-5 (or with some combination of five defensive backs) whenever they can. That's not just because they want more speed on their side of the ball: Slot corners are more man-to-man players on tight ends or running backs, true, but another important component to a good slot corner is explosiveness off the snap when blitzing the weak side.
Ramsey is a phenomenal blitzer.
Pass-rushing skills as a slot corner don't come from hands, skills, or attacking moves like defensive ends, but from speed, burst, and bend. Ramsey does a great job in the Vine above of beating his blocker off the line and shows good bend in his body to still get around him, even when he's engaged.
The other main traits a coach looks for in a playmaking slot corner are anticipation and ball skills. Slot corners aren't always asked to drop beyond 10 yards in coverage, but when they do, you want them to be able to make plays off post routes and comebacks, the shifty stuff slot guys run.
Here's Ramsey making just such a play.
The key to this interception is pressure at the line of scrimmage, but when there is pressure, Florida State has ball hawks to capitalize on bad throws.
But while FSU may have the players to force a lot of turnovers in theory, they don't seem to be making many of those plays this season. With a turnover margin of -0.18 per game, Florida State can't seem to get out of its own way with turnovers on offense, and create much for themselves with turnovers on defense — a very different story from last year, when the 'Noles averaged a +1.2 turnover margin.
And that lack of playmaking seems to be a problem on money downs, too.
Florida State's been excellent on fourth down defense, ranking No. 12 nationally, and great at red zone defense, ranking No. 8. But there's a major area of worry: Third down defense. Florida State currently ranks 100th in the nation on third down, and is giving up a conversion rate of 43.6 percent. Compare that to last year's miserly 31.9 percent, and you can see the effects of those four defensive starters lost to the NFL draft.
Florida State doesn't win on third down, and they don't win in the turnover battle. Logically, with those flaws, you're going to lose some football games.
But we all know they haven't.
And Florida State's "saving grace," their complete shutdown of teams in the second half? That's not entirely true: The Miami and Louisville games are all people remember, and while FSU allowed just 13 points combined in those two games' second halves, the Seminoles conceded touchdowns to Clemson, N.C. State, Notre Dame, and Boston College in the second half, with three of those four games coming at home. There is substantial evidence for Kelly being great at adjusting his talent mid-game, as yards per play trend downward and turnovers trend up in the second stanzas against FSU, but pretending that these 'Noles morph into the '85 Bears after halftime is pure fantasy.
So let's go back to those three theories for Florida State's incredible run, and apply them to our understanding of the Seminoles' defense. Is it pure skill? Certainly, Florida State has some of the best defensive players in the nation, talent-wise, but we've seen that doesn't always equal the production it should with all the third down conversions they've given up this season. Is it luck? I'd say Florida State has been more lucky on offense than defense. When they have them, their defensive struggles can be attributed to poor play.
Is it destiny? I sure hope not. 27 straight is more than enough enough.
On Saturday, Florida's defense vs. FSU's offense is certainly the matchup to watch. But that's a more logical, straightforward proposition: Florida's run defense has been quite good since being mauled by LSU, and Florida State's running game only seems to get into gear if Dalvin Cook gets into space. This game will be in Jameis Winston's hands, and if he is too erratic with the ball, I really do think Keanu Neal, Jalen Tabor and Vernon Hargeaves III make him pay for it.
The more pressing question is this: Can Florida's offense capitalize off Florida State's defensive weaknesses (Williams and Hunter in coverage, and Lorenzo Featherston at the second JACK position) and neutralize their strengths (Ramsey in the slot, Eddie Goldman up the middle)?
The truth is, when Florida State can't get pressure, its defense takes a few step back in their production, and Max Garcia and D.J. Humphries are in the exact two position they need to be (center and left tackle) for that to happen. If Florida can control the trench on offense, and if Treon Harris can complete three or four key passes like we saw Brad Kayaa do in the first half of the Miami game, there's a very realistic chance for the Gators to pull of the biggest upset of 2014.
It's not a great chance, mind you. But it's realistic.