It might be too early to view this weekend’s clash between Louisville and Florida State as the game of the year in the ACC, but it’s not inconceivable to believe the result will have major implications for the College Football Playoff.
The Seminoles and Cardinals collide for the first time ever with both teams ranked. Magnifying the occasion is the fact that both teams are ranked in the top 10 (FSU at 2, Louisville at 10). Louisville is coming off two huge blowout victories, but this will be the team’s first real test. Sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson will have to continue his stellar play in order for Louisville to create havoc in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and beyond.
After two weeks, Jackson leads the nation with 13 total touchdowns, including seven scores through the air. In two games, he also has an ridiculous 1,015 yards from scrimmage, and Jackson didn’t even play the entire two games.
Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino will want to establish his dual-threat quarterback against the Florida State defense. That goal will be made much easier by the fact that Seminole defensive back Derwin James is out due to suffering a cartilage tear in his left knee last week. He avoided an ACL tear, but James, regarded by some as the best all-around player on the Florida State roster, will not play this Saturday.
James is everywhere on the field for the Seminoles. He plays safety, corner in nickel situations, and is also an edge rusher. James figured to be a key component for Florida State in the attempt to slow down Jackson.
Even with James on the field, though, the Seminoles defense has yielded more 20-plus yard passing plays than any other team in a Power Five conference this season, and without their NFL-caliber defensive back, Jackson should have more space to roam on the edges.
Without James, defensive end DeMarcus Walker becomes the most important defensive player for Florida State. He leads the nation with 4.5 sacks. Jackson and the Louisville offensive line need to account for him at all times.
On defense, the Cardinals will have similar concerns with Florida State freshman dual-threat quarterback Deondre Francois. He led his team back from a 22-point deficit to defeat No. 11 Ole Miss by 11 in his first-ever collegiate start two weeks ago. In two games, he completed 69 percent of his passes and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. Francois also has five touchdowns and one interception.
As great as Francois has been, he likely won’t even be Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s No. 1 focus. That would be All-ACC junior running back Dalvin Cook, who is averaging 5.12 yards per carry through the first two games.
Louisville must find a way to slow down Cook and force the Seminoles into long passing situations. In those third-and-long scenarios, the Cardinals’ defense must honor the run and come through with stops. Florida State was 3-of-7 in 3rd-and-10 or longer situations versus Ole Miss, and two of those conversions were running plays.
In such closely contested games, special teams and the turnover battle become extremely important. Louisville sophomore kicker Evan O’Hara missed a 28-yarder versus Syracuse last week that could have put the game away earlier. The Cardinals also had three turnovers and a minus-1 turnover differential against the Orange.
Neither of those can happen if Louisville is going to knock off Florida State. The Cardinals will have to be perfect in the kicking game and win the turnover battle to beat the Seminoles.
It’s a massive game played early in the day. The Cardinals won’t have to wait long to take the field on Saturday, but once play begins, they’ll need to display poise and patience at a level they’ve never done before.