Why Miami Is Positioned to Flip the Script on Florida State
The buzz around Clemson-Louisville last Saturday night felt like a heavy championship fight. The Tigers and Cardinals did not disappoint, exchanging haymakers until the final bell. It was an instant classic, and Clemson’s 42-36 win will almost certainly have far-reaching effects on not just the ACC race, but the College Football Playoff picture.
With all the hoopla surrounding the Clemson-Louisville slugfest, it was easy to forget about the ACC undercard. But Week 5 proved to be significant for the conference’s second tier looking to get into the ACC title conversation.
One team, Florida State, a presumptive preseason conference championship favorite, watched its hopes all but vanish when North Carolina kicked a 53-yard field as time expired to steal a two-point victory in Tallahassee. The question being asked across the college football universe this week is, “What’s going on with Florida State?”
Conversely, the Seminoles’ cross-state rival – the Miami Hurricanes – cruised to a road victory against Georgia Tech to assert itself as a bona fide contender in the ACC Coastal. The Canes’ 4-0 start has the college football pundits talking program resurgence and asking, “Is this Miami team for real?”
Saturday’s clash between Florida State and Miami may well answer both questions. The prevailing narrative is that these are two teams going in opposite directions, but narratives sell ad space and generate the almighty clicks. If you want predictions for Saturday night, take a look at the numbers.
Every year a team becomes a darling of the metrics’ crowd early in the season, and the statheads are ahead of the curve in predicting that team’s success. This year, that team may be Miami. Based on any number of metrics and systems, it’s not a stretch to say that this Hurricanes team in year one of the Mark Richt era has been better than great; they’ve been elite.
numberFire’s nERD efficiency metric rates the Hurricanes as the 9th best team in the nation. And our numbers are hardly unique. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and Ed Feng’s The Power Rank also rank Miami 9th, with Football Outsiders’ F/+ the most conservative on the Canes at 11th.
Miami’s formula through four games has been emphatic dominance on both sides of the ball. There’s balance and then there is what the Hurricanes are doing. numberFire currently ranks the Hurricanes in the top 9 in the FBS in offensive passing and rushing and defensive passing and rushing.
The Hurricanes, statistically speaking, don’t have a weak spot. If you look a layer deeper, the Hurricanes’ offense and defense ranks in the top 20 in four of Connelly’s key advanced metrics – IsoPPP (explosiveness), success rate (efficiency), field position, and finishing drives (points per trip inside the 40-yard-line).
On the offensive side of the ball, Brad Kaaya has been deceptively fantastic. The junior quarterback’s overall numbers look fairly pedestrian – less than 250 yards passing per game with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8-to-3. But Kaaya has sparked the nation’s 7th-ranked passing attack, according to numberFire, thanks to his average of 8.9 yards per attempt.
The pressure is off Kaaya because the Miami rushing attack has been the true difference maker. After averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in 2015, super sophomore Mark Walton has exploded in his four 2016 games, averaging 7.3 yards per carry and notching 445 yards and 8 touchdowns. Fellow running back Joseph Yearby has another 321 yards and a 7.3 yards per carry clip.
While the offense was expected to make a leap under Richt, the biggest reason for optimism is Miami’s defense. Manny Diaz’s unit is second in the nation, allowing only 3.58 yards per play. The defensive line, behind Demetrius Jackson and Chad Thomas, has been particularly disruptive. The defensive front leads the nation in havoc rate, with the full defensive unit ranking second in the same statistic.
Still not believing the Miami rebirth narrative? Consider this: numberFire’s historical rankings suggest this is the best Miami team since the transcendent 2000-2001 national championship team. Miami’s 2016 nERD rating of 26.52 is a full 10 points higher than the Canes’ next best season in a decade (2009). The Canes have the highest-rated run offense and defense of any Miami team over the last decade, according to numberFire, and this is also the best pass offense and second-most efficient pass defense over the same period.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After getting boat raced by Louisville two weeks ago, Florida State’s rehabilitation tour has failed so miserably that Lindsay Lohan would be proud.
First, the Seminoles seemingly went wild on South Florida, winning by 20, but Florida State gave up 35 points and 8 yards per play to a good Group of 5 team. One week later, North Carolina rolled up 553 yards of offense and an average of 7.58 yards per play to send Florida State reeling.
While there are problems all over the field for Florida State, it’s the lackluster play of the defense that has the Seminoles tumbling down the metrics’ rankings. According to Connelly, the Seminoles are now just 124th out of 128 in defensive rushing efficiency. The passing defense has been statistically worse. With Derwin James sidelined, Florida State now ranks outside the top 100 in passing defense efficiency (102nd) and preventing explosiveness (114th).
And oh boy, has Florida State been prone to the big play. There is no team in the nation that has given up more plays of 20 or more yards, 36, than Florida State. The Seminoles currently share the basement of the FBS in this category along with the likes of Hawaii, Rice, Syracuse, and Wyoming.
In a historical perspective, nERD rankings show that this is the worst Florida State run defense since 2009 and the second-worst unit since 2000. The pass defense is the program’s worst in 17 seasons.
That’s a dangerous brew for Florida State as it prepares for Miami this weekend. The problem for the Seminoles is that their weaknesses (rush defense and big play prevention) will be exacerbated by Miami’s strengths. And the Hurricanes are as well-positioned as any team in the nation to contain Florida State’s prolific offense, particularly if the havoc creators up front can manhandle Florida State’s offensive line and slow down the Seminoles’ efficient passing game.
Given the current trajectory of both teams, it is defensible, perhaps even pragmatic, to consider Miami the favorite heading into Saturday night.
Vegas certainly thinks so. When the Golden Nugget released its Games of the Year lines in early July, Florida State was 7-point road chalk. Today, Miami is a 3-point favorite.
The numbers suggest that Miami becoming the favorite was warranted, but there may no longer be much value in the Hurricanes laying field goal. numberFire’s algorithm likes the Hurricanes to win outright 61% of the time and with the probability of covering only 47% of the time. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ concurs with Miami winning by 3.4, while Brian Fremeau’s FEI likes the Hurricanes by a single point.
You’ll be paying some extra juice (-150), but the safer play here is the Miami moneyline. The Hurricanes look poised to win straight up, which would guarantee the Miami resurgence narrative rightfully continues.