If this were any other year, Florida State’s Rasputin routine would be arguably the best story in college football. You can stab them, you can poison them, you can club them, you can shoot them. But you can’t quite finish them.
Florida State skated by Clemson in a 23-17 overtime win on Sept. 20. It trailed NC State at the end of the first quarter on Sept. 27 before rallying to win 56-41. It survived Notre Dame 31-27 on Oct. 18 after a penalty erased the Fighting Irish’s would-be game-winning touchdown, and it beat Louisville 42-31 on Oct. 30 after falling behind 21-0. Miami had a chance to beat Florida State on Nov. 15, but a late drive stalled and the Seminoles won 30-26. A last-second Roberto Aguayo field goal was the difference in a 20-17 win over Boston College on Nov. 22, and Florida State topped Florida 24-19 on Nov. 29 despite four interceptions from quarterback Jameis Winston.
Did you get all of that?
There has been no shortage of off-field drama for Florida State, too, which seems to overshadow how much incredible on-field drama the reigning national champions have faced on a weekly basis. Yet somehow the rallies continue.
Can the ‘Noles be beaten? No team this season (or in the last 28 tries, for that matter) has been able to do it. But Georgia Tech stands as good a chance as any in Saturday’s ACC championship game in Charlotte (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
The seemingly endless string of close calls, while not producing a single defeat, has set up a blueprint for how to take down the Seminoles. Here are five things Georgia Tech needs to do.
Imagine this: Georgia Tech receives the ball to begin the game and goes down the field in one of its patented eight-minute drives to take a 7-0 lead. Then Florida State picks up three yards on first down, throws an incomplete pass on second down and allows a Winston sack on third down. Tech gets the ball back with good field position and kicks a field goal to go up 10-0. That seems like something that has happened to this year’s Florida State team about a half-dozen times.
Now here’s where this gets interesting. The reason the ‘Noles have been able to regularly come back is they’ve had ample opportunities. But if they find themselves in a hole against Georgia Tech that won’t be so easy.
“We've had some games where we've been able to control the clock and limit the possessions,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday. “It’s like Saturday night, I am sure if you asked [coach] Jimbo [Fisher] he would have loved to have 16 or 17 possessions. I'd like to have eight. It's probably going to be somewhere in between. In my perfect world, we'd have eight and they'd have seven. That'd be a good formula."
Johnson wants to shorten the clock in most games. Against Florida State, it might be necessary to spring the upset.
Capitalize on mistakes
With 1:29 remaining in the first quarter against Florida, Winston threw his third interception of the game. The Gators were only able to turn the first two into six points, and had a 9-0 lead at the time. On the play following the interception, which set the Gators up at the Florida State nine-yard line, Florida quarterback Treon Harris tossed a pick-six. The lead was sliced to 9-7, and the Seminoles were allowed to start making their run.
That's the blueprint for exactly what the Yellow Jackets can't do. If Georgia Tech gets good field position following turnovers, it needs touchdowns, not field goals -- and it certainly can't return the favor with a turnover of its own. Yet the Yellow Jackets tend to make the most of their chances.
“If there's one word that can describe Georgia Tech's defense this season, it’s opportunistic,” said Joey Weaver, a writer for From The Rumble Seat. “And it's played a big role in their success. In their last five games, they've created 17 turnovers, more than 31 FBS teams have all year. Those turnovers have led to a lot of scores and have played a major role in multiple big wins. That huge 28-6 win over Clemson? Two of the team's three touchdowns came on pick-sixes.”
The Yellow Jackets will need to have a similar effort against Florida State, which has lost at least two turnovers in all but three games this season (the Citadel, Notre Dame, Boston College).
Winston won the Heisman Trophy last season while handing off to running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams and throwing to receivers Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw (along with tight end Nick O’Leary). Of those seven crucial players, only Williams, Greene and O’Leary remain, and Williams will miss Saturday's game with a concussion.
The offense has taken shape thanks to a crop of talented youngsters, including tailback Dalvin Cook (who has started to run with power rather than trying to bounce every carry outside) and receivers Jesus “Bobo” Wilson and Travis Rudolph. Greene will get opportunities. However, given all of the double-teams he faces, the freshmen and sophomores will have chances to make plays.
The issue with young players, especially young receivers, is sometimes they get frustrated or quit on routes if defenders play them physically.
“Young receivers oftentimes struggle with contact,” said Bud Elliott, the editor of Tomahawk Nation. “Some of these teams have gotten very grabby down the stretch, and it’s a smart way to play FSU. Just grab and grab and see if receivers will run through contact and still run their routes. See if the refs will call it.”
All it takes is one time for a guy to break off his route while Winston is expecting his receiver to be in particular spot. If a defender slips in -- as happened in the Louisville, Miami and Virginia games -- it could lead to a costly turnover. Georgia Tech, which has six defensive touchdowns on the year, could take advantage.
Attack the middle
Despite all of the five-star recruits that Florida State has, Fisher’s squad still has depth issues. The Seminoles have had all kinds of injury trouble this season and were down to just two healthy linebackers against Louisville. (They’ve gotten closer to full strength since then.)
While the back end features a star in Jalen Ramsey, and the defensive line is anchored by Mario Edwards Jr., Lorenzo Featherston and Eddie Goldman, the middle of the field can be exploited. With backs like Zach Laskey and Synjyn Davis, Georgia Tech is prepared to exploit Florida State’s primary weakness.
“The way you attack this defense is over the middle,” Elliott said. “Between the linebackers and the safeties, those guys have not done a great job working together as a team. There’s been a lot of guys in and out of the lineup with injuries, so they haven’t necessarily had the cohesion. You also don’t have the playmakers you had last year.”
With all of the team speed Florida State has (and the fact that top receiver DeAndre Smelter is out for the Yellow Jackets), Georgia Tech will need to force the Seminoles into missing assignments against the option. If the Jackets consistently push plays into the soft middle of the field, they could find success offensively.
Florida State has played in so many close games this season that its zombie quality has become a part of its identity. When the Seminoles fall behind, they know they can fight back because they’ve done it before. “That's who we are and how we play,” Fisher said Sunday.
Other teams play tight in those situations and get away from their game plan. While Florida State continues to chip away, the bottom drops out from their opponents. Georgia Tech can’t let that happen. Johnson knows well how a team just keeps winning, having racked up an FCS-record 39 consecutive home victories during his stint at Georgia Southern.
“The mindset of our players was that somebody was going to make a play and we were going to win the game,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It never entered their mind that we could lose. And I'm pretty sure that's where Florida State is. They've made so many plays and they've managed to find ways to win, and that's a hard quality to have. My hat's off to them. People have gotten close, but it's not horseshoes or hand grenades. Close isn't good enough.”
If the Yellow Jackets find themselves in a close game down the stretch, they have to fight Florida State’s calm with a calm of their own. Otherwise, they run the risk of being swallowed up, like so many other teams have before them.