Florida State and Oregon are set to face off Thursday evening in a matchup that has been highly anticipated since last season. The two will battle in Pasadena for a shot at advancing to the national championship game on January 12. The undefeated Seminoles, ranked no. 3, have everything to prove in their first playoff game after narrowly escaping numerous times in the regular season. No. 2 Oregon will be the toughest test the Noles have faced since last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
Florida State enters the game as a nine point underdog, which isn’t all that surprising despite finishing the season 13-0. Too many games required come from behind victories and last minute heroics for FSU to be called a favorite against an Oregon team scoring an average of 46 points per game.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher is fine with that. His message to his team all season long has been ‘win and the rest will take care of itself.’ Fisher has reiterated several times that the rankings don’t matter much to him, so long as his team has a shot at proving what he believes they can do.
Most critics, however, have written off the Noles as unworthy of competing with the likes of Alabama and Oregon, citing several close games with unranked opponents. Yet while FSU hasn’t looked nearly as dominant as it did last season, it does have the ability to play with the best.
But if the Seminoles are to beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl, they’ll have to be nearly flawless. Getting behind early is not an option this time around; Marcus Mariota and the Ducks offense won’t slow down late in the game enough to allow for another miraculous comeback performance.
So let’s take a look at some keys to the game and what FSU will need in order to win.
Jameis Winston has to keep up with Marcus Mariota. For the first time in his college career, Winston will be an underdog to his counterpart. It’s not debatable that his play this year hasn’t lived up to the gaudy numbers he put up in his first season. He’s thrown 16 fewer touchdowns and seven more interceptions than he did last year. As of late, it seems to take at least a quarter for him to settle into the game and find a rhythm – 13 of his 17 interceptions this year have come in the first half. If he opens the game against Oregon like he did against Florida, it’ll be nearly impossible for Florida State to win.
But if he delivers a performance similar to the one he gave against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship game, FSU will give Oregon a run for its money. It is crucial that FSU not let Oregon score unanswered points, and that starts and ends with Winston’s play. Playmakers like Rashad Greene, Dalvin Cook and Nick O’Leary will provide Winston with the same assistance they have all year, but there will be moments in the game that require a miraculous effort on his part, and FSU is going to rely on him to deliver.
That being said, FSU must win the turnover battle. Mariota only threw two interceptions the entire season, so it is important that FSU make the most of its possessions. As always, whichever team forces more turnovers will likely win the game, especially in a game that could easily turn into a shootout between two capable offenses. FSU’s defense, allowing an average of 23 points a game, can get the job done, considering it is the healthiest it’s been all season.
Linebacker Terrance Smith is fully healthy for Thursday’s game after battling lingering knee issues, bolstering a strong linebacking core that is responsible for five interceptions this year. With starting cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams also one hundred percent, FSU’s secondary should be as dangerous as it can be. Plus, Oregon’s best defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is out for the game, giving FSU’s defense even more of an advantage than it already had.
Defensive tackles Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample will be also back for the Rose Bowl, making the defensive line much stronger than it has been the past few games. Both players will be needed to limit Oregon’s running game. Over the last eight games of the season, Oregon running back Royce Freeman alone averaged 119 yards a game. FSU will have to effectively stop the run in order to prevent the Ducks from getting into the methodic offensive rhythm they’re known for.
Lawrence-Stample was expected to be out for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle against Clemson in late September. His return, along with a healthy Goldman, will be huge for FSU’s ability to win the battle in the trenches. In Oregon’s only loss against Arizona, it was limited to 90 yards between the tackles, in large part because of multiple injuries to the offensive line. While that line is now mostly healthy, it is still somewhat of a patchwork group that Florida State could exploit. The physicality that Goldman and Lawrence-Stample bring will certainly help.
Oregon has perhaps the most lethal offense in the nation, but as FSU has proved all season long that it can never be counted out. It’s been quite some time since the Seminoles entered a game as underdogs, but that should only make them more eager to prove that they deserve to be in the college postseason. Expect big plays and a high scoring affair.
Final Score Prediction: 41-35 Florida State
by MATT SIMONS / sports editor