Big thanks to DK for helping us out with these. We answered his questions as well; be sure to pop over to Tomahawk Nation and read our conversation there too!
STL: Florida State has been talked about as much for its off-the-field goings-on as for its on-the-field accomplishments. What's your read on how the soap opera of a season has affected the team: Distraction, or galvanizing force
TN: Unfortunately, it's kind of been the new normal for a year now. Ever since the original allegation against Jameis came out during this month last year, we've come up with every theory imaginable about how the team would respond. Galvanized? Distracted? Angry? I personally have come to the conclusion that the answer is it just doesn't affect them on the field at all. Jimbo has gotten tired of having to take questions on it of late, the fans are obviously sick of it, and I'm sure the players are tired of hearing about the off-field stuff as well, but it just hasn't shown up in any discernable way on the field. It's sort of mind-boggling. Call it unflappable, call it sociopathic, call it whatever you'd like. They just keep playing at a high level.
STL: The Noles' propensity to stage comebacks, or at the very least play games with inconsistent effectiveness, has generated a lot of talk that Florida State isn't as good as we all thought before the season. How do FSU fans feel about the ups and downs that have been a part of almost every game?
TN: The 2014 Cardiac ‘Noles are a definite change of pace from the death machine we saw in 2013 that laid waste to everything in its path. Close games can be fun, but I think most of us miss the death machine. The Seminoles definitely lost a lot off of the championship team of a year ago, and some voids have proven tougher to replace than many expected. Losses at safety, linebacker, receiver, and particularly nose tackle have meant a downgrade in level of play from 2013. So I guess the quality of this team relative to pre-season expectations depends on just how good you thought this team was going to be coming into the year. I know many FSU fans thought we'd see a continuation of the 2013 run, and I think we're finally to the point where most of the fanbase realizes that the 2013 team was an all-time great team for the program, and it shouldn't be a measuring stick for this year's squad. 2014 FSU is still very good, although I will admit to having expected more decisive wins at this point of the season coming into the year. Florida State is also experiencing a reversal of the tremendous injury luck of 2013 this season. The ‘Noles are banged up all over the place, and health is the biggest obstacle facing this team right now. I think the ceiling for this team is still very high, but the injury concerns and inconsistent play have definitely shown this year's team to be vulnerable.
STL: The scariest thing to me, as an outsider looking at the FSU program, is its incredible youth. Your Heisman-winning QB is a redshirt sophomore. Freshman RB Dalvin Cook just gashed Louisville when he got to the edges, and WRs Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane have both played huge roles in the passing game. Where is the peak for this program, and how far away is it?
TN: Yeah, last week against Louisville really saw the freshmen showing out, with the three you mentioned accounting for 4 touchdowns and something like 50% of the yards FSU gained on offense. That's always encouraging, and a great selling point to the 2015 class. FSU needed these guys to step up. The receivers lost Shaw and Benjamin off of last year's team and needed better production at wideout than had been seen early in the season. The backfield has seen Mario Pender injured, forcing Dalvin Cook into a lot of carries early in his career. It's great to see those three rise to the occasion and play a critical role in a huge game. They're definitely a reason I think FSU ‘s ceiling is so high this year, though I think the health of the team and play on the offensive line will be the determinative factors in how far the team goes. The O-line has not played quite to expectations this year after returning four starters, and the injuries on defense have been difficult to deal with. As far as a peak for the program, I think FSU will continue to be a power in the Atlantic Division and a part of the national picture for as long as they continue to recruit to the level of the past few years. Jameis is gone after this season, so next year's team will be breaking in a new starter at that position and several on the offensive line, but they'll be loaded at the skill positions. The defense next year could be very good, returning a lot of talent and depth. What last year taught us is that you can't always predict when the championship run is coming. Many of us thought last year would be the building year to 2014, Jameis Winston's second season at the helm, experienced offensive line, good schedule, etc. It turned out that the team chemistry and leadership was excellent, the injury luck was fantastic, and everything fell into place to produce the magical run. So I think the moral of the story is to keep recruiting at a high level, get some bounces, and hope you can take advantage of the right circumstances, particularly now with the four-team playoff.
STL: One of the biggest drop-offs between last year's squad and this one has been the defense. Three of FSU's opponents have broken 30 points against the Noles, including an NC State team that's 1-4 in the ACC. Losing guys like Timmy Jernigan and Lamarcus Joyner certainly explains some of the difference. What else has changed? Who has failed to step up the way fans hoped/experts predicted?
TN: Losses at safety (Lamarcus Joyner and Terrance Brooks), linebacker (Telvin Smith) and nose tackle (Timmy Jernigan) have proven tough to replace. Jalen Ramsey has moved to Joyner's star position and is playing better each week, Tyler Hunter has replaced Brooks coming back off of an injury and has been up and down, Reggie Northrup has rotated with some others in Smith's spot, and nose tackle has been the real problem area. It's the one position at which FSU couldn't afford an injury, and sure enough, Nile Lawrence-Stample went down in week three for the year. His backups haven't been good. Derrick Mitchell is the one competent one, particularly against the run, and he has been banged up too, though he played against Louisville (albeit not well). It's required the ‘Noles to ask a whole lot of Mario Edwards Jr., who is a freak but has also been playing injured. FSU also had 7 linebackers out with injuries against Louisville. So it's been a struggle from the standpoint of probably not being as talented as last year's defense, and then being injury-laden on top of that. There's also the leadership factor. Joyner and Smith were the guys on last year's defense, and the 2014 unit really lacks the go-to vocal leaders, as well as the football IQ that those two brought to the 2013 group. That said, when healthy this group is probably far better than it gets credit for being. Edwards Jr., Goldman, Ramsey, Williams, and Darby are major talents. The hope is for some significant healing as soon as possible.
STL: Jameis Winston banged up his ankle pretty good against Louisville. What's the latest, and do you expect it to affect the game plan much? How might Jimbo change things up to protect his star QB?
TN: Jameis may have been exaggerating that one a bit because it looked OK when he tore off down the field to congratulate his defense in the waning minutes of Thursday's game. But it may make Jimbo a little less likely to run him, although FSU will get its backup QB back this weekend in all likelihood. The QB situation behind Winston for the last month or so has been scary, as after Maguire the Seminoles have redshirted their freshman QB and would have to resort to a walk-on or former QB they'd converted to wide receiver. I don't really expect Winston to be limited at all. It would be nice if the ‘Noles could have success on the ground and limit what they ask him to do if there's any concern at all, but I'm not all too optimistic we'll see that. I think FSU will continue to do what it's had success doing against the other good defenses the ‘Noles have seen, namely, challenge secondary depth by throwing to a lot of different receivers early and often. UVA has played well on defense this season, and I expect the ‘Hoos to be able to stop FSU fairly frequently if the Seminoles try to limit what they do for any reason. Thankfully I don't see Florida State straying from its strengths, and the match-up of the FSU O and UVA D will be a fun strength-on-strength battle to watch.
STL: I know no one needs reminding of what happened the last time these two teams faced off in Tallahassee, but hey look at that I just reminded everyone anyhow. FSU's record at home speaks for itself, but is there any chance the Noles are looking ahead to next week's rivalry with Miami? What might Virginia be able to exploit in an otherwise-stacked opponent?
TN: Yeah, I could see the look-ahead factor being in play. Miami has started to play better and that one is slotted for an 8pm kick on ABC at Doak South. The ‘Noles have also had a tendency to play at a very mediocre level until they have to, at which point they hit the jets and play better than anybody in the country. Letting teams stay in games like that will burn FSU if they do it too many times. I think UVA's hope in this game is to take away the FSU run early, take advantage of the stereotypical 2014 ‘Noles slow start, and run the ball effectively to keep Jameis off the field and shorten the game. That's the recipe to keep the game close into the later stages, and then yeah, weird things like 2011 can happen. I certainly believe the Virginia defense has the ability to frustrate the Seminoles on offense if they aren't sharp, and I think the Cavaliers can run on an injury-riddled front seven. But there's a danger if UVA starts slowly too, which the ‘Hoos saw last week against GT. If FSU goes up early and forces Virginia to play from behind, it won't be much fun for Lambert or Matt Johns to face a nasty ‘Noles' pass rush with extremely talented defensive backs. So there's a way it can happen, but the Cavaliers are going to have to be at their best to pull it off with very little margin for error.
STL: Bottom line—Who ya got?
TN: I've been pretty cautious/pessimistic with this team since the Oklahoma State game, and therefore pretty accurate (sadly). Every week, many of our fans, and even several of our writers, predict that this is going to be the game where the team turns the corner and wins decisively. It would be really, really nice if FSU could do that this week, injury-laden with Miami on deck. So while I'm not sure it's with my head or my heart, I'm going to be that guy this week. The FSU offensive rhythm in the second half against a good Louisville defense was very impressive, and this is as healthy as we've seen the defense in a month or so. I also think the bad scenario for UVA has a good chance of playing out, as an early couple of scores from FSU at home will make life tough for Lambert and Johns. I'm going to take the Seminoles to cover at 37-13 and actively ward off haunted thoughts of 2011 through the balance of the week.