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Florida State is trending in the right direction but has plenty of work to do

The Seminoles will present a challenge to NC State’s rushing defense.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, it would have seemed impossible that Florida State’s program could ever be down, much less go through multiple coaching changes and an extended rebuild. Yet here I am in 2021 talking about a Seminoles program that hasn’t topped six regular-season wins since 2017. A program coming off three-straight losing seasons that may be headed for a fourth.

It’d be a different story in 2021 had things broken FSU’s way early—they took Notre Dame to overtime before losing, then debacled their way to a last-second loss to Jacksonville State the next week, which put them on the path to an 0-4 start.

It looked like the season might completely unravel on FSU at that point, but the Seminoles didn’t quit and were rewarded with a good run of play through October that included a 10-point win at UNC. (This marks the second year in a row that FSU upset UNC. Thanks, Noles, we appreciate y’all.) They had a fourth-quarter lead in Death Valley last week before things fell apart on them.

This is exactly the kind of progress Mike Norvell needed to show after the program cratered last season. FSU has been substantially better on both sides of the ball, and they have moved into the top 40 in SP+ after finishing 2020 at No. 85.

FSU’s offense comes into this weekend ranked 35th in SP+ and averaging 6.1 yards per play—5.8 yards per play against ACC teams. They’ve leaned into a run-first approach that has given the offense an identity and paid dividends. The Noles have averaged 5+ yards per carry in five of seven games; Clemson shut them down last weekend, which is forgivable, and Wake Forest held them to 92 yards on 3.2 per carry back in September.

Running backs Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward have combined to run for 1,154 yards and both average better than seven yards per carry. Clearly, it pays to harness the ‘Shauns, if you have some ‘Shauns on your team. Quarterback Jordan Travis is the team’s third-leading rusher and averages about 12 carries per game. Travis has twice gone over 100 yards rushing this season.

Travis only averages 15 pass attempts per game but has improved his completion percentage from 55.0 in 2020 to 62.9 in 2021. He’s already thrown five more touchdown passes than he did last season. That’s solid improvement but obviously FSU’s coaches aren’t comfortable relying on his arm any more than they have to.

The Florida State defense, meanwhile, has gone from downright terrible last season (85th in SP+ to pretty okay in 2021 (49th). And hey, that’s a big step. The Seminoles are allowing a respectable 5.3 yards per play this season, including 4.1 per carry. Not stellar, but they were at 6.5 and 5.1, respectively, in 2020.

They have been more disruptive at the point of attack, ranking second in the ACC in tackles for loss. Defensive end Jermaine Johnson has 7.5 sacks, which ranks second among ACC players.

Probably not coincidentally, FSU’s pass defense has gotten better alongside that added disruptiveness up front. They’ve allowed 14 touchdown passes in eight games, but limiting opponents to only 6.9 yards per attempt. Only four ACC defenses (NC State among them) have been better in the latter regard.

The theme across the board, as you probably noticed, is FSU’s transition from bad to competitive. The Seminoles still have plenty of areas where they need to be better, but they’ve gone from a complete wreck to a team that is good enough to get bowl eligible. (My guess is they end up really regretting that Jax State result.) That’s not good enough for the program long-term—it may not be good enough this weekend—but it’ll do for now.