UNC vs. Florida State: Ask a writer who covers the Seminoles

UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky should have some chances to exploit a Florida State pass defense that’s allowing nearly nine yards per passing attempt.
UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky should have some chances to exploit a Florida State pass defense that’s allowing nearly nine yards per passing attempt. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Back when I covered Florida State for the Orlando Sentinel I was fortunate to have the help of a young, wily scribe named Tim Linafelt. Those were some long, interesting years in Tallahassee.

My four seasons on the Florida State beat, from 2007 through 2010, saw the beginning and end of an NCAA investigation into academic fraud, the end of the Bobby Bowden era and the start of the Jimbo Fisher's head coaching tenure, among other things. And so Tim, my venerable correspondent, provided much help, indeed.

And so he is again. Now a senior writer for Seminoles.com, Tim joined me with some insight leading into North Carolina's game at Florida State on Saturday. Let's learn some things:

Andrew Carter: We've seen the good Florida State – the comeback against Ole Miss, the (mostly) dominant performance last weekend against USF. And we've seen the not-so good Florida State in the debacle at Louisville. Who are the Seminoles, really?

Tim Linafelt: I’m not sure anyone really knows yet, although maybe this weekend’s game will provide some clarity. When they’re at their best, the Seminoles look like one of the best teams in the country. But when they’re not, they look a group that could struggle against almost anyone on their schedule. There has been very little in-between, and, as their games against Ole Miss and USF showed, the Seminoles can often swing wildly from one end to the other without much warning.

AC: The Seminoles rank in the 50s nationally in passing yards per game allowed – and they're 116th nationally in yards per attempt allowed. That's a surprise given all of the defensive talent there. The Derwin James injury hasn't helped but what's going on with the Seminoles' pass defense?

TL: James’ absence is hard to overstate. He’s probably FSU’s best defensive player, but he’s also an emotional leader in a secondary that’s relying on a few newcomers. Opposing offenses are targeting those newcomers are lot – see USF’s 84-yard touchdown over the head of sophomore Tarvarus McFadden on Saturday.

FSU’s biggest problem, though, might be tackling. Once receivers get the ball in space, the Seminoles are having trouble bringing them down. This, of course, leads to big plays, and FSU has allowed a lot of them. USF had seven plays of at least 20 yards last week, and Louisville had seven the week before.

It’s also worth note that the Seminoles played mobile quarterbacks in each of their first four game, including against FCS Charleston Southern in Week 2. So, despite the fact that FSU’s pass rush has been pretty good (13 sacks), the defense has been susceptible to quarterbacks escaping the pocket and either taking off and running, or finding a receiver who has slipped his coverage downfield.

AC: This is the third ELITE running back UNC will have faced this season. Nick Chubb, James Connor and now, on Saturday, Dalvin Cook. After something of a slow start to the season, he set a career-high in rushing yards at USF, and he has to be looking forward to going against UNC's porous rushing defense. When teams have managed any kind of success against Cook, though, what have they done well to limit him?

TL: Perhaps more than anything, the teams that have fared well against Dalvin Cook have fared well against FSU’s offensive line. It’s no coincidence that, after making a few lineup changes over the first month, the Seminoles’ front five had its best game of the season against USF.

Cook is at his best when he gets to the second level, where he can either outrun a linebacker or run through a defensive back. Ole Miss and Louisville often got the better of FSU’s offensive line and were able to make contact with Cook before he reached the line of scrimmage. While he still sometimes was able to make things happen, it was more in the vein of turning a loss of yardage into a short gain, rather than turning a short gain into a long touchdown run.

AC: The last time these teams played, UNC won in dramatic fashion at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2010. Much has changed since then, with Florida State ascending again to national power status under Jimbo Fisher. How much better is FSU's talent, overall, than what it was back then?

TL: Fisher got a lot out of that team, but, outside of a few key areas the talent levels of the 2010 and 2016 teams aren’t really comparable. Fisher is an ace recruiter and he’s hired a staff of ace recruiters to sell a program that already has a blue-blood reputation. Consider that from 2012 to 2014, FSU set a modern record with 29 players drafted in a three-year span. From 2008 to 2010, the three years before Fisher took over as head coach, only seven Seminoles were drafted.

While FSU might not match that stretch again, there are still lots of future NFL players on this roster. Cook, of course, has that potential. But so, too, do offensive lineman Roderick Johnson, defensive end DeMarcus Walker and safety Derwin James, among others.

AC: Given the Seminoles' ascent, how does Florida State view the Tar Heels? Is there concern or is there more of a sense that shouldn't be much of a test – and if there's concern what about the Tar Heels causes the most concern?

TL: There’s a bit of mystery surrounding UNC, given that the two teams play so infrequently. A lot has changed for both programs since that 2010 meeting. With Florida State’s struggles in the secondary, Mitch Trubisky and the UNC passing attack are a definite concern. The question surrounding Florida State will be whether Trubisky’s lack of mobility – compared to Lamar Jackson and USF’s Quinton Flowers – will help swing things in the defense’s favor. Then again, senior cornerback Marquez White said this week that he thinks Trubisky is the most accurate quarterback FSU will face this season.

Another thing to keep an eye on is special teams. The Seminoles allowed a punt return for a touchdown against Louisville and very nearly allowed another later in the game. Safe to say that Ryan Switzer could have an opportunity to make an impact on Saturday.

And so there you have it. Thanks to Tim for his time.