My answers to Dylan's questions are posted on Tomahawk Nation.
FTRS: Were the expectations in Tallahassee another undefeated season this year? Are there fans who have actually been disappointed with the performance of the team despite the undefeated record?
TN: For the majority of the fanbase the expectations probably were another undefeated season in August. As a general rule, this is never a good standard to use for success or failure of a college football season, no matter who you are. It's really, really hard to go undefeated, and it wasn't realistic to expect this year's team to be a continuation of 2013's death machine that leveled everything in its path. Indeed, we saw early on that the 2014 team was all its own and nowhere near the quality of the national championship squad of a year prior. And yet, here we are. 12-0 is a huge accomplishment no matter who you are, and the heart-stopping fashion in which it has been achieved should make it a particularly memorable year for FSU fans. But, yes, I do think that the fact that the ‘Noles have not blown out opponents and been clearly the best team in the country at 12-0 is disappointing to some. A playoff birth can do a lot to quell those disappointments, at least for another month or so. I think these people's expectations were misguided and I hope that they can appreciate this tremendous accomplishment for what it is, but there will always be a contingent of the FSU fanbase that expects a national championship every year. A blessing and a curse.
FTRS: What is your overall perception of how the media has treated Florida State this season? From the questionable rankings to some of the unfair criticism towards the team and even the players, it seems that the team has had to put up with some adversity yet continues to churn out wins.
TN: It's been interesting, to say the least. I remarked yesterday that it's really the ultimate test of one's faith in advanced metrics when one's own team is coming up short in exactly this scenario. By the F/+ strength of performance/resume measure, FSU is lucky to be 4th in the College Football Playoff Committee's rankings, as they sit at 8th currently. It can be hard for me to reconcile that with the intuitive inclination to value winning games, and F/+ values performance over binary outcome. It also admittedly is not able to take into account things like FSU having 6 opponents playing it off of bye weeks, getting everyone's best shot each week, playing without Jameis for a game, etc. That said, I do believe in F/+ and other advanced metrics, and I agree with them that FSU hasn't been the most impressive team in the country to date by performance on the field.
All of that said, I'm not really sure what the basis for the Committee's rankings is. They're not using a pure resume evaluator like F/+, are not supposed to be considering margin of victory, but are looking at metrics ESPN has created this year, and apparently subjective eye test evaluations? It's confusing, at least to me. It's been suggested that they'd prefer to set up desirable match-ups in particular locations, and Bama-FSU in New Orleans and Oregon-TCU in Pasadena is certainly convenient from that perspective. As far as media treatment in general, I don't really buy the "ESecPN ISSA CONSPIRACY PAWL" stuff, but I don't think they hesitate to generate page views and discussion by painting FSU as the villain this season, some of which is deserved, while some probably isn't. This team has shown the ability to block out all of the outside noise and continue to win, and we hope they'll continue to do so going forward.
FTRS: Give me your overall evaluation on Jameis Winston this season. He's definitely shown some regression in some aspects; Why do you think that is?
TN: I think his struggles and those of the team have been due to a few factors. First, I think it's easy to underestimate the impact of the losses FSU sustained at receiver from a year ago. Kelvin Benjamin was (and is) a monster, and Kenny Shaw was extremely reliable for Winston. While Rashad Greene returned, the other two have been replaced by young guys, including true freshmen. Jameis throws with incredible anticipation and into a lot of tight windows, which is a big part of what makes him a great player, but it also can lead to some issues if his receivers aren't in the right places. A good illustration of this was the Louisville game INT on a corner route to the left sideline. It looked like he threw into triple coverage (and he kind of did) but the ball was placed perfectly, and true freshman Travis Rudolph quit on the route, leading to a pick. FSU has also shuffled the offensive line, moving left tackle Cam Ervin to center starting with the Miami game and starting true freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle. I also think there's something to be said for having a year of film on tape and opponents recognizing the better ways to defend Winston and the FSU passing game. More and more opposing defenses are playing physically with FSU's wideouts and knocking them off of their routes and disrupting timing between them and Winston. Jameis played his best game of the season against BC, which didn't show up in the numbers like it should've with 6 drops in the pouring rain, but then followed it up with the worst of his career against Florida. There still isn't anyone in the country I'd rather have under center in Jimbo Fisher's offense, but I hope Jameis returns to BC form in what looks to be another rain game on Saturday, and that his receivers do a better job of catching the football this time.
FTRS: What was the reaction like when Duke lost to UNC to clinch Georgia Tech's spot in the ACCCG? I'm guessing Georgia Tech wasn't the preferred opponent.
TN: No, the Jackets certainly weren't the preferred opponent for FSU fans. I think the injury concerns of Seminoles' fans are overblown because there really aren't the numbers to support the idea that GT's blocking actually leads to more injuries, but I think the fear is colored by FSU's game with the Citadel early this season in which several FSU defensive linemen were injured by low blocks, although some of that could've been due to the Citadel's avowed purpose of contributing to FSU's injury report. I was (and am) more concerned because of how good the Yellow Jackets have been this season, particularly on offense. GT is currently 17 spots better than Duke overall by F/+ and ranks second in the nation in offensive performance. That's a much scarier match-up for FSU than the Blue Devils. Georgia Tech can play a low possession game and score points on the few drives it gets, putting a lot of pressure on the ‘Noles to score points on theirs. FSU will have to play a better game to beat Georgia Tech than it would have to beat Duke.
FTRS: Dalvin Cook has really seemed to step it up this season. Would you say he's the focal point of the offense at this point, and what makes him so effective?
TN: Dalvin has emerged as a huge part of the attack this year, and particularly of late. He's got great explosiveness, balance, and most importantly, in my opinion, excellent vision and feel. He's made a few absolutely ridiculous cuts early in runs to find daylight and explode upfield. The re-constituted offensive line has also helped him, as the ‘Noles are far better in run blocking with Cam Erving at center. While Cook has been key for the Seminoles down the stretch, I would still argue that Winston is the focal point of the offense. It's just the nature of Jimbo Fisher offenses that they'll run through the quarterback. The ‘Noles throw on a lot of early downs to stay ahead of down and distance, feasting especially on soft coverages. If Jameis is playing at a high level alongside the fast-emerging Cook and more effective offensive line, this unit could be very frightening to opposing defenses. The problem is that the consistency hasn't been there. We're still holding out hope that this group will put it all together for four quarters, but it's becoming more of a hope than an expectation with each passing week.
FTRS: Give me three players Tech fans may not know about but should look out for on Saturday.
TN: The obvious ones I'll assume that y'all know about are Winston, Cook, Greene, O'Leary, Ramsey, Edwards Jr. and Goldman. So I'll go with unheralded guys for this one. Travis Rudolph is a true freshman with a great skill-set who continues to improve and will see some targets on Saturday, and is capable of breaking the big play. On defense, Derrick Mitchell is a key guy on the interior. The one position at which FSU could not afford to lose a player this season was nose tackle, and sure enough, Nile Lawrence-Stample went down early in the season for good with a torn pec. Mitchell has stepped in for him, and has been up and down. He played a really nice game against Florida last week and will need to play well against GT's dive and lead-option plays. Terrance Smith is another key player on FSU's defense. He's the middle linebacker and will need to play his gap assignments well on Saturday, and is also playing injured. FSU doesn't have great depth at linebacker, so the ‘Noles will ask for a big effort out of Smith even though he's hurt.
FTRS: This Florida State defense has been in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories. Give me some strong points and weak points in the unit.
TN: The FSU run defense has been mostly below average this season, though it has been improving in recent weeks. This has been due to the aforementioned injury at nose tackle, as well as suspect depth and performance at the linebacker position. Now, if you're going to run on FSU, it will not be at Mario Edwards Jr., the enormous freak of an athlete who sets the edge phenomenally at defensive end. Nor would you be well-served going at Eddie Goldman, who will enter the NFL draft as a junior this season with tremendous strength and long arms. Derrick Mitchell had been a weak link on the FSU defensive line, but played well last week. The other end spot has been a weakness in run defense. Demarcus Walker crashes inside on absolutely every option play he tries to defend, and he will not be able to do that against GT unless it's designed with a scrape exchange or something. Chris Casher also has not been great defending the run, and the freshmen outside linebackers have likewise struggled against the run. The line will need to win their match-ups and allow the linebackers to get to the ball, and they'll need to tackle well when they do so.
The secondary hasn't played up to expectations this season. The ‘Noles returned PJ Williams and Ronald Darby, last year's starting corners, and expected both to be first-round caliber players this season. They've been good, but haven't played to the expected level of great. Jalen Ramsey started slow in his new star position role this year, but has been an absolute terror for opposing offenses of late. You'll see him lined up all over the field on Saturday, blitzing, dropping into coverage, and otherwise causing havoc. The loss of Smelter obviously hurts GT's passing attack that has been more dangerous than ever this season, but the secondary can't allow chunk plays if the defense is able to force GT into difficult down and distance situations.
FTRS: Florida State wins if ______? Georgia Tech wins if _______?
TN: Florida State wins if Derrick Mitchell plays another high-quality game and the secondary allows less than two passing touchdowns. If FSU has Edwards, Mitchell, and Goldman playing well along the defensive line, it will be very tough for Georgia Tech to sustain drives. Edwards Jr. and Goldman are excellent against the run, and if a third stout run defender is added to the line, it would be tough for the Jackets to deal with. The key really is giving the FSU offense enough possessions to feel out the GT defense and survive the mistakes history tells us they'll commit during the game. And the key to that is keeping the Yellow Jackets behind down and distance in poor leverage situations. If and when this happens, the Seminoles cannot get lulled to sleep in the secondary and give up long plays over the top. The 6th-ranked FSU offense should have more success against the 52nd-ranked GT defense than the 2nd-ranked GT offense should have against the 19th-ranked FSU defense, but a low-possession game favors Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech wins if this game sees fewer than ten offensive possessions for each team and the Yellow Jackets force 3+ FSU turnovers. Neither of these conditions is hard for me to envision coming to fruition at all. Jameis Winston had three interceptions in the first quarter alone against Florida last week, (although that defense is a good bit better than Georgia Tech's) and the ‘Noles have been turnover prone throughout the year. I don't know how the 90% chance of rain affects this game. I don't know if it will make things tougher for the Jackets in handling the ball on the option, or if it will cause a repeat of the FSU wideouts' drop issues from the BC rain game. But I think the blue print for GT is clear. Long possessions on offense ending in points, taking advantage of the FSU secondary falling asleep if it happens, and its defense taking advantage of FSU mistakes on offense. Make the field goal opportunities it gets, and put FSU in bad field position when drives stall. It can happen, and this is the most competitive of the championship games being played this weekend for a reason.
FTRS: Coming off of than answer, what do you think happens on Saturday night? Does FSU pick up number 29 in a row and clinch a playoff birth, or does Georgia Tech pull off the upset and potentially leave the ACC out of it all?
TN: A not-insignificant part of me really believes that this is the weekend it all ends for FSU. This Georgia Tech team can play an efficient, low-possession game and make the FSU offense play very well in a cold, rainy Charlotte night game. I may have been fully convinced that it would happen if Smelter were playing. But FSU's run defense of late, particularly the play of Derrick Mitchell, combined with an unshakeable faith in Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, and Roberto Aguayo force me to ride with them one more time. The ‘Noles will run the ball effectively, Jameis will play more like he did against BC than Florida, and FSU will again do just enough to win another arrhythmia-inducing game, 27-22.