7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida State -2.5, Over/Under: 57.0
A key division matchup is on tap tonight as the Florida State Seminoles clash with the Louisville Cardinals under the bright lights of Friday Night Football from Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. For the first time since 2016, Florida State (2-0, 0-0 in ACC) has managed to begin a campaign 2-0, which is really rather remarkable for a program that counted themselves among the nation’s elite for the bulk of four decades. Using a smaller and more recent sample size, the Seminoles went a stellar 59-9 (.867) from 2012 to 2016 with a National Championship (2013) and an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff (2014), but in the five years that have passed have stumbled their way to a mediocre 26-33 record (.440), marred by five consecutive losing seasons. Indeed, the end of the Jimbo Fisher era in Tallahassee was a dumpster fire, with his successor, Willie Taggert, proving incapable of repairing the damage in less than two years at the helm. Trying to right the proverbial ship is (Head Coach) Mike Norvell, who in his third year on the job appears to finally have this sleeping giant back on the right path. 38-16 (.740) in four years at Memphis in which he led the Tigers to an AAC Championship in 2019, Norvell was a worthy candidate for FSU, who viewed him as not only a sharp offensive mind, but a patient builder who could reconstruct this proud program from the foundation up. However, the 40-year-old faced no shortage of adversity from the start; the truncated, COVID-influenced 2020 served as arguably the worst circumstances that any coach could begin their tenure under, with opt-outs, transfers, and injuries seriously depleting his roster to just fifty scholarship players, leading to a dreadful 3-6 finish, the school’s worst since 1995. Last year wasn’t much better, particularly from the get-go, starting the campaign 0-4, their worst since 1974! With that said, the ‘Noles managed to turn things around, winning three straight games en route to narrowly missing out on bowl qualification. Now with an ACC-best SIXTEEN returning starters and much better depth after a trio of strong recruiting classes, the hard work of Norvell and his coaching staff seems to be paying off.
After hammering Duquesne 47-7 in the season opener from Doak Campbell Stadium (their first victory in an opener since 2016!), Florida State faced off with LSU at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans over Labor Day Weekend. Now, this matchup had all the makings of a nightmare for the Seminoles; former ACC powerhouse turned shell of themselves travels to a not-so-neutral venue to battle an SEC juggernaut in their own backyard under the bright lights of primetime. Seriously, this one had all the makings of being on the wrong side of a beatdown, but to FSU’s credit, they managed to survive an utterly wild affair, leaving the Big Easy with a 24-23 win. After the Tigers went ahead 3-0, the ‘Noles outscored the hosts 24-7 until the midway point of the fourth quarter, which is when things really got interesting. LSU struck back with a touchdown just outside of the four-minutes mark, and after an inexplicable fumble from (Sophomore Tailback) Treshaun Ward at the one-yard line, drove the length of the field to cut the deficit to one point with zero time left on the clock. With the audience bracing themselves for overtime, (True Freshman Safety) Shyheim Brown knifed through the line of scrimmage and blocked the potential game-tying extra point, stunning the crowd and saving the day. By and large, Norvell’s troops were the better side for the bulk of the contest, compiling 392 total yards, with (fifth-year Junior Quarterback) Jordan Travis putting on a show with 260 yards and two touchdowns on an efficient 20-of-33 passing, while rushing for another thirty-one yards on eight carries. Both scores went to (Senior Receiver) Ontaria Wilson, with the first being a 39-yard strike via a flea-flicker, with the latter a beautiful one-handed snag for twenty-seven yards. Norvell utilized Travis’ mobility on a number of designed runs and bootlegs, keeping LSU’s athletic front on their heels throughout the night. Looking towards tonight’s trip to Louisville, Travis will be motivated to show out against his former team; the Junior transferred to Tallahassee back in 2019 and struggled in a 48-16 loss to the Cardinals at Doak Campbell stadium that same fall, completing just 14-of-32 passes for 141 yards, a touchdown and interception, despite rushing for forty-seven yards and a score on a dozen attempts. The Seminoles are 16-6 all-time against the Cards but are just 6-10 against the spread in those meetings. Furthermore, the school has lost four consecutive road openers by an average margin of 23.0 points per game.
Meanwhile, after suffering a disappointing 31-7 loss in the season opener at Syracuse, Louisville looks forward to their home opener against Florida State, whom they’ve bested in four of the last six meetings (5-1 against the spread). Now in his fourth season with the program, (Head Coach) Scott Satterfield is still looking for consistency from a team that he immediately turned around upon his arrival, though has struggled largely due to self-inflicted issues over the past two seasons. Prior to his hiring in 2019, the Cardinals plummeted to a miserable 2-10 finish, though the former Appalachian State skipper performed a seriously quick turnaround in guiding his charges to an 8-5 campaign capped by a victory over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. The 49-year-old earned ACC Coach of the Year honors off the strength of his first season in the ‘Ville, though would meet a number of setbacks over the following two years, particularly during the crazy COVID campaign of 2020. Moving the football wasn’t difficult for the Cards during that period of time, outgaining the opposition by an average of 72.3 and 43.0 total yards respectively, but over the course of those two seasons were a ridiculously poor -24 on turnovers. And that’s how they managed to lose EIGHT games by seven points or less. Needless to say, nothing decides the outcome of football games more so than turnovers, and Satterfield’s troops have found themselves on the wrong end of this particular battle far too often of late. Unfortunately, this was once again the issue in that aforementioned loss at the Orange; despite a staggering EIGHTEEN penalties for a loss of 107 yards courtesy of the hosts, Louisville repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with three turnovers, two of which were charged to (Senior Quarterback) Malik Cunningham (more on him shortly), who was picked off twice. Simply put, this isn’t what Satterfield & Co expected with fourteen returning starters, including Cunningham, most of the Offensive Line, and one of the deepest Backfields in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Fortunately for all parties involved, the Cardinals would bounce back a week later at Central Florida, rallying from a 14-7 halftime deficit to capture their first victory of the season, 20-14. The visitors owned the second half of this affair, shutting out the Golden Knights, 13-0 over the final two periods of play, with Cunningham and the Defense making plays when it mattered most. Though he struggled against Syracuse, the dual-threat took the lead with a 43-yard jaunt downfield into the end zone late in the third quarter, en route to 316 total yards (121 rushing) and zero turnovers. The Offense as a whole amassed 421 total yards on just nineteen first downs, including a whopping 226 via the run on forty-five carries. (Junior Tailback) Tiyon Evans added seventy-five yards and a score on nineteen carries as well. However, as explosive as the attack looked throughout the second half, it was the Defense that would close things out, with (Sophomore Cornerback) Jarvis Brownlee intercepting John Rhys Plumlee in the end zone on a fourth and goal from the five-yard line with 2:52 left to play. Ironically a transfer from Florida State, Brownlee will be looking to make an impression against his former team tonight. Getting back to Cunningham, the Redshirt Senior has been nothing short of a dynamic playmaker for Louisville, with Satterfield (who also calls the offensive plays) utilizing him in a manner similar to that of the Quarterback that he replaced, Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson. Since 2018, Cunningham has completed 62.4% of his passes for 8,439 yards and sixty-two touchdowns, while rushing for 2,774 yards and thirty-nine more scores, with twenty of them coming last season alone. He’s also proven to be very durable, making thirty-seven consecutive starts, which is the most in school history. Furthermore, three of those starts have come against Florida State, whom he’s beaten twice in totaling nine touchdowns opposed to just one interception. In his last two encounters with the Seminoles, he has completed 41-of-63 passes for 542 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for another ninety-six yards and two scores to boot, with the Cards winning by a combined score of 79-39. The venue has had a heavy influence on the outcome of these meetings of late, with the home side covering five of the last seven contests. In what appears to be a wide-open Atlantic Division, this matchup will likely go a long way towards deciding its fate.