Lorenzo Mauldin Florida State Louisville Preview Prediction. (USATSI)
Lorenzo Mauldin leads Louisville with 6 sacks in 2014. (USATSI)

Florida State, currently sitting in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, should expect to remain in that bracket as long as the Seminoles win out. Road games at Louisville and Miami represent the biggest challenges left on the Seminoles schedule, and given the recent one-sidedness of that in-state rivalry (FSU has won four straight and seven of the last nine meetings), many consider Thursday night's showdown as the most likely regular-season loss for the reigning champs.

Look no further than Las Vegas to find some support for that notion. The line for this game opened at 8 1/2 and even with Jimbo Fisher's announcement that Karlos Williams would be playing, the spread has taken a nose dive in the direction of the Cardinals. At the time of this writing, Florida State is just a 3 1/2-point favorite.

If you've been ignoring Louisville all season, we need to let you in a secret. This game won't be close because Bobby Petrino's offense can hang with the Seminoles in a shootout. This game will be close because the Cardinals' defense is nasty.

Names you need to know

Players to Watch: Louisville Defense
Pos Name Hometown Notes
LB Lorenzo Mauldin Atlanta Pure nightmare fuel for QBs. 6 sacks in 2014 after recording 9.5 at DE in 2013
FS Gerod Hollimon Miami Sophomore is tied for No. 1 in all of FBS with 8 INTs
SS James Sample Sacramento, Calif. Hard-hitting safety with 39 solo tackles on the year
LB James Burgess Homestead, Fla. 231-pound junior anchoring the middle of the field with Kelsey
LB Keith Kelsey Gainesville, Fla. Collects tackles (51) like trading cards
DL Sheldon Rankins Covington, Ga. A 300-pound force at DE with 5 sacks of his own
CB Charles Gaines Miami Returning starter, maybe the fastest corner on the roster and kick returner.

Notice those hometowns? This game will have the feel of an in-state rivalry. 

The numbers, and the impact of two coaching staffs

Only two teams in the country are holding opponents under four yards per play, Stanford and Louisville. Heading into the season, there was an assumption that Bobby Petrino's arrival would mean big numbers for Teddy Bridgewater's former targets at the skill positions. Injury issues have set back the offense, but that does mean that it did not contribute to Louisville's strong start.

By playing against Petrino's multiple-look offense in spring ball and training camp, Todd Grantham was able to take a group that improved every year under Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford and round them out into one of the most versatile units in the country.   

Grantham's scheme has fit the personnel perfectly, as Louisville has ridiculous closing speed at the second level that both helps in the pass rush and with pass coverage with different blitzes. Louisville has been very good down-to-down this year, and it ranks in the Top 10 nationally with only 78 plays of 10+ yards allowed all season. 

According to Football Outsiders' Bill Connelly, also of SB Nation's Football Study Hall, Louisville's defense has the second-best success rate in the country. Per the statistic's definition, a successful play is 50 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down. According to the metric, Louisville's opponents have a successful play on offense just 28 percent of the time. (For comparison, the rest of the Top 5 defenses according to success rate are Michigan State, Clemson, Stanford and Utah State)

Jameis Winston as the ulitmate equalizer, particularly after halftime

As great as Louisville has played on defense this year, those rankings do not equate to automatic success against Jameis Winston. For all the off-field headlines Winston demands, it becomes easy to lose sight of his on-field brilliance. Coaches praise Winston's ability to process information and read defenses, making him the perfect student for Jimbo Fisher's system and a headache to game plan against because he is able to make adjustments and improve throughout the game. After barely playing in the fourth quarter throughout 2013, Winston first showed this trait in the title game against Auburn. 

That trend continued in the opener against Oklahoma State and was the biggest difference in the win against Notre Dame, as Winston was 15-for-16 passing in the second half following an 8-for-15 performance before halftime. Knowing Winston's ability to dissect what he sees from a defense should make it no surprise that his numbers have improved in the second half all season.

Jameis Winston Situational Passing Stats (2014) 
  Completion % Yards Per Attempt TD INT Rating
1st Half 68.4 8.27 7 4 151.14
2nd Half 73.2 9.64 6 2 170.46

(Source: CFBStats.com)


Louisville's defense gives the Cardinals an advantage in one aspect of the game. That alone won't be enough to pull the upset, but it should be enough to keep the Seminoles from pulling away. From there, Louisville fans hope that the recent emergence of Michael Dyer and the return of star wide receiver DeVante Parker take enough pressure off Will Gardner to allow the offense to convert down the stretch in what I expect to be another close call, or maybe even upset, for the undefeated Seminoles. 

As far as the game score goes, I've picked Louisville the cover the spread and Florida State to win in our Expert Picks. This game feels like the Auburn, Clemson or Notre Dame game in that the Seminoles will be tested early and convert a big play, likely thanks to Jameis Winston, late to escape a rowdy Papa John's Cardinals Stadium with the victory. 

Florida State 24, Louisville 23