The Road Ahead In The ACC: Can Duke play with Florida State?

After Duke’s annual shootout with Pittsburgh, one question came to my mind: Can this experienced Duke team compete with Florida State in the ACC Championship Game?

Though their defense looked like Swiss cheese against the Panthers Saturday, the Blue Devils gave a performance that appeared to be a blip on the radar, at least if their season is evaluated in full. Pitt just seems to have the Duke defense’s number, and the Blue Devils survived… even if that meant a missed chip-shot field goal by the Panthers.

Death, taxes, and Pitt scoring at will against Duke are life expectations. In the past two seasons, the Blue Devils have allowed 58 and 48 points against Pitt, and an average of 21.05 points against everyone else in 20 games. That total is pushed even higher with the 45-7 loss to Florida State and the 52-48 loss to Johnny Football and Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season. If you remove those two games from the equation, Duke’s non-Pitt scoring defense becomes that much better.

Duke, the 7-1 leader of the ACC Coastal division, will likely be the last and only roadblock on the ‘Noles path to the playoff tournament. With a victory earlier this season over Georgia Tech, its next closest competition, Duke controls its own destiny to win the Coastal and battle the ‘Noles in the final conference game of the 2014 campaign.

The Blue Devils are balanced on offense: They rush and pass for almost the same amount of yards. With 212.3 rushing yards per contest, Duke ranks 34th in the country. Its average of 209.8 passing yards per game ranks 86th in the nation. Additionally, the Blue Devils allow just 19.3 points per game, which is good for 13th in the FBS. While allowing 48 points to Pitt on Saturday, they have allowed 17 points or fewer in five games this season.

Also, senior quarterback Anthony Boone doesn’t turn the ball over. He has thrown just three interceptions in 278 pass attempts this season. This has been a significant boost for the Blue Devils, as Boone threw 13 picks in 322 tosses last season. As a team, Duke has turned the ball over only five times this season. Simply put, the Devils do not shoot themselves in the foot. Teams cannot do that against superior competition, or they will get run out of the stadium, which is what happened against FSU last season. Moreover, Duke has forced 13 turnovers to get the ball back for Boone. Florida State has forced 15 turnovers, but has also given the ball away 16 times.

In addition to Boone, Duke’s experience in the passing game also emerges with senior receiver Jamison Crowder. He has seen Florida State three times – once in each of the previous three years. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Crowder had a tough go of it, but did accrue eight grabs last season in the ACC title game. Along with Crowder, senior tight end Braxton Deaver (46 catches this year) has also played the Seminoles three times.

Last year’s blowout loss versus Florida State was not Boone’s strongest game. He completed half of his tosses and threw a pair of picks. Shaquille Powell, the team’s second leading rusher in 2014, had only eight carries. Freshman Shaun Wilson has infused the offense with an added measure of production in tandem with Powell; he leads the team in rushing with 528 yards on just 55 carries.

To go along with the gleaming per-game average of over 200 rushing yards, Duke has its top four rushers averaging over five yards per carry. As we saw with Louisville, Florida State does tend to struggle against the run at times. The ‘Noles allow 388.6 yards per game. While Florida State ranks 51st in the country against the run, that statistic can be deceiving. FSU allowed 158 yards to Michael Dyer and the Cardinals last week, much of which came in the first half. In its prior game, Florida State allowed 157 rushing yards to Notre Dame. North Carolina State rushed for 161 yards, and Oklahoma State rushed for 161 as well. All four of these squads rank outside of the top 50 rushing teams in the country, and Louisville ranks 87th.

On defense, we all know about the strong passing attack from the ‘Noles, which averages 327.3 yards per game. To counteract this, Duke ranks 41st in the FBS against the pass, allowing 208.5 passing yards per game.

While I’m not sure this will be the year for the Blue Devils to knock off the ‘Noles, they are a significantly better team than in past years. They have several components that will allow them to keep the game close and create a situation in which anything can happen, especially involving two teams with title-game experience flowing from last year in Charlotte.

Even though Florida State is a heavy favorite to be one of the four teams competing in the College Football Playoff, a late-season loss could be devastating to those chances. While they do still have Boston College and Miami on the agenda, Duke appears to be last chance to keep the ‘Noles out… and it could be quite a battle.