Each game, we'll get the inside look at Virginia Tech's opponent by talking with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, we spoke with Warchant.com managing editor D.C. Reeves to get the inside look at Florida State.
1) How has quarterback E.J. Manuel changed and progressed this season and how does he stack up to other quarterbackss in the country in your mind?
Reeves: I think Manuel has progressed nicely. No, he never put up the massive yardage and touchdown numbers many expect from a player who entered college with so much hype, but he's never really been asked to do that in FSU coach Jimbo Fisher's system.
He's completing 70 percent of his passes this season with 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions. To split hairs further, two of those interceptions were completely bobbled by receivers into the hands of defensive backs. He could leave as the most accurate passer in ACC history and is second in the league in total offense to Clemson's Tajh Boyd. Off the field, Manuel is the team's unquestioned leader. So I think it's hard for the 'Noles to ask for much more from Manuel this season.
2) There seems to be a balance of nearly all the offensive playmakers. Are there one or two guys who really stand out or are they all pretty close together?
Reeves: No, it's a mix of quality depth, which was quite a change from a season ago. At receiver there are a multitude of options - physical, 6-foot-5, 240-pound wideout Kelvin Benjamin leads the team in yards (443) and receiving touchdowns (4) while the smaller, speedier Rashad Greene leads FSU with 28 receptions after leading the team in every receiving category as a true freshman last season. There's a solid core of five receivers who all have double digit catches and bring a dynamic skill set to the outside.
At running back, with leading rusher Chris Thompson out for the year for a torn ACL, it's now the James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman show. Wilder is the bigger, tougher runner at 226 pounds while Freeman, who led FSU in rushing in 2011 when Thompson missed the final eight games, is a flasher 210-pounder. They've been very effective, averaging 5.9 yards and 7.4 yards per carry, respectively.
3) The NC State game looks to be an anomaly and uncharacteristic of the rest of the season. What happened that game that hasn't happened in others?
Reeves: Yeah, it was a baffling half of football. Looking back, it seemed to be a combination of lackadaisical play when the game seemed in hand - leading 16-0 at halftime - to a panic when the game got close. The offense went into a shell in both play calling and execution, leading to the collapse down the stretch.
There's nothing else we've seen all year from FSU that would suggest it was capable of losing a game like that, so while the year isn't over yet, it's feeling more and more like an anomaly. I will say this - Virginia Tech will be the best defense the Seminoles have played to date in the toughest environment to date, so it will be interesting to see how the FSU offense reacts, especially early on. FSU struggled late on the road vs. N.C. State and very early on the road at Miami before overwhelming the 'Canes. But that's something to keep an eye on.
4) What's the key on defense? Is it one player or is it following a scheme? Or something else?
Reeves: I just think Florida State has a ton of talent at all three levels. FSU has one of the deepest defensive lines in the country with four quality defensive tackles with at least 16 tackles each. Defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine - who has stepped in for the injured Brandon Jenkins - are tied for the league lead in sacks with eight apiece. At outside linebacker, junior Christian Jones is a future pro.
In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes is a sure-fire early draft pick while safety Lamarcus Joyner may just be the defensive MVP. Cornerback Nick Waisome has been a pleasant surprise for FSU in place of the dismissed Greg Reid opposite Rhodes. Again, all told, there's just a ton of talent on that group, that's what makes it so good.
5) How is FSU preparing for this game, with the cold weather and VT struggling?
Reeves: Fisher joked that the only thing they could have done to prepare for the cold was to bring ice blowers into practice. They didn't do that obviously, but it's something that's on their mind - at least when we talked to players last week. The 'Noles played in two cold games in 2010 (at Maryland, ACC Championship vs. VT) so many of these players were probably colder in that game as freshmen and sophomores on the sideline than they will be now that most of them are juniors and seniors and are playing in the game.
As for noise, I know FSU has been pumping in noise at practice to get a taste of what Lane Stadium will surely offer. When it comes to VT's struggles, especially given the N.C. State loss, Florida State isn't focused on that at all. The players seem aware of the talent on the VT roster and are ready for whatever the Hokies can offer. I don't think they are reading into records very much.
Prediction: Given the fact that this is the second-best team FSU has faced talent wise this season and the hostile road environment, I think this will be a close game at the half. But from what I've seen I see Virginia Tech having trouble putting points on the board against this FSU defense and I see the 'Noles pulling away in the second half. I'll call it a 28-14 FSU win.