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Syracuse vs. Florida State preview: Five things to watch

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Who would’ve expected this back in August?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (4-4, 2-2) return to action on Saturday against the Florida State Seminoles (2-5, 2-4) in a role reversal that no one saw coming when the season started. FSU’s reeling right now, while SU appears to be a rising team ready to jump up and grab bowl eligibility for the first time in four years.

Florida State’s won nine straight in this series, including every game since Syracuse joined the ACC. But it’s unlikely those previous matchups matter much this week.

So what should we be focused on going into Syracuse’s game against the ‘Noles this weekend? We identify five things below:

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

1. Syracuse’s pass rush vs. Florida State’s offensive line

FSU’s offense has struggled for a ton of different reasons this year, but the offensive line can shoulder the blame most of all. After allowing Deondre Francois to take hit after hit in 2016, things didn’t improve this season, leading to the quarterback’s injury in game one vs. Alabama. It’s only gotten worse from there, too. The Seminoles’ O-line has 22 sacks (3.14 per game) this year -- among the country’s highest totals. James Blackman has some mobility, but he’s also just 185 pounds. He can only get hit so much.

Syracuse knows this, and is going to exploit it as part of their defensive gameplan, much the way they did against Clemson and Pitt. Though the Orange have only managed 10 sacks on the season, they had six in those two games combined (including four against the Tigers). Especially if Kendall Coleman returns, expect a ton of pressure to try and disrupt the flow for the freshman quarterback and this sputtering attack.

2. Which team can actually run the ball effectively?

Both Syracuse and Florida State have leaned on the passing game this year, largely due to an ineffective rushing attack. As you know, SU has only recently found ways to move the ball on the ground without relying solely on Eric Dungey. And FSU is only averaging 3.83 yards per carry, though both Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick are up over four yards per.

However, Akers has been hot and cold all year, with his lone 100-yard efforts (vs. Duke and Miami) carrying the most weight for his rushing production. In the last two games, he’s carried a total of 34 times for just 117 yards -- and he only managed 42 yards against Boston College.

Syracuse has been effective stopping the run (just 129.75 yards per game allowed), so he could run into similar struggles behind that rough O-line. That said, the Orange have their own fight ahead. FSU is only allowing 158 yards per -- to teams that likely run the ball more effectively than SU.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

3. A clash of tempos

Syracuse is one of the fastest teams in the country, running 86.5 plays per game. Meanwhile, Florida State runs just 63.2 plays per game. That gulf matters on the scoreboard, and amounts to at least two additional drives per game.

FSU playing at a slower pace gives its defense more time to rest as well, which can be a good thing against an up-tempo team like the Orange. But if SU can be effective with its pace early, it pays dividends later. Look at what happened against teams like Clemson and Miami. There’s a real talent gap between those opponents and the Orange, yet their respective defenses were gassed toward the end of the game. Same goes for NC State, whose front seven is a top-performing group.

Florida State has talent on the defensive side, but they haven’t really been forced into a track meet yet. Duke and Boston College run a lot of plays, though not really at a high tempo. If the ‘Noles can’t score early versus Syracuse, they’ll be playing catch-up for the rest of the game -- not a great situation to be in as recent weeks have proven for FSU.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

4. What gives on third down?

Syracuse is one of the best third down defenses in the country, with opponents converting just 23.81 percent of the time (second-best in the FBS). Florida State isn’t too shabby in that department either, though, stopping foes 35.71 percent of the time.

We saw a team like Miami beat Syracuse without much third down success, but at least the Hurricanes have some semblance of an offense. For Florida State, it’s going to be an uphill battle, as the Seminoles are converting just over a 34 percent of third down attempts.

On the other end, the Orange aren’t necessarily worldbeaters on third, but they’ve seen improvement. With the most third down attempts per game in the country, Syracuse is still converting 41.67 percent of the time. Bill Connelly has them rated as a top-40 offense on third (and a bottom-half offense on first and second). One of these teams’ third down strengths is likely going to cave a little. Hopefully it’s not SU that shows the holes.

5. Syracuse must avoid mistakes

I don’t care what the W-L totals say. Florida State is still a better team in terms of talent, and you can’t just give up yards and drives against better teams and expect to win. Dino Babers discussed this on Wednesday, but turnovers can’t happen the way they have been. You can point directly to turnovers in the losses to LSU and Miami, and maybe Middle Tennessee too.

Syracuse has 14 giveaways on the year, but the bigger constant is penalties. SU’s 7.5 fouls per game is among the highest rates in the country, and the yardage to go along with it has proven costly. We beat Clemson, clearly. But that game could’ve easily been derailed by the steady stream of penalty calls against us. Florida State commits some errors of their own (minus-10 turnover margin). So if we can avoid mistakes, cashing in on the Seminoles’ gaffes becomes far more fruitful.

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These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any more key matchups or narratives you’re focused on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Florida State? Weigh in below.