2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Florida Gators

Florida State gets back to work after the bye as they welcome Virginia Tech into a sold-out Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday. This is a matchup between two great brands in the ACC that hasn’t happened nearly enough. Since joining the ACC nearly 20 years ago, the Noles and Hokies have only met four times in the regular season.

They do have a history that includes playing against each other in a national championship game and two ACC title games. Unfortunately, in recent years one team or the other has been struggling when they finally do meet. It was the Noles that were down in 2018 when they lost 24-3 in Willie Taggart’s debut. This time around it’s the Hokies that are in a rebuild.

VT had a disappointing first year under new head coach Brent Pry finishing 3-8 (1-6 vs ACC) in 2022. So far in 2023, the results have not gotten much better as they are off to a 2-3 start. However, they got a much-needed win last week against Pitt and currently sit at 1-0 in conference play. Pitt is terrible this year, but nonetheless, that win will be huge for their confidence and VT is a program that is searching for any spark of success.

When you look at the 2-3 start, it hasn’t been against the best competition either. They have yet to face a single team ranked in the SP+ Top 50 and are 0-2 against teams in the top 60. Their wins have both been at home against Old Dominion (2-3) and Pitt (1-4). Their losses have come against Purdue, Rutgers, and Marshall.

When looking at this Saturday’s matchup, not only will this by far be the most talented team they have faced all season, but it will also be the toughest environment they have had to play in as well. I leaned on some friends who cover VT for some insight into the Hokies, which I’ll reference throughout the article. One thing they said that has been an issue is communication on the field, so a loud Doak Campbell Stadium could be a factor that leads to mistakes. Let’s start with looking at the Virginia Tech offense.

The Hokie offense was a glaring weakness last year. They only averaged 19.3 PPG, the lowest since 1989! They have upped the talent level this year with some transfers at the skill positions. While they were stuck in the 16–17-point range in four consecutive games, they have crossed the 30-point mark twice this season, which they did not do a single time last year.

When I asked what their one biggest strength and weakness was, the VT guys told me their biggest weakness was the offensive line. They said that the group is small, inexperienced, and not the most talented. That was music to my ears considering FSU has a defensive line that has been dominant at times this year.

At quarterback, Grant Wells was the starter before injury. Wells transferred in from Marshall last year where he was a 2x All-CUSA player. However, it still appears that he is on the mend and after Kyron Drones had a huge game against Pitt, it may be his job to lose.

Drones is a former 4-star recruit that transferred in from Baylor. Drones is a dual-threat guy who probably has a higher ceiling than Wells, but he doesn’t have nearly the experience. I thought in the preseason that they would have some packages from him, but after the Wells injury, he’s now QB1.

Drones first took over against Rutgers and has started the last three games for the Hokies. In his first two games, he had yet to cross the 200-yard mark and only had 1 touchdown to 1 interception. However, against Pitt, he put up over 300 all-purpose yards and accounted for 5 touchdowns. Again, Pitt is not good, but that performance was huge for a young quarterback’s confidence level.

He’s been a pretty decent passer, but he’s certainly not the best passing quarterback FSU will face this season. The majority of their passes are under 10 yards and they allow their playmakers to work in space. He’s been pretty good at the mid-range throws (10-19 yards) going 8/10 for 132 yards. However, on deep passes (20+) he’s only completed 2 of 16 passes. He’s got a good arm, but he hasn’t proven to be able to stretch the field vertically, just yet.

As far as his dual-threat ability, Drones has rushed for 75+ yards (sack adjusted) in all three games he has started and scored 2 touchdowns on the ground in both of the last two games.

He’s not a scrambler like we saw with Jayden Daniels. Instead, most of his yards have come from designed runs. Drones isn’t the fastest guy and doesn’t have breakaway speed, but at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, he’s hard to bring down. He’s a physical player who seeks contact and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and try to run over a defender.

He was sacked 4 times against Rutgers, 4 times against Marshall, and twice against Pitt. His pressure-to-sack ratio is almost 30%. It’s important to get him on the ground when you have the chance because the opportunities will be there behind a struggling offensive line. Pitt was in the backfield a lot in that game.

At running back, their lead back is Bhayshul Tuten who transferred in from North Carolina A&T. Tuten was an FCS All-American who put up over 1,600 all-purpose yards in 2022. He’s a quality back who is a physical player, has speed, and can make people miss. In fact, according to PFF, 77% of his yards have come after contact. Now while that speaks to how good he is, it also speaks to how bad that offensive line is too. He had his first 100-yard game at VT last Saturday against Pitt and tacked on another 30 yards and a touchdown through the air.

VT has not run the ball that well this year, but it’s not for a lack of trying. They ran the ball an astounding 59 times against Pitt! Drones himself had 21 carries, which I’m not sure you want him doing against a physical defense like FSU has. Against Purdue, they only ran for 11 yards on 22 carries. That equates to 0.5 YPC, which might be the lowest I’ve ever seen. They have averaged under 3.5 YPC in 4 out of 5 games this season.

Drones and Tuten form a nice rushing duo and they should have some confidence after last week. However, with a struggling offensive line and going against a defense that’s played well against the run, I think FSU can keep them in check for the most part.

At receiver, they have some experienced guys with their three top wide receivers all being seniors. Tech has 5 guys who have crossed the 100-yard mark so far this season including TE Dae’Quan Wright and RB Bhyashul Tuten.

Da’Quan Felton leads the team in receiving with 209 yards and has good size at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. Jaylin Lane transferred in from MTSU and leads the team in receiving touchdowns with 3. You may remember Lane for his 130-yard performance against Miami last year.

One thing to note, according to PFF, Lane, Felton, and Wright are 0 for 11 on contested catches this season. We know FSU likes to play a lot of man coverage, so it will be important for the defensive backs to challenge these receivers.

The VT offense has some pieces to work with, but they’ve only put up over 400 yards of offense one time this season despite not playing great competition. They have gotten better as the season progresses, but this isn’t an offense that scares you more than what FSU has already faced in LSU and Clemson. If the Noles can win the battle up front and put some pressure on Drones, they should have a successful day. It will be important to try to contain him on the ground as well.

On defense, VT has been a tail of two opposites. They have one of the worst rushing defenses in the country and are currently allowing 178 YPG (110th). That includes giving up over 200 yards rushing in 3 of their 5 games. They did hold Pitt to only 38 yards (72 sack adjusted), but Pitt also has the 112th-ranked rushing offense and has been battling injuries on the offensive line. Still, it was a massive improvement from their past performances.

Their passing defense has been a different story. VT currently has the 10th-ranked pass defense and my VT source told me their biggest strength is their secondary. However, when I looked a little deeper into that, I think it’s somewhat fool’s gold. So far this season, the best passing offense VT has faced was Purdue at 57th. Three of the teams they’ve faced had a passing offense ranked below 100th.

It appears that those numbers may look good because of who they have played. They did hold Rutgers and Old Dominion under 100 yards passing, but both of those teams also ran for over 200 yards.

They are averaging 2.6 sacks per game and got Phil Jurkovec 4 times last week. However, Jurkovec is not a mobile guy by any means and was also dealing with a lower-body injury. One last thing that stands out about this defense is they are tied for dead last in red zone defense allowing teams to score on 100% of trips. Keep in mind, that FSU is tied for first and has scored on 100% of trips in the red zone.

On special teams, they have a freshman kicker, but he’s hit 6 of 7 field goals with one over 40 yards.

Although Virginia Tech got off to a rough start this season, they might have found something at quarterback and should have some newfound confidence after the Pitt win. This is also a team that despite looking bad in the win-loss column has kept most of their games close over the past two seasons.

Knowing that Florida State has struggled against mobile quarterbacks, which most teams do, is the biggest concern for me in this game. If this were in Lane Stadium at night like the Pitt game, I could see it being closer than expected.

This is still a relatively young team that has to play on the road in a tough environment against a better team. How will they respond to adversity if Doak is rocking and they get down a few scores early? Will the commutation issues cause a few busts that FSU can take advantage of? VT has also had a combined 26 penalties in the past three games.

FSU might have a little rust coming off the bye week, but they needed to get healthy and that should be a big help in this one. I look for FSU to finally get the run game going in this one. Hopefully, Jordan has gotten healthy enough to run the ball. At least enough to make the defense keep an eye on him and open up things for the backs.

I also think they will test the VT secondary to see how for real they are considering they haven’t faced receivers in the same ballpark as what FSU has. FSU needs a win with some style points after a few close wins that saw them still drop in the polls and I think Norvell knows that.

Truthfully, what I’m really looking for in this one is for FSU to play a complete game for 4 quarters and beat an overmatched opponent as they are supposed to. Get some more guys involved and let the starters cheer from the sidelines in the fourth quarter.

FSU is a 23.5-point favorite at home coming off a bye week, so it’s time to put the hammer down. I don’t expect a program like VT to just lay down, and I actually do expect them to travel well fan-wise.

At the end of the day, FSU is a more talented team with better size and speed, more depth, and will have home-field advantage. VT could keep it close early if FSU starts slow again. But if the Noles play a clean game, execute their assignments, and don’t commit too many mistakes, I think they get a comfortable win against the Hokies. You just don’t want to have another BC scenario where you have a close game against a struggling opponent.

If this game gets into garbage time, and I think it will, the score could be a little closer, but I have the Noles winning this one 45-17! I could see a situation where FSU struggles with the mobile quarterback again and we know they have struggled with missed tackles. If that were to happen, I could see a 34-20 to 38-24 type of game. I just don’t want to get too crazy with confidence in VT over beating a terrible Pitt team, but I don’t see this one being anything like the BC game either.

I can’t wait to be back in Doak on Saturday and know it will be rocking! Thanks for reading and Go Noles!!

Enjoy this article? Share it on social media so others can too! We thank you for your support.

PTS podcast logo

Be sure to check out the Plant The Spear Podcast for those who bleed garnet and gold!

Continue Reading