No. 3 Florida State
It's been a long offseason for Florida State, who — since their Dec. 30 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl — has been itching for a do-over season after last September's blowout loss to Louisville basically ended their playoff hopes.
The Seminoles lost Dalvin Cook and DeMarcus Walker, among others, but return Deondre Francois, Josh Sweat, Derwin James and bunch of other players capable of winning the national championship.
2016 Record: 10-3 (5-3, ACC)
Florida State won 10 games for the fifth-straight season, beat Miami (FL), Florida and Michigan and lost two games by a combined five points. Yet it was a disappointing and unfulfilling season for a team with national championship aspirations.
The season was largely defined by the 43-point demolition at Louisville. It was one of the worst losses in program history and one of the worst losses by an AP No. 2 team in college football history.
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (8th year, 78-17 overall)
Don't let Florida State's 2014 playoff blowout and lack of ACC titles the last two seasons blind you. Jimbo Fisher is an elite coach with outstanding numbers and achievements.
He's winning more than 82 percent of his games and has 12 conference losses in seven seasons (including two undefeated seasons), three ACC titles and one national championship.
"I think last year will hopefully make us understand that it's not only a one-game deal at the beginning, that it's going to be all the way through and that first half of the season," Fisher said this summer. "We're going to have to be extremely prepared physically, mentally, psychologically and every way for it. And then I think last year hopefully will be that teaching tool because you learn from your experiences, good and bad."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Deondre Francois, RB Jacques Patrick, WR Nyqwan Murray, WR Auden Tate, TE Ryan Izzo, G Landon Dickerson, C Alec Eberle
The Deondre Francoise Heisman train got an early jump-start when the redshirt freshman quarterback went 33-for-52 for 419 yards and two touchdowns in their comeback win over Ole Miss in Week 1. It picked up speed after a dominating performance against Charleston Southern but came to a screeching halt when he went 7-for-18 for 101 yards, one touchdown and one pick against Louisville.
Francois wasn't necessarily bad over their final 11 games, he was just extremely unreliable. He completed just 56 percent of his passes for a modest 15 scores and six interceptions, having a minimal impact in several games.
"Obviously it wasn't a year that Jameis had as a freshman, but it was a whole lot better than the kind of year most freshman had," said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "There's obviously opportunities for him to improve."
With Dalvin Cook gone, Francois is joined in the backfield by a breakout candidate in Jacques Patrick. At 6-foot-3, 231 pounds, the junior Patrick — 664 career rushing yards and nine touchdowns — is substantially bigger than his predecessor, though he has a similar game and is a capable receiver.
“I’ve been preparing for this moment for a while now,” Patrick said. “I take it back to my freshman year — I kind of learned the ropes from Dalvin. My sophomore season, I was just preparing, preparing, preparing for the moment.
“You think about, he’s been that size for a very long time. He’s understanding being able to use that at your advantage. Being a bigger back, run physical,” running backs coach Jay Graham said of Patrick's physicality. “You obviously have to make guys miss as a counter off of that. He’s doing a good job of deciding off those situations.”
They're in a great shape at receiver with juniors Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray back. Both players averaged more than 16 yards per reception a year ago.
The same can't be said for an offensive line laced with questions. To be clear, there is talent — plenty of it — but depth and experience are concerns. Alec Eberle and Landon Dickerson missed spring ball with injuries but will be fine for the regular season.
"Those guys up front are learning and getting better," Jimbo Fisher said in the spring. "That O-line is constant communication. Then you’ve got to communicate with the backs and make sure the tight ends and everybody else are on the page too with who they pick up and all those things. It’s been pretty solid."
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Derrick Nnadi, DT Demarcus Christmas, DE Josh Sweat, DE Brian Burns, LB Matthew Thomas, LB Ro'Derrick Hoskins, LB Jacob Pugh, CB Tarvarus McFadden, S Derwin James
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly was vilified after his defense allowed 34 or more points in four of their first five games, including 63 in the Louisville loss. Following a 37-35 home loss to North Carolina on Nov. 1, the unit was allowing a Power Five-worst 6.98 yards per play and 9.4 yards per pass. They were also surrendering 438.4 yards per game (94th in the FBS) and 43.9-percent conversation rate on third down (102nd).
"When you don’t play well, people are going to say you don’t play well," Kelly said of the rough start.
They gave up 34 or more points once the rest of the season and held six of their final eight opponents to 20 or fewer. By the end of the season, their yards per play was 5.45, yards per pass was 7.4, yards per game was 357.2 and third-down conversion rate was 33.8 percent.
Those improvements came despite the absence of safety Derwin James. After dazzling as a freshman — 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes defended and two forced fumbles — the 6-foot-3, 211-pounder suffered a season-ending knee injury in September.
"It was a long experience that I went through last year," said James, who forms one of the country's best secondary duos with Tarvarus McFadden. "I learned a lot just from being on the sidelines and watch from a coach's standpoint. . . . When the coaches get on you it's because of a reason and something they see. I didn't get that at first, but now I understand that."
Not many teams, especially title-contending teams, can withstand the loss of one of the nation's premier defensive ends like DeMarcus Walker. Florida State can, thanks to the return of Brian Burns and Josh Sweat. Burns arrived last year as a lanky 6-foot-5 pass-rushing specialist. Though he had a sensational true freshman campaign (9.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), he's been working to become a more complete player.
"Especially with the work I’ve done with coach Bert [Biffani] and coach [Brad) Lawin . . . [I worked on] playing the run," said Burns, who's still thin at 218 pounds but is not being asked to gain weight because he proved to be a disruptive force. "My technique in the run game. My technique in the pass game. Really just got into my playbook heavy.”
The 'Noles return all three starting linebackers, all of whom are seniors. Michael Thomas had a breakout season with 77 tackles and 11 tackles for loss, while Jacob Pugh and Ro'Derrick Hoskins combined for 96 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
"He's one of our — I wouldn't say unheralded — but he makes a lot of plays," defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said of Pugh. "A lot of critical plays."
Notable Player Losses
RB Dalvin Cook, WR Travis Rudolph, OT Roderick Johnson, G Kareem Are, DE DeMarcus Walker, CB Marquez White
Dalvin Cook, Travis Rudolph and DeMarcus Walker were all big-time playmakers, though, oddly, the Seminoles might not feel their losses as much as other, less headline-grabbing departures.
They would've love one more season from offensive lineman Roderick Johnson and Kareem Are, along with corner Marquez White. They do return Tarvarus McFadden at corner but a McFadden-White-James secondary — which was it supposed to be last year — would've been terrifying.
Notable Player Additions
RB Cam Akers, OT Josh Ball
Jacques Patrick is the unquestioned No. 1 workhorse running back. That doesn't mean five-star true freshman Cam Akers won't see the field. A top-three recruit from Mississippi, he is a 5-foot-11, 213-pounder who is expected to be used in the return game, where Fisher prefers bigger, taller guys.
Josh Ball is a redshirt freshman tackle who will start Week 1 and be responsible for Francois' blind side.
Florida State doesn't play a true road game until Sept. 30 and doesn't play a true road game against a team that won more than seven games last year until Nov. 11.
That, however, doesn't mean their schedule isn't tough. They open with Alabama (in Atlanta), host Miami (FL) two weeks later and have Louisville at home on Oct. 21. They also visit Clemson and Florida in two of the final three weeks.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. UL-Monroe|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Miami (FL)|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Wake Forest|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Duke|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Louisville|
|Friday, Oct. 27||at Boston Colleg|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Syracuse|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Clemson|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Delaware State|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Florida|