Why Florida State makes sense as a national title contender
Opening odds have the Florida State Seminoles as second favorites for the upcoming season’s National Championship despite their fourth-place finish just in the ACC a year ago. Florida State has rarely regressed for significant periods under Jimbo Fisher, and the team looks well-suited on paper to a 2017-18 run. Competition will be fierce just to emerge from the ACC, especially in the Atlantic Division from Louisville and their Heisman-winning quarterback. The defending champions, Clemson, can’t easily be ruled out either. That said, FSU are deserved conference favorites. Here are a few reasons why.
Stability at quarterback
The ACC lost some top talent with the departures of draftable prospects Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, Jerod Evans, Brad Kaaya and Nathan Peterman. Their loss, however, is the Seminoles’ gain. Deondre Francois suffered growing pains as a freshman, but still posted better numbers than his counterpart in his first season at Louisville. Francois posted a better completion percentage than Lamar Jackson (58.6 to 54.4), threw more touchdowns (20 to 12) and had fewer passes picked off (seven to eight). That’s not to downplay Jackson’s ridiculous 2016, but to highlight the kind of jump Francois could expect as a sophomore.
Francois won’t be mistaken for the Cardinals’ quarterback in the open field anytime soon, but he still represents a threat as a runner, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Seminoles can get creative in their offensive packages, using Francois to take advantage of the numbers game in the box. Although a passer first and foremost, Francois represents a legitimate dual threat.
A new offensive generation
The future is promising for a Florida State squad constantly turning over talent. Running back Dalvin Cook will likely be a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and wide receivers Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield and Jesus Wilson — all effective and broadly solid, rather than spectacular — depart as well. Rudolph’s seven touchdowns led the team among receivers, but sophomore sleepers Auden Tate (six) and Nyqwan Murray (five) followed close behind. Murray (436) and Tate (406) also finished second and third in yardage at the position. Crucially, the pair stretch the field vertically, facilitating big plays in the passing game sorely lacking throughout 2016. They both averaged over 16 yards per catch, snagging 12 of FSU’s 25 completions traveling at least 20 yards in the air.
Mitigating for the loss of Cook will not be easy, but Jacques Patrick’s performances offered a glimmer of hope. In 61 carries in 2016, he was unstoppable. He ripped off 349 yards (5.7 per carry), picking up 245 of those after contact. Patrick also broke 19 tackles, combining bulldozing power with rare agility. The junior will form a more physical backfield with Francois in 2017.
Offensive improvement is likely to be mirrored on the defensive side of the ball. Only DeMarcus Walker and Marquez White represent significant losses on the Seminoles’ stop unit. Walker is more of an issue, considering his status as the defense’s best pass-rusher. If Josh Sweat continues to prove inconsistent off the edge, Brian Burns appears likely to emerge after an impressive freshman season in which he recorded 29 combined pressures (14 knockdowns). The interior is well-stocked with the experience of Derrick Nnadi and potential of Demarcus Christmas.
The starting linebackers all return including the reliable Matthew Thomas and Ro’derrick Hoskins. The Seminoles can be confident of a cohesive unit with such a dependable pair in the middle. Safety Derwin James’ return also represents a considerable boost to a versatile defense lacking variety in defensive personnel. The importance of a player with the capacity to execute a wide range of roles to an elite level in this defense cannot be overstated. He should combine nicely with corner Tarvarus McFadden, who appeared to turn a corner midway through his sophomore season.
The ACC is likely to be incredibly competitive again in 2016, even with some big plays swapping college for the NFL. Florida State, however, appear poised to return to the top for the first time since 2014. Only Louisville are in a superior position at quarterback, and the team lost key personnel throughout the roster. Only the secondary remains intact with WR Jamari Staples, TE Cole Hikutini HB Brandon Radcliff, NT DeAngelo Brown and LBs Devonte Fields and Keither Kelsey all departing. Expect the ACC to once again come down to the wire, with Florida State re-emerging as a force in college football.