After winning its final five games and the Orange Bowl to close out the 2016 season, big things will be expected of Florida State once again this fall.
The Seminoles finished No. 8 in the county this past season and will return some key pieces. Among those are quarterback Deondre Francois, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, linebacker Matthew Thomas and safety Derwin James. Head coach Jimbo Fisher, however, will have some holes to fill and for the Seminoles to make a run at a second national championship in five years, a number of questions will need to be answered.
1. Can Deondre Francois Avoid Taking a Step Back?
As a redshirt freshman quarterback in 2016, Francois earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors, passing for 3,350 yards and accounting for 25 total touchdowns. Traditionally, FSU quarterbacks to start as redshirt freshmen, including 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, have taken steps back as sophomores. Francois will look to buck that trend despite losing his leading rusher, receiver and best offensive lineman.
Still, Francois has a huge upside. Despite having a solid year by all accounts as a freshman, Francois wasn’t terribly accurate, had trouble with anticipation and took too many sacks. With a decent amount of attrition at the skill positions, more weight could be put on Francois’ shoulders this year. How he handles that could be the difference between FSU being a good team and an elite one.
2. How Does FSU Replace Dalvin Cook and DeMarcus Walker?
Without question, the Seminoles’ standout running back and defensive end were the heart and soul of this team last season. Cook became the school’s all-time leading rusher and beat his own single-season record with 1,765 yards on the ground. Walker led the team with 16 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. With Walker graduating and Cook leaving early for the NFL, FSU must find a way to replace both.
In the backfield, the likely answer for the Seminoles will be running back by committee. Junior Jacques Patrick is the most experienced at the position with 664 rushing yards over his first two seasons. At 230 pounds, Patrick is a power back who will likely be complemented by a couple of five-star freshmen in Cam Akers and Khalan Laborn. Sophomore Amir Rasul and incoming freshman Zaquandre White are two other candidates to see time in the backfield.
At defensive end, the most likely solution looks to be moving Josh Sweat over from his “BUCK” position. Vying for time behind Sweat will be redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson, Keith Bryant and perhaps Wally Aime. With Sweat moving over, Brian Burns will most likely occupy the “BUCK” position. Burns led all freshmen nationally last season with 9.5 sacks.
3. Can the Offensive Line Form Some Cohesiveness?
With every starter returning from 2015, the offensive line was supposed to be a strength for Florida State last season. But after starting five different offensive fronts in 2015, that number increased to seven this past season thanks to struggles and a lack of cohesiveness. The biggest struggles came in pass protection.
FSU will be replacing graduating Kareem Are, a guard, and tackle Roderick Johnson who left early for the draft. With those two departures, just about every position along the offensive line is up for grabs. Cole Minshew, Wilson Bell and Landon Dickerson could each push for a starting spot at guard. Dickerson is coming off a knee injury, but if he can return to form, he could be a candidate to replace Johnson at left tackle. Second-year players Andrew Boselli and Baveon Johnson will each look to unseat incumbent Alec Eberle at center. At tackle, Rick Leonard, Brock Ruble, Derrick Kelly, Abdul Bello and Jauan Williams are all candidates to start.
4. Can Derwin James Return to Form?
After an outstanding freshman year in 2015 in which he ranked first or second for FSU in tackles, solo tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and forced fumbles, James was limited to just two games as a sophomore in 2016 before watching his season end due to a meniscus tear. James is a game-changer for the Seminoles, and his mere presence makes everyone around him better. If he can be the player he was before the injury, FSU should have an elite defense in 2017.
5. Can FSU Unseat Clemson in the ACC?
After a three-year run from 2012-14 that saw Florida State win three ACC championships, one national title and make an appearance in the College Football Playoff, it’s clear that Clemson has surpassed FSU as the premier team in the ACC. The Tigers are fresh off their first national championship in 35 years and have beaten Florida State and won the ACC in each of the last two seasons. The winner of the annual FSU-Clemson contest has won the ACC Atlantic Division every year since 2009. The Seminoles will look to avoid losing three straight to Clemson for the first time since 2005-07 when they head to Death Valley to wrap up ACC play on Nov. 11.