With the kickoff of the 2017 college football season less than a month away, it’s that time of year that speculation runs rampant. For Florida State, the speculation is much more positive than negative as Jimbo Fisher and company have dreams of returning to the College Football Playoff after a two-year hiatus.
As with any team with national championship aspirations, things need to go right for those aspirations to come to fruition. Early breakdowns in the secondary and key injuries early on last season kept the Seminoles from living up to those lofty expectations.
Fisher, the team and fans in Tallahassee hope this year will be different as the Seminoles look to capture their second national title in a five-year span, fourth overall, second under Fisher and first in the playoff era. Below are three reasons why FSU will make the College Football Playoff and three why it will not.
Three Reasons Why Florida State Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Return of Derwin James
James, a safety, was limited to just two games last season prior to going down with a meniscus tear that turned out to be season-ending. Despite not becoming a significant contributor until October of his 2015 freshman season, James evolved into one of the nation’s most versatile defenders, finishing among the team leaders in total tackles, solo stops, sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles and pass breakups.
James hasn’t played a meaningful snap since last September, but if there is anything to be taken away from the spring game, it’s that he hasn’t lost a step. James can do many things from playing the pass to stopping the run to delivering bone-jarring hits to getting to the passer. Even though he missed all but two games in 2016, James was named the nation’s top player heading into this fall by Sports Illustrated, a preseason first-team All-American by Athlon Sports and also appeared on several watch lists.
2. An experienced Deondre Francois
With one year of experience as a starting quarterback under his belt, bigger things are expected of FSU’s redshirt sophomore signal-caller. Francois was named ACC Rookie of the Year last season after passing for 3,350 yards and accounting for 25 total touchdowns. Despite that, Francois struggled with anticipation, accuracy and pocket presence.
The good news is that under known quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher, signal-callers almost always improve in their second year. The exception to that rule was 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who went on to become the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft and made his first Pro Bowl last season. Francois already knows what it’s like to play and win on the national stage. That’s a trait among quarterbacks that can only come through experience.
3. Talent and depth up front
The secondary is probably Florida State’s deepest and most talented position, but the defensive line isn’t far behind. On the inside, Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas should be one of the best combinations in the country. On the outside, there is no shortage of pass rushers with Josh Sweat, Brian Burns and Jacob Pugh returning after combining for nearly 20 sacks a season ago.
When it comes to sacks, FSU led the country a season ago in sacks per game. The Seminoles do have to account for the loss of All-American DeMarcus Walker, but the additions up front of five-star prospects Joshua Kaindoh, a defensive end, and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson should help significantly.
Three Reasons Why Florida State Won’t Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Offensive line still a question mark
Coming into 2016, the offensive line was expected to be a strength after a complete overhaul the year prior. Although it did improve significantly as the year went on, it’s safe to say that the unit did not live up to expectations. Dalvin Cook may have broken his own school record for rushing yards, but Deondre Francois took shot after shot from the pocket last season.
To make matters worse, FSU loses its best offensive lineman from last season in Roderick Johnson and another dependable, though oft-injured, starter in Kareem Are. Wilson Bell, an experienced reserved, transferred in the spring and wound up at Auburn. On top of that, FSU’s best returning lineman, sophomore Landon Dickerson, is coming off a season-ending knee injury. Dickerson appears to be the only member of the offensive line whose starting job is etched in stone. This comes after the Seminoles started seven different combinations up front last season.
2. Schedule is tough
It wasn’t a cakewalk last season by any stretch of the imagination, but Florida State will again play a difficult schedule. The Seminoles kick things off in Atlanta against Alabama, college football’s premier power under head coach Nick Saban, and a team that has dominated season openers at neutral sites. Losing to the Crimson Tide would not be a playoff death sentence, but it would greatly reduce FSU’s margin for error.
In addition to Alabama, FSU opens ACC play with Coastal division favorite Miami. The Seminoles also have to travel to face both Clemson and Florida and in a three-week span. FSU can ill afford to sleep on NC State and Louisville, although both games are in Tallahassee. Don’t forget that the Cardinals and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson put up 63 points, the most FSU has ever allowed, in last season’s lopsided victory.
3. Youth among skill positions
Coming into 2017, Florida State has the unenviable task of replacing both its all-time leading rusher and leading receiver for each of the past two seasons. Running back Dalvin Cook is off to the NFL after rewriting the FSU record books while Travis Rudolph is gone after tallying nearly 1,800 receiving yards over the last two years. Other key players that are gone include fullback Freddie Stevenson and wide receivers Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.
In total, FSU loses more than 66 percent of its rushing and receiving yards from last season. The Seminoles still have plenty of talent. In the backfield, junior Jacques Patrick will be joined by a pair of five-star freshmen in Cam Akers and Khalan Laborn while at receiver, junior Nyqwan Murray was productive while gaining valuable experience last season. FSU’s other five scholarship receivers however, have just a combined eight catches for 72 yards. Though there’s no shortage of talent, there is a learning curve.
Back-to-back 10-win seasons and New Year's Six bowl appearances would satisfy just about any fan base, but Florida State fans are expecting the Seminoles to compete for a College Football Playoff spot this year. After watching Clemson win the ACC and compete for the national championship in each of the past two seasons and win it last year, those things are expected to come to Tallahassee in 2017.
Getting its best player back from injury and returning a loaded arsenal on defense are just two of the reasons why optimism is high for Florida State. The other is that the Seminoles are returning a young, successful quarterback. Having questionable protection and new faces at the skill positions around him means nothing is a sure thing.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 3
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1 (8-0 ACC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5