Team: Florida State Seminoles
2014 record: 13-1 (8-0 ACC)
Recap: What a hell of a ride, Florida State.
In 2013, redshirt freshman and Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston led a dominant Florida State roster to a 14-0 record—including a BCS National Championship win—after pummeling opponents into the ground with an average score of 52-12. (That’s a 40-point margin of victory! Holy cow!)
The wins didn’t stop there, but style of play was much different in 2014. Instead of most games being decided before the fourth quarter—Winston threw 36 pass attempts in the final 15 minutes in 2013 and that number doubled in ’14—the Seminoles found themselves in plenty of tight games that came down to the wire, seemingly against all levels of competition. They won seven games by one possession, five of which they did not have the lead heading into the fourth; and despite another 13 wins, margin of victory plummeted from 39.5 to 8.1 (a difference of over four touchdowns per game!).
Coach Jimbo Fisher no longer has Jameis Winston to carry the team to the Promised Land for miraculous fourth-quarter finishes. He also no longer has record-setters in receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary, four senior starting offensive linemen, and several vital pieces to the defensive back seven.
Can Florida State continue to be the face of the ACC, or will it take a step back in 2015?
Key player: Everett Golson, Sr., QB
Fisher was obviously not convinced that Sean Maguire could keep the ‘Noles from regressing on offense, so he went out and plucked former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson from free agency. Golson doesn’t have nearly the same game-changing ability as Winston—who does?—but if he can cut down on the turnovers and becomes more conservative (which he likely will, considering how bad the Irish’s defense was last season), there shouldn’t be too much noticeable difference in terms of final result on the scoreboard.
Biggest strength: Young talent on offense
If there’s one thing Florida State doesn’t lack, it’s riches of young talent. Twenty-four of the 44 players on the two-deep are underclassmen, according to OurLads.com—that includes seven freshmen and sophomores that are projected to start on offense. This could also lean in the direction of a weakness when you consider the inexperience factor, but Fisher has acquired the No. 3 and 4 recruiting class the last two years, and though unproven, these guys are itching to showcase the ACC what they’re all about.
Biggest weakness: Run defense/pass rush
Florida State has depth at defensive line, returning six interior players with playing experience. However, the loss of juniors Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards, Jr. severely hurts a front seven that already struggled in 2014. The linebacker corps was mostly banged up last season, but even when healthy was more of a problem than it served helpful. The ‘Noles ranked 11th in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game (170.1) and were dead last in sacks (17.0). With changes in the secondary and an offense set to slow down, these are numbers that cannot be replicated in order to pursue a fourth straight conference championship.
Most important game: at Clemson (Nov. 7)
Like I said in the Clemson preview, the winner of this game has gone on to play in the ACC Championship Game every year since 2009. Oh, and I’m sure the Tigers are going to do anything possible to avoid letting this happen again.
Best-case scenario: 12-0 (8-0)
It would not be surprising in the least bit to see Florida State to go undefeated against ACC competition for the third straight year. Fisher has assembled enough talent and depth to continue to compete at the highest level, despite the major turnover. Besides, only three teams made it onto ESPN’s preseason Top 25 FPI Rankings—four finished in the AP Top 25 at the end of ’14—so it’s not like its schedule is exactly murderers’ row.
Worst-case scenario: 8-4 (4-4)
Then again, Miami, Louisville, and N.C. State are certainly programs on the rise, and playing both Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Florida on the road aren’t the easiest of feats. Too much youth on offense could prove to be a deterrent, while a rehabilitating defense may not be able to help the cause.
Early prediction: 10-2 (6-2)
The fact of the matter is this: Florida State is 39-3 over the last three years, and Jimbo Fisher hasn’t won less than nine games since he was hired in 2010. Sure, there will be a drop off—every program experiences it at some point—but reaching double-digits in the win column and competing for an ACC title after losing so much of its production from that historic run would be a huge accomplishment.