After Florida State’s national championship run in 2013, former Seminole head coach Bobby Bowden observed in the offseason that things were about to get much more difficult for Jimbo Fisher and the Seminole program, with the first few years after the championship serving as the true measuring stick of how strong Fisher’s program truly is.
“One thing is true,” Bowden told ESPN.com in March, “it’s easier to win one than to continue winning.”
Just as Bowden predicted, the 2014 regular season was a far bumpier ride than the historically dominating campaign of the 2013 version. Some of that is due to personnel changes and injuries, as this year’s team is simply not as good as last year’s, which can justifiably be considered one of the best in modern college football history.
The kind of positive injury luck FSU experienced in 2013 rarely repeats in back-to-back seasons, and the loss of numerous experienced NFL-caliber players (many of whom were key leaders on the 2013 team). Major personnel losses and increased injury problems are common to championship teams and are one reason it can be so difficult for teams to sustain excellence, let alone repeat.
A Weaker FSU
Just on defense, the Seminoles lost five starters who all received significant playing time as rookies in the NFL:
NT Timmy Jernigan (starter for the Ravens)
LB Telvin Smith (starter in Jacksonville)
S Terrence Brooks (starter for the Ravens before injuring his knee)
CB Lamarcus Joyner (starter in St. Louis)
LB/DE Christian Jones (significant contributor in Chicago)
The loss of three key interior defensive linemen was then magnified when FSU lost Jernigan’s replacement, NT Nile Lawrence-Stample, for the season (torn pectoral muscle) against Clemson. (Lawrence-Stample is expected to return for the Rose Bowl against Oregon.)
The offense lost key contributors also starring in the NFL:
C Bryan Stork (starting center in New England; their resurgence coincided with him taking over the starting role)
RB Devonta Freeman (significant contributor in Atlanta)
It took FSU most of the season to develop replacements at these positions, with most of that progress occurring over the last month of the season.
Better Schedule, Extra Preparation
But even an FSU with a deep and experienced roster would have had a tougher time with this season’s schedule than last. As Bud Elliot from TomahawkNation recently pointed out, Florida State played the nation’s toughest overall defensive schedule (average adjusted for opponent and pace). Florida State played twelve Power 5 programs and nine bowl teams, a schedule that offered little room to breathe.
And like Bowden predicted, each of those teams treated Florida State as their bowl game, spending extra time in the offseason studying the Seminoles’ tendencies and looking for weaknesses. Nearly every team FSU played brought wholly new special packages and schemes into that game, forcing the Seminoles to adjust to things they hadn’t seen on film all season.
That extra offseason preparation was augmented by FSU playing six teams (plus the season opener) off a bye or FCS opponent, allowing each of those teams to rest and make special preparations for the Noles. (That FSU had a bye for two of those occasions is less of an advantage, since as the hunted they don’t have a comparable ability to prepare extra or have special wrinkles for each team they face.)
That increased difficulty of facing a series of opponents who all base their seasons on beating the defending champions is precisely what Bowden was referencing in his offseason comments. It is also reflected in the records of FSU opponents before and after facing the Seminoles, as several teams appeared to go in the tank after losing close, emotional games against FSU—who then had to do the same thing the next week while their drained, defeated previous opponents collapsed.
Unusual Opponent Injury Luck
All of the above is generally common to defending champions, as is the difficulty of staying hungry and avoiding boredom as the regular season seems commonplace after reaching the top. But the truly unusual thing about Florida State’s season is that the Seminoles’ schedule has been markedly more difficult than a simple glance at records or computer analysis would suggest, mainly because of a few significant injury quirks that meant FSU often played tougher versions of their opponents than the rest of those teams fielded the rest of the season.
I know it sounds like special pleading since such things almost always even out on the aggregate, but a look at FSU’s opponents when they played the Seminoles versus those same teams at other points in the season leaves no other possible conclusion: Florida State was flat unlucky with respect to getting teams at their best nearly all season in 2014. Consider the following:
Florida State played Oklahoma State in the season opener when the Cowboys still had J.W. Walsh at quarterback. The Pokes’ offense was built around Walsh’s ability as a dual-threat (Walsh ran a 4.5 40) and ability to throw with accuracy in the short and intermediate zones. No other Power 5 team played the Cowboys with Walsh at quarterback, however, as he went down with a season-ending foot injury in OSU’s second game.
Walsh’s replacement, Dax Garmin, throws a beautiful deep ball but had difficulty doing anything else at a high level, and the OSU offense tanked the rest of the season. In addition, Okie State’s top corner, Ashton Lampkin, went down with an ankle injury in week 6, when the Cowboys were 5-1. The OSU defense was significantly more porous afterwards, as OSU promptly went on a 5-game losing streak.
Few teams had a higher offensive variance in 2013 than Clemson, which had an excellent offense when Heisman-caliber freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson was taking snaps (Watson’s passing stats were comparable to those of Marcus Mariota) but average at best with Cole Stoudt (6/10 regular season TD/INT ratio) at QB.
Stoudt played all but one series (a TD drive) in the Tigers’ opening loss against Georgia, but Watson played nearly the full game against FSU. Watson broke his finger in the first quarter against Louisville and missed the next six games before returning against Georgia Tech, only to injure his knee in the first quarter after leading the Tigers into the red zone. Stoudt threw a pick-six on the next play, giving the Jackets a lead they would never relinquish. Watson then returned to play most of the Tigers’ win over South Carolina with a torn ACL.
In other words, FSU not only played Clemson without Jameis Winston, they played a much better Clemson squad than any other good team on the Tigers’ schedule had to face. And yes, that includes Oklahoma, too.
The Seminoles also faced a confident and healthy Notre Dame team that promptly went into the proverbial tank after losing a heartbreaker in Tallahassee. The Irish lost senior captain middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, who was the quarterback of their very complex defense, a week later, and their defense was never the same. Everett Golson also went on a turnover binge over the second half of the season—this after playing very safe, fundamentally sound football against the Seminoles. Notre Dame finally recovered enough to beat LSU in their bowl game, though that was still a weaker Irish team than that faced by FSU.
Louisville’s top player coming into 2013 was without a doubt wide receiver Devonte Parker, who is projected as a first round NFL draft choice. Parker, however, missed the first seven weeks of the season before returning the week before facing Florida State. Parker went on to finish eighth in the ACC with 735 yards (21 YPC) despite only playing the last month of the season. Both of UL’s losses other than FSU were in games without Parker.
Louisville’s top running back, Michael Dyer, also missed four games early in the season (including both non-FSU losses) and was limited in three early-season appearances. But Dyer also returned at full strength the week before the FSU game and was fully healthy for the Seminoles.
But that’s not all. Cardinals’ quarterback Will Gardner also missed two early season games and was limited in several others before facing FSU fully healthy. Gardner tore his ACL the next week. Louisville was unbeaten at full strength (in fairness, they played a weakened Clemson team in one of those losses), but FSU was one of three teams all season (others: NCSU and Boston College) that faced Louisville at full strength.
Finally, the Seminoles would certainly have preferred playing Florida early in the season when Jeff Driskell was starting at quarterback. Instead, they drew the Gators team led by Treon Harris that had dominated Georgia two weeks earlier.
Conclusion: FSU Really Did Take Teams’ Best Shots
It was a strange year in many respects, but Florida State indeed not only took every team’s best effort but in several cases played better teams than the majority of those teams’ other opponents. This FSU team is by no means as dominant as the 2013 version, but it still managed to survive a much tougher regular season slate than many appreciate.