The 2014 Florida State defense was a far cry from the 2013 season, where they were one of the Top-5 defenses in the country. They gave up 25.6 points per game, 13.5 points more than the 2013 season, and were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the entire country. That defense lost four players to the first three rounds of the NFL draft, and defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri to the Oakland Raiders during the offseason. There were questions about whether defensive coordinator Charles Kelly could handle the job.
He answered those questions in the affirmative this season. Florida State held opponents to just 15.8 points per game this season, and is the only team in college football not to give up more than 24 points in a game. The Seminoles finished the regular season ninth in the S&P+ defensive rankings, which is 31 spots higher than they finished last season.
The Seminoles are in the Top-5 of the S&P+ defensive rankings against the pass, despite losing both their starting corners early to the NFL Draft. Juniors Marquez White and Jalen Ramsey, who has started at three different positions in the secondary in his career, stepped right into the starting cornerback roles and flourished.
As good as the secondary was this year, a major reason for their success was the resurgence of the Florida State pass rush. New defensive ends coach Brad Lawing has made a big impact on the pass rush, and turned around the careers of multiple defensive linemen like Giorgio Newberry and Demarcus Walker. Through 12 games this season, Florida State has had 30 sacks. That's currently tied for 31st in the country, and is 77 spots higher than where their 17 sacks in 14 games finished last season. Walker has accounted for more than a third of Florida State's sacks this season with 10.5, up 9.5 from where he was last season. He is also leading the team in tackles for loss with 15.5, and forced fumbles with 4.
True freshman safety Derwin James has made an impact in both aspects, and was rated as the best true freshman in college football by Pro Football Focus with a 25.3 grade. He took over the starting safety position five games into the season, but has been used as a pass rusher as well. He's currently second on the team in tackles (78), tackles for loss (7.5), and sacks (3.5). Fellow true freshman Josh Sweat also made a major impact for the Seminoles. He was rated as the fifth best true freshman, and top defensive end, by Pro Football Focus with a grade of 13.3. Sweat didn't make a huge impact on the stat sheet, just missing out on multiple sacks, but he was a dominant run stopper. His performance is even more impressive considering he wasn't supposed to play this season after tearing his ACL as a senior in high school. Both freshman made major impacts for the defense, and changed what the defense was able to do.
The Seminoles needed to be better on defense this season with an offense that struggled to gain consistency for most of the season, and they stepped up in a big way. They will have another chance to show just how good they are when they take on the high-powered Houston offense in the Peach Bowl, but they've already proven that they're once again one of the top defenses in the country.