Last week, we talked about what kind of improvement we can expect from Florida State in the last portion of this season. Since then, the ‘Noles took care of business in Chestnut Hill and are poised to win their first back-to-back games against ranked teams on the road since 1992. Along the way, they did exactly what this space talked about as the next step—the finished a team off instead of letting them hang around and hoping for mistakes. If FSU becomes a national title contender again next year, Geno Hayes' pick-six to put the game will loom large as a huge milestone for this team learning how to win and put teams away. Now, with Virginia Tech to come this weekend, we're going to take a quick look ahead at what we can realistically expect from next year's team (don't worry, I'll have a pregame writeup analyzing the matchups against VT tomorrow).
I think it's reasonable to expect FSU to be improved in every area of the game except in our placekicking game, where Gary Cismesia will graduate. If the last three games have demonstrated anything, it's that the hard work of Rick Trickett and the offensive line has finally begun to pay off. This should probably be the area in which we can expect the most improvement next year—the young OL only had about six months to work themselves into "Trickett shape" and still have a long way to go strength-wise. However, the tougher conditioning sessions from this summer and Trickett's intense practice sessions have already made a huge difference up front.
The three returning starters (Hudson, McMahon, and Rose) should all be much improved from a physical standpoint (particularly in the strength department) after another year of amped-up conditioning. For the other two spots, we have several young OLs that have our staff excited, most notably Will Furlong and Antwane Greenlee, both of whom have the athleticism and nasty streak that Trickett loves. We should also be deeper (which will help us in practice) once we get the freshmen on campus. It is unlikely that any of the true freshmen will be called upon to help us much next year aside from depth (we will deal with the problem of overblown expectations for freshmen as we get into recruiting season), and that is something that should have every ‘Nole fan excited.
We should be significantly better at quarterback as well—the staff will fully open the job this spring, with D'Vontrey Richardson getting a long, hard look. Regardless of who wins the job, all our quarterbacks will have a much firmer grasp of Jimbo Fisher's offense, and the spring will be devoted to gaining even more comfort in the system since (unlike last spring) it will not need to be dedicated to rebuilding our quarterbacks' fundamentals. Drew Weatherford has begun to show signs of getting comfortable in Fisher's system, and if he is able to continue to progress, there is little reason that we cannot win with him. If not, rumblings inside the program have suggested that Richardson will be the next to get a look. Regardless, next fall should be the first time in several years that the QB position should be a strength rather than a concern.
Rumblings from around the program have continued to point to the possibility of Antone Smith leaving for the NFL after this year. He would be making a mistake in doing so, since he will be (at best) the fourth or fifth back selected—Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Mike Hart, James Davis, Jacob Hester, Jonathan Stewart, and Steve Slaton head the list of backs likely coming out this year. Nevertheless, whether he leaves or not, our running game should continue to improve due both to the improvement of the OL and the comfort of the QBs in getting us into the right checks. Should he stay, he will be poised for a fantastic season (think 1500+ yards), with Jamal Edwards and company also getting a decent number of carries as we grind out more games in the second half. At receiver, losing De'Cody Fagg and Joslin Shaw will hurt, but this is the one position where we are deep even right now, and Rod Owens, Damon McDaniel, and several others should fill the void more than adequately.
Defensively, we return nearly our entire defensive line—losing Andre Fluellen (who unfortunately has not played much this year due to injury) and Alex Boston—with Justin Mincey and Everette Brown showing signs of returning FSU to "Defensive End U" status. If Kevin McNeal gets reinstated and Brian Coulter is able to make it on campus, our ends should be the deepest they've been since 2000. There is no reason our tackles should not continue their stellar play under Odell Haggins.
At linebacker, we should be healthy again, with Marcus Ball and Derek Nicholson having fought through a season in which neither was fully healthy. The tremendous freshman class will both provide depth and stellar special teams contributions. It is possible that Geno Hayes declares for the NFL, but, like Smith, he would be making a mistake. If he chooses to return and commit himself to gaining about 10 more pounds, he should be able to work his way into a first round linebacker. Were he to leave today, he would likely be regarded too light to play outside LB in the pros, with a move to safety being the most likely suggestion.
The secondary should also be improved, with all but Roger Williams and JR Bryant returning. Hopefully a young safety will step into the void at FS; regardless, there is little reason to think that our secondary should not be one of the best in the country. FSU's schedule will also turn back into the ‘Noles favor next year. We will have seven home games, hosting all our traditionally difficult opponents except Miami.
What then is a reasonable expectation? Surprisingly (especially given my own caution about this season), a top-five finish and national championship contention throughout the year is not only within question, but insiders are actually expecting it. At least one person very close to the program told me before the year, "we might not be able to do it this year, but if we don't win it all next year, I'll be very disappointed." Even in this rebuilding season, we are only a few plays from being unbeaten (even though we would be no better in actuality), and every single unit should be improved next year. The future is bright, and (barring a rash of severe injuries) there is little reason to think FSU will not return to college football's elite next year.