By Pete Fiutak
Follow me ... don't cost nothin'
With around 17 or so of last year’s players likely to see time in an NFL camp this summer, it’s a rebuilding year for a Florida State program that rocketed back up to among the elite of the elite. The Seminoles know how to reload quickly under Jimbo Fisher, but it’ll take more than just a few key replacements to come close to the high level the bar has been set at over the last few seasons.
The 2012 team showed off glimpses of potential greatness on the way to an ACC championship and an Orange Bowl win, setting the stage for an epic follow up. The 2013 squad was supremely talented, supremely focused, supremely motivated, and had a very, very clear sense of purpose and attitude, spearheaded by precocious quarterback, Jameis Winston, who took the season over from the opening weekend nationally-televised domination of Pitt.
The 2014 squad also had a world of talent, but it didn’t have the same sense of angry purpose that took the previous year’s team to the national championship. The lack of focus, along with a reliance on late heroics, masked a slew of massive problems, but even though it wasn’t always smooth, and it wasn’t always pretty, Florida State was the only unbeaten team in college football at the end of the regular season.
Jameis might be off to the next level, along with a boatload of key players from the last two years, but great recruiting class after great recruiting class has kept the shelves stocked. Will it be enough to get to the playoff for the second year in a row?
Can the Seminoles make it four straight ACC championships, and would that alone be enough to get into the final four? It might take more than just another title on the Seminoles’ Path to the Playoff.
Step One: Get the quarterback situation settled and don’t waver
Sean Maguire has the raw tools, but it’ll take more than a big arm and prototype skills to replace a Heisman-winning legend. The 6-3, 224-pound junior came through when he absolutely had to in last season’s win over Clemson, but even after spending the year as the No. 2 guy behind No. 5, he’s still not a rock-solid lock to win the starting quarterback gig.
There’s no Jameis Winston on the current roster, but true freshman De’Andre Johnson has the potential to be a good one, and four-star recruit Deondre Francois also has special skills. Throw J.J. Costentino into the equation as well, and there are plenty of options to work with.
Maguire is the almost-certain starter going into the opener against Texas State, and now the key will be patience. With more than enough talent and athleticism all across the board – even though it might be young – Maguire doesn’t have to be Winston. Keep the mistakes to a minimum, let the D and the running game do the work – it sounds relatively easy, but the expectations are higher now as the Next QB Up after having Winston and E.J. Manuel at the helm.
Step Two: Get healthy, and fast
It’s a long summer before fall camp begins, the Seminoles need the time as much as any top team in college football after suffering a slew of nicks and bruised going into the end of spring football. Considering all the turnover on both sides of the ball, every fall practice will be vital to the young team’s development.
The Noles will count on yet another great recruiting class to help fill in the gaps for a defensive front that needs help around what should be a solid interior, while the O line that lost future NFL starters Cameron Erving, Tre Jackson and Josue Matias, along with Bobby Hart, is going to need plenty of retooling.
There will be plenty of benefit-of-the-doubt votes cast for the Seminoles in the preseason rankings, but the brutal truth is that this might be the year to catch them considering the starting 22 is a massive question mark, much less the rest of the depth chart.
Step Three: Find it
It doesn’t take experience to build swagger, it takes success. Even with all the concerns and all the turnover, Florida State will still be more talented and better than just about everyone on the schedule, and just as strong, at least, as Clemson and Florida. The 2013 team had it from the start, while last year’s Ohio State squad worked its way into it through the process.
Just wearing the Florida State uniforms isn’t going to get it done, but a few early blowout wins – especially considering how much trouble last year’s team had putting teams away early – could do wonders. Using the No One Believes In Us cliché after the preseason rankings come out won’t hurt.
Step Four: Win the turnover battle - please
Not having Winston around to force throws to receivers who aren’t open is a start. Part of the dominance of the 2013 team was the way it was, for the most part, never, ever hurt by turnovers. The offense gave up 18 on the year and was sloppy at times, but the Noles were even in turnover margin five times, on the positive side nine times, and never finished in the red thanks to a defense that came up with 35 takeaways.
On the flip side, last season’s team had a negative turnover margin six times and was never more than +1 in the positive. With such a young and inexperienced team to start out this year, winning the turnover battle is an absolute must.
Step Five: Hope for the rest of the ACC to help the cause
Here’s the tricky part. Even though Florida State was the defending national champion, and even though it was 12-0 before the ACC title game, there was still a school of thought that it wasn’t one of the four best teams in the country. Of course, there was no way to leave out the 13-0, ACC champion Seminoles, but it’s not like they won the SEC or the Pac-12. The conference as a whole should be good, but it has to be viewed as solidly in the top three of the best league debate.
Step Six: Beat Georgia Tech, beat Clemson
Ohio State won a national title despite gacking at home to Virginia Tech, so of course it’s possible to get into the playoff at 12-1. However, Florida State can’t afford an upset early on at Boston College or at home to Miami, NC State or Louisville – four teams that gave last year’s Noles a slew of problems – with several other landmines to sidestep. With road games at Georgia Tech and Clemson, just getting through the ACC schedule unbeaten will be a massive undertaking. Even if that happens, FSU has to …
Step Seven: Beat Florida, and look decent doing it
It’s all about momentum. How does a team look late in the year, and is it a team that looks like it’s peaking just in time to make some noise in the playoff? The committee will look at the entire body of work, but it certainly didn’t hurt last season that Ohio State roared through most of the second half. Obviously, everything depends on what’s happening in the other conferences, but assuming FSU trips up somewhere along the way, but is still able to make its way into the ACC championship. 12-1 probably writes the ticket, but 11-2 with a loss to Florida might make it very, very difficult.
Is It Going To Happen?: There are way too many concerns to assume that a team so close to losing several times last season could get through a tough schedule unscathed. Road games at Boston College, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida are hard enough, and there are plenty of tough home dates to worry about, too. Florida State is still very, very good, and it’s still going to be considered, at worst, 1A in the preseason ACC rankings, but until everyone heals up, and until several positions are settled, it’s hard to envision anything less than a multiple loss regular season.
Path To The Playoff: Florida State
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