Team: Florida State Seminoles
2012 W-L: 12-2 (7-1)
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (31-10; fourth season)
Returning Starters: 10 (6 Offense, 4 Defense)
Is Florida State “back?” Depends on your definition. After a bit of a tailspin (by their standards) toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era, the Seminoles have since rebounded pretty well under Jimbo Fisher, winning a division title in two of the last three years and a conference championship last season (their first since 2005). SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has a lot more to say about the progression since Fisher’s hire, and rather than simply repeat him, it’s probably much easier to just head there for the full scope of improvement. Based on recruiting rankings and the glut of talent on this roster, I’d say Florida State is “back” in the sense they’re a top-15 program. But we’ll see if they can return to the national title conversation.
For the large majority of the 2012 season, the ‘Noles offense was an absolute force. And while they lose plenty — including quarterback EJ Manuel, halfback Chris Thompson and wide receiver Rodney Smith — there’s still plenty left over for another superb effort. Jameis Winston appears to be the real deal as the new starting passer, and he’ll have a very experienced, big offensive line in front of him to help with the transition. Bryan Stork and Tre’ Jackson in particular are two of the best linemen in the conference, and will play key roles in protecting Winston, who also has plenty of mobility. There’s much talk about the impact of tackle Menelik Watson’s departure to the pros (as there should be), but so long as everyone stays healthy, I don’t see a ton of drop-off. With the little depth they have across the offensive line, however, it’s something to watch out for.
At the skill positions, last year’s top target Rashad Greene is back, and prepared to take on a larger role in the passing game — but there’s a long, talented depth chart of pass-catchers behind him as well. No matter Winston’s ability to throw though, it’s likely Fisher will be calling for a run-heavy offensive attack, which he also has ample personnel for. Neither Devonta Freeman or James Wilder Jr. started the 2012 season atop the depth chart, but both managed over 100 carries apiece for a combined 1,295 yards and 19 scores. Last year, injuries limited every FSU running backs’ carries. In 2013, so long as they can stay healthy, there’s a good chance both of the ‘Noles featured rushers top the 1,000-yard mark.
Defensively, Florida State likely has 11 future NFL players in the starting lineup (no exaggeration), and despite the perceived lack of experience based solely on “returning starters,” virtually every starter has played an extensive amount of time already. On the ends, Dan Hicks is back in action after missing all of last year, and his counterpart, Mario Edwards appears poised to break out and live up to his billing as the nation’s top recruit in 2012. Timmy Jernigan, another non-senior, is one of the best defensive tackles in the ACC, though he does need to get more penetration at the line. FSU did have 36 sacks last season (14th in the FBS), but a ton of those departed when 11 ‘Noles were drafted in April. This group has some big shoes to fill, but at least they’ve got plenty of help from the back seven.
FSU’s defense is very much a “pick your poison” group. Try and go at the line, and the linebackers are likely to make you pay. Target the secondary, that opens up the line to blitz. State’s linebackers are arguably the league’s best, with Christian Jones leading things from the outside linebacker spot. The menacing senior can rack up big tackles numbers when called upon, and should be in line for a spot on the All-ACC team at bare minimum. He’ll be assisted by Telvin Smith and Terrance Smith, both of whom should give blockers fits as they try to figure out who to pick up. Even if you manage to avoid all three huge linebackers, you’re still faced with the terrifying proposition of beating this FSU secondary, though. Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks will anchor a typically dominant group who look to follow in the footsteps of last season’s stellar effort. FSU ranked first overall against the pass, allowing just 161.9 yards per game and 13 total touchdowns through the air. With largely the same personnel as 2012, expect a whole lot more of the same from them.
It might appear to be downplayed up top, but the success of this team will be decided by the offensive line staying healthy and Jameis Winston’s ability to not just replicate what Manuel did, but surpass it. Where this team stalled in 2012 was based on a lack of offensive creativity and Manuel’s hot-and-cold presence as a team leader. Of course he was excellent for the most part, but it’s tough to truly push out those cringe-worthy moments. Winston will have those, too. But he has to inspire Fisher to loosen the reins of the playbook a bit and let this team fly. There’s so much speed and athleticism on the offensive side of the ball. Despite the top-flight run game and receivers, though, if Winston can’t get them the ball, it won’t matter all that much. I think he’ll succeed. But Florida State may take a miniscule step back before moving forward.
Prediction: (10-2) (7-1); Chick-fil-a Bowl