College football countdown: Will Florida State make the Playoff?
Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Florida State, a team that finished 10-3 last year and is ranked No. 4 in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
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Jack Freifelder: What an opportunity in Week 1 for the Seminoles to make a statement when they face the Ole Miss Rebels in Orlando. We can agree it’s a big game, right Anthony?
Sure, it won’t exactly be the friendly confines of Doak Campbell Stadium but there are likely to be plenty of Florida State faithful on hand for the opener. Some questions will swirl as FSU opens the season with another quarterback under center.
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In the meantime, the ball will fall to redshirt freshman Deondre Francois. Francois, a native of Orlando, has yet to take a snap at the college level, but surprised many at the team’s Spring Game with a solid performance.
Nonetheless, the coaching staff is sure to have high expectations for Francois, Maguire and the rest of the Seminoles who return to Tallahassee in 2016. The QBs won’t have to do all the work themselves though.
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I’ll come back to that later but there’s excitement about the defense too, which allowed the 5th-fewest points per game in all of college football last season (15.8 ppg)
I may be high on the Seminoles overall, but admittedly I’m going to need to see a little more consistency from QB position if this team is going to stay in the hunt for a CFB Playoff spot. The heavy lifting starts early in Week 1.
Anthony Chiusano: What a way to open the season indeed between the No. 4 and No. 11 teams in the nation.
The Rebels are a team that knocked off four ranked programs in the regular season last year, including conference champ Alabama for the second straight season. They live for these big-time games, so Florida State may be in trouble with upset-minded Ole Miss on the immediate docket.
Even more troublesome, as you noted, Florida State must rely on Francois to lead the offense out of the gates against a top-notch SEC defense. That's not exactly what you call a warm welcome as Francois tries to prove he belongs in the starting role. Maguire hasn't shown the consistency Florida State would have liked in the past few years but still showed some flashes of greatness and leadership at times. Less is known about the redshirt freshman Francois.
This continues a familiar theme that has been explored multiple times throughout this college football countdown series. Add Florida State to the long list of teams with tremendous upside but with the all-important question mark under center.
It's too early to judge whether Francois can step in and produce immediately, but I'm skeptical that the Seminoles can cruise to the Playoff facing this uncertainty to start the year.
JF: I can’t argue with the nonexistent sample size for Francois, and the spring game is not exactly the benchmark by which to judge regular season performance, but a few factors that could make the transition a bit easier would be (1) the offensive line; (2) the players at the skill positions; and (3) the coach bringing it all together.
The Seminoles return the majority of their scholarship players up front, which should at least give the fledgling QB a chance to progress through his reads appropriately. Keeping his jersey clean will be a top priority, so the pressure will be on offensive line coach Rick Trickett from Day One.
A second layer of support will come from the team’s two leading wide receivers (Rudolph and Wilson) and the team’s leading rusher Cook.
The wideout tandem accounted for more than 100 receptions, 1,700+ yards and 13 TDs in 2015, while Cook tallied nearly 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns on 229 carries. Rudolph and Wilson’s output will likely hinge on the ability to deliver the ball to them, just as much as it will on their ability to win battles at the line of scrimmage.
However, Cook should look to get even more touches this year.
Among backs with more than 1,500 yards last year, only one had a higher yards per carry average than Cook (7.4). In layman’s terms, when Cook gets the ball he normally picks up chunks of yardage at a time. He is undoubtedly the most-feared weapon on FSU’s squad, and coach Jimbo Fisher knows that getting him the ball is also a top priority.
The icing on the cake here is Fisher’s ability to cultivate the best in his players. If Fisher could corral and channel Jameis Winston’s talent, who’s to say that Francois doesn’t have a little freshman magic in him. Oh, and the last time Florida State had a redshirt freshman QB under center they hoisted the championship trophy. Just saying.
AC: Cook will sure be fun to watch this year and will be the main attraction on this team. He dictates how far this offense can go and should help ease Francois' transition if Francois sticks in the starting role when Maguire returns in the next few weeks or so.
But I simply don't like Florida State's matchup in Week 1. Ole Miss' defense was more than solid against the run last year, holding Leonard Fournette to a respectable 108 yards -- he broke off for more than 150 yards eight times, so holding him to 108 is quite the accomplishment -- and doing its best against Heisman winner Derrick Henry (123 yards) of Alabama.
In both games, the Rebels kept the two powerful backs to solid games but neither had game-changing, earth-shattering performances that they are both capable of having. Ole Miss won both those matchups.
If Ole Miss can do the same against Cook, holding him under that tremendous yards per carry mark you mentioned, Francois will be forced into more passing situations that Florida State won't want him in this early.
Out of all the must-watch Week 1 face-offs between ranked teams, I see this game as the most likely to end with an upset. But even if Florida State does escape with the confidence-boosting win, I don't think the Seminoles are on the same level as No. 2 Clemson in the ACC. It's hard to see two ACC teams making the four-team playoff, especially with the two facing each other in October, and the Tigers just seem at a whole other level with their returning playmakers and high-pressure defense. Not to mention their No. 1 quarterback in the nation in Deshaun Watson. It's a tough draw for FSU.
JF: I appreciate your point. Florida State won't lock up a spot for the playoff with a Week 1 win over Ole Miss, but a loss to the Rebels would likely put FSU on the outside looking in for most of the season. And Cook may very well be in for a rough day against the front seven for Ole Miss, which includes players like Marquis Haynes (10 sacks last season, 17.5 sacks over the last two years).
Florida State's mettle will be tested in the first five weeks of the schedule, with three contests against opponents in the AP Top 25 (# 11 Ole Miss, # 19 Louisville, # 22 UNC), but your take on Clemson is duly noted.
We will know well in advance of a matchup with Clemson whether or not this Seminoles team can hang with the big boys, but things in the ACC still must go through Dabo Swinney and co. It doesn't look the Tigers are ready to relinquish their perch anytime soon.
Coach Fisher will be careful to not overwhelm his gunslinger early, but something tells me that Francois is going to take to this offense like a duck takes to water. FSU could even have a dilemma at quarterback on its hands when Sean Maguire is healthy enough for live action.
My last real question about this team is will the defense make enough impact plays to bolster what could be a struggling offense at times?
This defense needs to hold up its end of the bargain if Florida State is going to turn heads in the college football world, and that starts with creating turnovers. FSU tied for 102nd in the nation with only eight interceptions a year ago and ranked 92nd with its seven fumble recoveries.
Some totals from last year are encouraging, especially DE DeMarcus Walker's 10.5 sacks and cornerback Derwin James' 91 tackles, but an even turnover margin is not acceptable for a team that has high hopes of a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Rest assured, the players returning on defense know that the expectations will be high.
AC: Going off that last point, I do believe the defense, led by its strong front, will continue to improve this year. Walker and the rest of the Seminoles' pass rush excelled last year and should rival Clemson's big front seven for best in the conference.
But again, I think the main question is whether the offense can perform despite all of its returnees around the quarterback position. There's no room for error early in the season with those ranked opponents you noted -- I think the talented Tar Heels present another trap game in Week 5 -- and one or two hiccups will leave the Seminoles on the outside looking in.
Of course, if Florida State can take down Clemson on Oct. 29 and regain the mantle of ACC's top dog, things will be different. But Clemson has all the tools to improve on last season's runner-up finish. One thing to keep in mind however: the Tigers will head to Tallahassee for that all-important matchup. Home field advantage is critical in college football and that may play a factor in the one game that may ultimately decide Florida State's fate.