GAME TWELVE: FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Coach: Jimbo Fisher, 6th year (58-11)
2014 record: 13-1 (8-0 ACC), ACC Champions; def. Georgia Tech in ACC Championship Game, lost to Oregon in Rose Bowl (CFP Semifinal)
Last meeting: FSU 24, Florida 19 (2014)
All time series: Florida, 34-23-2
Streak: FSU 2
The skinny: Hello again, old friend. Florida-FSU is among the nation’s most heated rivalries, and has seen some unforgettable moments over the last 20 years. But this year, the two teams meet at a crossroads: Florida has been down recently, and appears to be on the upswing, while FSU is coming off a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon… which snapped a 29 game winning streak. FSU figures to take a major step back this year, but there’s still a fair amount of talent from the last two years left over, plus some new talent, that could limit the drop off. But that sentence can be twisted in another way, too: although FSU should once again compete for the ACC crown, there are numerous weaknesses on this FSU roster.
Returning starters: 4
The first order of business for FSU was to find a successor to Jameis Winston at the QB position. The Seminoles seem to have done that by luring Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson to Tallahassee, where he beat out Sean Maguire and JJ Cosentino. But Golson, while talented, reminds me a bit of former FSU quarterback Chris Rix. Like Rix, Golson has the ability to scramble around for awhile and make some big plays. And like Rix, sometimes those “plays” are good for the other team, like the 14 interceptions he threw for Notre Dame in the last nine games of the regular season, including four in a dreadful loss to Arizona State. He’s going to have to cut that out if FSU is to have a functioning offense.
Golson will have some help from his skill position players. Tailback Dalvin Cook has gotten the green light following an investigation into him allegedly assaulting a 21 year old woman, and he’ll be backed up by the injury prone but promising Mario Pender and five star freshman Jacques Patrick. Replacing your top two receiving leaders (Nick O’Leary and Rashad Greene) is never fun, but there’s hope in Tallahassee that Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and LeVonte Whitfield can do the job (1,494 yards receiving in limited roles last year).
The question will be the offensive line. FSU could be in big trouble up front if they don’t find replacements for last year’s entire starting five. In fact, FSU returns a grand total of nine career starts on the offensive line: four from Ryan Hoefield and five from Rod Johnson (yes, FSU has a Rod Johnson too). It’s up to Rick Trickett to assemble at least a competent offensive line, or the Seminoles could lose four or five games by getting dominated in the trenches alone.
Offensive Grade: C+. I’m prefacing that grade with this: I’d be a lot higher on FSU’s offense if not for the complete overhaul required of the offensive line. It still wouldn’t be a great offense, but it would be a solid one. But I just can’t trust an offense that has five spots on its line to fill at once.
Returning starters: 7
FSU’s defensive line has almost an extensive of an overhaul ahead as its offensive line. Desmond Hollin, Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman will all need to be replaced; that’s 87.5 tackles worth of production. DeMarcus Walker, Lorenzo Featherson, Derrick Nnadi and Chris Casher will be counted on to step in and make some plays right away. That’s not a lot to ask given their talent, but there’s little proven productivity among them. And like I said about the offensive line, I have a hard time believing this group can just step in and pick up where their predecessors left off.
The middle level of the defense isn’t in bad shape. FSU has a pair of veteran linebackers in Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith. Neither are exactly All-American caliber, but you could do worse than having two seniors with 157 combined tackles last year quarterbacking your defense. FSU will also look to get some help from Ro’Derrick Hoskins, who played in 13 games last year as a freshman.
While the Seminoles lose some big pieces of its secondary, they appear best equipped to reload here. Ronald Darby and PJ Williams (14 pass breakups last year) are both gone. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Then again, FSU does get corner Jalen Ramsey back, along with safeties Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter. No, Ramsey is not on the same level as Vernon Hargreaves. Yes, he’s still a very talented cornerback who will likely be a first round pick when he comes out. So with these three alone, FSU should be OK here.
Defensive Grade: B-. There’s plenty of reason to doubt this unit given the facelift required up front. But the Seminoles will survive 2015 because of the back end of its defense.
FSU wins if… the Seminoles figure out a way to combat a nasty Gator pass rush. Florida’s defensive front vs. FSU’s offensive front appears to be the biggest mismatch favoring the Gators, but if FSU can somehow win the line of scrimmage when it has the ball and nullify this advantage, you have to like their chances. That, plus Everett Golson not turning the ball over a bunch of times is how FSU is going to be able to take one away from Florida in the Swamp. It’s easier said than done, of course, given the myriad of future NFL Draft selections on Florida’s defensive line and linebacker corps plus the inexperience of FSU’s offensive line.
Florida wins if… the Gators take advantage of any gifts FSU hands out. The Seminoles’ suspicious offensive line, plus a quarterback who’s prone to making mistakes, plus a ferocious Florida defense, figures to result in a few turnovers, possibly giving Florida the ball in great field position. All the Gators have to do to win is turn those goodies into touchdowns, because unless I’m either grossly underestimating FSU’s offensive line or Everett Golson, I believe FSU could end the day with four or more turnovers. If even three of those turn into touchdowns, it’s an easy Gator win. Hell, three touchdowns off of Jameis Winston picks would have meant an easy win last year- and this FSU team is worse than that one was.
Three things to watch for:
1) Good offensive minds find ways to compensate for their weaknesses and utilize their strengths. But finding a way to make an offense with such a suspect offensive line tick is a tall order for even Steve Spurrier. The probable solution for Jimbo Fisher is to throw a lot of quick passes in the flat to Dalvin Cook, Ermon Lane, etc. and rely on them breaking tackles. This way, you both utilize your strength (explosive playmakers) and hide your weakness (offensive line) by removing your weakness from the play and putting the fate of the play solely in the hands of your strength. So it’s up to you, Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, and Brian Poole. Make open field tackles and limit gains, and dare the Seminoles to beat you in a way they’re less comfortable with.
2) I kind of mentioned it earlier, but it’s worth repeating, albeit with a different spin to it: if FSU is to win, Everett Golson has to play a very smart game. That means taking a sack instead of throwing a pick six, that means throwing it out of bounds when he’s outside the tackle box instead of trying to run for it or make a heroic throw across his body to the middle of the field, and that means being willing and able to hit his check down options (which also requires him detecting that he’s open and none of his primary options are before the rush gets to him). Because unlike last year, if FSU turns it over four times, they will lose. And possibly by a lot.
3) The debate of Vernon Hargreaves vs. Jalen Tabor has raged on social media for months now. Wait, I meant Jalen Ramsey. I get them confused because they’re both named Jalen and future first round picks, but in the end I’m always able to distinguish the two because Ramsey is the one who whines about everything on twitter. Anyway, they’re all top tier cornerbacks. Thing is, they’ll never directly match up against each other; instead, they’ll be tested by their opponent’s top receiver. Florida’s going to have to get something going in the passing game to win, and the top target for the Gators appears to be DeMarcus Robinson. Target sighted. Challenge accepted. This is going to be the one on one matchup to keep your eye on, as one slip-up in coverage by Ramsey could be fatal.
Florida State overall grade: B-. The Seminoles have a lot of shoes to fill, but I honestly believe Jimbo Fisher will get them on the right track and have them eventually compete for another national title. In 2016. Which is not this year. Fisher may have recruited like a gangbuster, but talent doesn’t just turn into wins overnight. In other words, the Seminoles may have plenty of potential, but it’s very, very raw.
Overview: Cue the 2010 game, but invert the teams. Florida’s got a new head coach taking the reins from an ineffective one (and by that I mean 2006-2009 Bobby Bowden, not his entire tenure). FSU is two years removed from a national title, one year removed from coming close to repeating but getting curb stomped in the national semifinals (and by that I mean the 2009 SEC Championship was by all means a semifinal). FSU is on the way down, while Florida has nowhere to go but up. And FSU has to visit the home turf of its in state rival, one who figures to go through its own fair share of growing pains (meaning losses) but appears better equipped to deal with them than FSU- and has a half decade of misery to erase.
So while I do believe that FSU is actually the more naturally talented team (yes, I’m guilty of buying into the recruiting rankings), they have too many question marks and weaknesses that could be exploited in major ways to really trust them from a “picking from your head and not your heart” perspective. That goes double on the road, and triple on the road against a team gnashing its teeth to end a 1-4 slide against them. In a stark contrast from my prediction two years ago: I really, truly do believe that Fisher can reload and guide FSU back to glory. But reloading takes time to do. And in that interval where Fisher struggles to refill the magazine with ammo, opponents will take advantage and fire back.
So what I believe will happen is fairly simple. A close game for three quarters turns into a rout late, as Everett Golson will grow antsy against a Gator defense that doesn’t give him much time or room to do anything, try too hard to make things happen and thus make some catastrophic mistakes that lead to Florida touchdowns, and a final score that isn’t totally indicative of how the game went. Florida has their fair share of question marks that will probably result in a four loss season, don’t get me wrong, but they’re neither as serious nor as large in quantity as FSU’s. As long as the Gators don’t dole out a similar portion of goodies, bide their time on offense, grab stray touchdowns when they get the chance, and hold out until Golson makes mistakes, they’ll finish the regular season at 8-4 and walk away as state champions.
Projection: Florida 37, FSU 17