College Football Preview 2015-2016: 9. Florida State Seminoles
2014-2015 Record: 13-1 (8-0 ACC)
Coach: Jimbo Fisher, sixth year (58-11)
Key Losses: QB Jameis Winston, WR Rashad Greene
Heisman Hopeful: RB Dalvin Cook
Breakout Player: WR Travis Rudolph
How did Florida State follow up a dominant 2013-2014 in which they went 14-0 and claimed the final BCS National Title? Only by winning their first 13 games, winning the ACC, and clinching a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sure, the Seminoles were crushed in the Playoff be Oregon, and most of those 13 wins were close calls or pretty miraculous comebacks, whether it was luck or just skill. Though, entering 2015, expectations have been seriously tampered, considering the loss of former Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston and so much more. Even with the attrition on both sides of the ball, FSU has lost three games the last three years and they should once more be extremely good. Jimbo Fisher has recruited amazingly well, and his Seminoles' program is still the team to beat in the conference, until someone proves they aren't.
Backfield: Jameis Winston wasn't quite as dominant in his redshirt sophomore year as he was in 2013-2014. Though, "Famous Jameis" still managed to throw for 4,000 yards and recorded 28 total touchdowns and his departure early to the NFL certainly will hurt. Although his antics off the field were sometimes a distraction to the team, there is no denying how much of a playmaker Winston was, and how much of a leader he was to the team. The main candidates to replace the most polarizing player in college football last season are going to Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson and junior Sean Maguire. Golson was wanted by a number of different programs throughout the nation, but he choose FSU, seeing it as opportunity to compete right away for a national title while also likely earning a starting job. Although Golson slumped heavily in the second half of 2014 for ND, he still offers experience in big games and he knows how to command an offense. But, not too fast on Golson coming in and quickly earning the QB job. He still has to learn the offense and prove that he definitely deserves it. Maguire has a real shot to earn the job as well. Last year when Winston was suspended a game, Maguire was thrown into the fire against a really good Clemson defense. Understandably, he had some ups-and-downs but still managed to throw for over 300 yards and lead the Seminoles to a close victory. The veteran has a great feel for the offense and has showcased a strong, accurate arm that can make all the throws. Quite honestly, I see Maguire as the heir to Winston this season, at least to begin the season as Golson will probably need a lot more time to learn the offense. With the quarterback situation murky at the moment, the Seminoles will lean on their ground game a lot more this season. That would be a very good thing just weeks ago. That was before sophomore Dalvin Cook earned himself a suspension after punching a woman outside a bar on campus weeks ago. His future is completely unclear, but if he does manage to get things together he would really help FSU. Cook ran for 1,008 yards and eight scores last season, and was on fire late in the season. But, he clearly has some things he needs to solve and get figured out first. Cook may well play this season for FSU, but there is a good chance he might not start the season. If that is the case, expect Florida State to turn to junior Mario Pender as their feature back, with Karlos Williams graduated. Pender ran for 206 yards last season and showed flashes of stardom, but there is still a considerable drop-off of talent there. True freshman Jacques Patrick might not have seen a lot of action this year before the Cook debacle, but now he gets pushed to a much larger role. The four-star prospect out of Orlando offers great size. Fullbacks Freddie Stevenson and Johnathan Vickers return for another year.
Receivers: The loss of Winston certainly hurts the Seminoles' pass offense, but even more tragic to the aerial attack were the losses of receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary. Greene smashed dozens of records in his time in Tallahassee, and his 99 receptions and 1,365 yards will definitely not be easily replaced. The loss of O'Leary is also tough to swallow. The bruising tight end proved himself to be one of the best in the nation in his time with the 'Noles. The most likely candidate to take over Greene's spot as Florida State's top target is sophomore Travis Rudolph. Rudolph had 38 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns last season, and showed just how great he could be in games like the Notre Dame matchup (six receptions, 80 yards, one score). The sophomore has terrific burst and speed in the open field. He could put up huge numbers this season if he truly emerges as Florida State's top receiver. Fellow sophomore Ermon Lane could also be a breakout candidate. Lane is gifted with the perfect mix of size (6'3", 205 pounds) and speed, picking up 267 yards on 13 receptions last season. That was an average of 20.5 yards per catch, showing how dangerous Lane could be. Junior Jesus Wilson returns after quietly having a wonderful year for Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles. Wilson had 42 catches for 527 yards and four touchdowns, and the speedster was always ready to make big plays. Standing at just 5'9", Wilson does his damage by making short yardage catches and using his shiftiness, elusiveness and agility to good use. Fellow speedster Kermit Whitfield also returns for his junior season. Whitfield is a proven special teams demon but has worked very hard on growing as a receiver. Although he struggles with drops and route running at times, he has grown into a weapon in the aerial attack as well. Big things are expected of true freshman George Campbell from the moment he plays a single snap with FSU. Rated by ESPN as the top athlete in the Class of 2015, Campbell has the versatility to help the Seminoles in a ton of different ways, but his niche is at receiver. A wonderful athlete with good size, Campbell could grow into a very dangerous weapon in his first year in Tallahassee. The tight end position is certainly a question mark without the sturdy O'Leary. Redshirt freshman Ryan Izzo and Marvin Saunders are the top two candidates to replace him, while incoming freshman Jalen Wilkerson is a strong-willed, four-star find who could push for playing time.
Offensive Line: Florida State's offensive line had all the looks of a dominant unit a year ago, with five seniors on it and plenty of talent, including All-ACC candidates like Cam Erving and Tre' Jackson. And, it certainly wasn't bad by any means, but it was a sort of disappointment, not quite dominating opposing defenses like expected. Now all five seniors that began 2014 as starters are gone, leaving just one player who saw actually starting time last season left. That player is left tackle Roderick Johnson, who started the final five games of the season at the position for the Seminoles. Despite being just a sophomore and thrown into the role last season, Johnson showed a great feel for the game and played pretty well. At 6'7", 310 pounds, Johnson possesses the size to be a dominant linemen, with plenty of versatility as well. The right tackle position is a little bit more of a question, but at least junior Chad Mavety brings some much needed experience. Mavety isn't a great athlete, but he also has good size (6'5", 330 pounds) and has bulked up even more in the spring and on to fall camp. The other three positions on the line are question marks. Left guard should fall to junior Kareem Are, a very good run blocker. Sophomore Wilson Bell could certainly push Are for starting snaps though. At center, Alec Eberle and sophomore Ryan Hoefeld will compete for the starting job vacated by Erving, while right guard should be manned by redshirt freshman Derrick Kelly, with Bell also pushing for playing time there as well. There is a dearth of depth in the interior of the unit meaning true freshman Cole Minshew, a four-star Georgia product could push for action. Versatile Abdul Bello could also see action in his first season in Tallahassee. Bello is a four-star prospect who already has NFL size, standing at 6'6" and already near 300 pounds.
Defensive Line: The defensive line was an established unit last season for the Seminoles but it also suffers severe losses. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman earned All-American honors last season after recording 35 tackles, 8 TFL and four sacks. Mario Edwards also proved to be a very dangerous linemen, earning himself All-ACC honors at defensive end. The good news for second year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly and Jimbo Fisher is that defensive tackle Niles Lawrence-Stample is healthy once again. Lawrence-Stample was going to be a key contributor up front last year for Florida State before injuries prevented him from starting in every game but two. Even in that short action, Lawrence-Stample showed that he could be very dominant. Without Goldman, Lawrence-Stample will be expected to step up in a huge way. He isn't as great of an athlete as Goldman is, but he can still be very disruptive in opposing backfields. Juniors DeMarcus Walker and Chris Casher are the two likely starters now at the defensive end spots. Both showed signs of being real playmakers, with Walker recording 38 tackles and six for loss and Casher picking up 28 and 3.5 for loss. Both will hope to really grow as pass rushers though, as Florida State did not manage a lot of sacks last season (Goldman, with four, was their team leader). Casher, particularly could be in store for a huge season. He has showed a ton of promise in his career with the Seminoles, and has looked really good in spring and fall camp. Sophomore Jacob Pugh should also challenge for playing time at the defensive end positions. Even without see a ton of action last season, Pugh proved that he could make some terrific plays. Pugh even had two interceptions last season, and he should continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks and get in their face. Likely to join Lawrence-Stample up the middle of the unit is going to be senior Derrick Mitchell, who saw a ton of action last season with Lawrence-Stample sidelined. Mitchell showed the ability to be a helper in run support, with 20 tackles and like Pugh, also showed he could get in opposing quarterbacks' vision, with two pass deflections. Big things are expected of incoming freshman Josh Sweat, a consensus five-star recruit for Fisher and staff. Sweat gives quarterbacks fits with his tremendous speed to the ball and incredibly high motor. It will be very interesting to see how much FSU employs his talents this season. Four-star prospect Darvin Taylor II is not as hyped as Sweat but brings major potential at defensive tackle.
Linebackers: With the losses of a number of contributors on the defensive line, there is significantly more pressure on the linebackers to step up. It is a generally strong unit, with a number of All-ACC possibilities, but injuries could be worrying. Senior Reggie Northrup is among the most underrated linebackers in the entire nation. Northrup proved to be a playmaking machine last year, with 122 total tackles and four tackles for loss in 2014. Though, he suffered through a torn ACL against Oregon on top of watching his team get beat by nearly 40. Though, Northrup's recovery is going very well according to every news outlet, and there is a lot of optimism he could be ready for the start of the 2015 campaign. Certainly after a serious injury like that, you worry about his speed and tackling, but if he can regain both of those things full strength he should put together a wonderful final year in Tallahassee. Senior Terrance Smith is the other projected starter in Florida State's 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Smith also proved that he can make plays all over the field, evidenced by his 87 tackles a season ago, along with two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Smith also returned one of those interceptions all the way back for six. Smith is a wonderful athlete who can help FSU out in so many different ways. He is a help in coverage when needed, but can also be a disruptive presence as a pass rusher. Big things were expected of redshirt sophomore Matthew Thomas, but mere hours ago, it was reported that the linebacker was ruled ineligible for the entirety of the 2015 season. Now a couple years removed from his five-star rank coming out of high school, Thomas was supposed to finally start living up to the hype, at least after he recovered from shoulder surgery. His absence will put pressure on sophomore Terrell Lyons to step up as a backup for either Northrup or Smith. Expect junior college transfer Lorenzo Phillips to see major action from the get-go with the Seminoles. Phillips arrives from East Mississippi Community College as a four-star transfer. At 6'3", he has the size to be effective and the potential to grow into a dangerous pass rusher off the edge for Kelly and the 'Noles.
Special Teams: Having a reliable kicker is a luxury not every team can afford. Luckily for the Seminoles they have the best kicker in FBS football this year in junior Roberto Aguayo. The 2014 Lou Groza Award winner and All-American is terrific, knocking down 27 of 30 field goals last season. A number of weapons return to the return game, while senior Cason Beatty makes a return at punter.
At programs at the level of Florida State, championships are expected every single year, no matter the losses. That should not change this season, as the Seminoles are widely seen as serious Playoff threats once more even with severe losses. If Jimbo Fisher can find a quarterback, there is enough on offense to win games, while the defense should be in good hands with Ramsey and hopefully a healthy Northrup. This Florida State team is incredibly young, so cakewalk non-conference games like Texas State and USF should help them get their feet underneath them. If they can win treacherous road meetings with Georgia Tech and Clemson, this team could well claim their fourth straight ACC crown, and vie for their second straight Playoff chance, hopefully with a better ending than last year.