March Madness is finished, a college basketball champion has been crowned and now the heart of spring practice means it's time to speculate about the first College Football Playoff. We're only about four months away from the release of preseason college football polls, and barring a monumental shift in opinion, it's hard to imagine anybody but defending champion Florida State opening the season at No. 1. Unsurprisingly, the Seminoles are the early betting favorite, and for good reason.
They return a respectable 13 starters to an undefeated team that won 14 games by an average score of 52-12. By nearly any measure, they were historically dominant and balanced, ranking No. 1 in Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings on both offense and defense, No. 1 in offensive yards per play, No. 2 in defensive yards per play, No. 2 in scoring offense and No. 1 in scoring defense. They had a freshman Heisman winner and even a freshman Groza winner (kicker Roberto Aguayo). They did everything well, and even with several key losses, it's hard to imagine the Seminoles not doing most everything well again in 2014. That's the program Jimbo Fisher has quickly rebuilt into a power, the team that finally ended the SEC's championship streak while maintaining the national balance of power in the small Tallahassee-Tuscaloosa-Auburn triangle. Even a slight dropoff from that dominance would still equate to a national title contender most seasons.
Florida State finishes spring practice with its Garnet and Gold game at 3 p.m. Saturday on ESPN, giving a national audience its first look at a 2014 team that will feature many familiar faces, even with several NFL-caliber players off to the draft. So will that be enough for Florida State to repeat as national champions in the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff era?
Why They Won't Repeat
1. Defensive attrition
Last year's damage: seven starters and the defensive coordinator. This year's damage: five starters and another defensive coordinator. Florida State hit a home run in hiring Alabama secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt to replace Mark Stoops, who left for Kentucky's head coaching job after the 2012 season. But Pruitt somewhat unexpectedly bolted Tallahassee after one year, jumping at the chance to work with his friend Mark Richt at Georgia and leaving Florida State in the odd position of losing its rising star coordinator to a lateral move despite winning a national title.
In place of Pruitt is the promoted Charles Kelly, who joined the FSU staff from Georgia Tech as special teams/linebackers coach last year and moves to Pruitt's position of coordinator and secondary coach. It's Kelly's first full-time coordinator job at an FBS program, having most recently coached under that title at Nicholls State in 2004-05. There's continuity, at least, and he doesn't have as much rebuilding to do, numbers-wise, as Pruitt did, but the five starters he loses also happen to be stars: tackle Timmy Jernigan, linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones and defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks. All five were first- or second-team All-ACC performers last year.
Jernigan was a disruptive anchor up front, Joyner a versatile playmaker and respected leader. Now, the Seminoles are betting on the enormous upside paying off for players like end Mario Edwards -- the top recruit in the class of 2012 -- and defensive backs Nate Andrews, Jalen Ramsey and Ronald Darby. Florida State's defense has finished in the top three in yards per play nationally three years in a row, and if everything breaks right again, it could easily stick around the top 10. But the good news is that even if there's some regression, the offense appears capable of making up the difference.
2. Skill-position shuffle
Winston hardly did it alone last year. He benefitted from an experienced supporting cast loaded with talent, headlined by Devonta Freeman and James Wilder at running back, Nick O'Leary at tight end and Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw at wide receiver. Shaw was a senior, while Benjamin -- a 6-foot-5, 234-pounder who could be nearly impossible to cover -- Freeman and Wilder all opted to turn pro, depriving the Seminoles of more than 1,500 rushing yards and more than 2,000 receiving yards from last year.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Seminoles are facing a monumental problem here. Winston's favorite target, Greene, opted to return after a 1,000-yard season, while 219-pound former defensive back Karlos Williams made a smooth transition to offense and averaged 8.02 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns as part of a three-man rotation in the backfield. He'll need to adjust to what will likely be a doubling of his 91 carries, but there's no reason to believe he's not capable of stepping up. Throw in one of the nation's best receiving tight ends in O'Leary, and obviously there's talent. But depth is not guaranteed, at least not yet.
For one, O'Leary got in another motorcycle accident, costing him much of spring practice. Two, the backfield has been ravaged by spring injuries. Williams is being held out the rest of spring practice, although not for anything major; Mario Pender, who was academically ineligible last year, is now banged up with a head injury; and the young running backs have had injury issues, with blue-chip early enrollee Dalvin Cook out with a torn labrum and touted redshirt freshman Ryan Green sidelined by a shoulder injury. Third, the wideout depth chart, aside from Green, looks quite different, with the giant Benjamin replaced in part by 5-foot-7 national championship hero Kermit Whitfield and 5-foot-9 Jesus Wilson. Still, it's only April, with plenty of time for Green and/or Cook to get healthy and establish himself, and plenty of time for one of the small receivers or the bigger Jarred Haggins and Isaiah Jones to establish a rapport with Winston. By August, the injury situation should be improved, meaning Florida State may again have a decent number of options.
Last year's regular-season schedule featured one game against a team that finished in the top 25 (Clemson, with ACC championship opponent Duke and BCS opponent Auburn also there). This year's regular-season schedule features four (Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville) who finished there last season, plus Miami and Florida again. So, essentially, you take last year's schedule and add Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Louisville to get this year's, with The Citadel the only total pushover nonconference game instead of Nevada, Bethune-Cookman and Idaho.
Florida State should be favored in every game, as it's still not among the nation's most difficult, slates, but it may actually be tested semi-regularly by teams with a pulse, especially with the possibility Miami and Florida improve, even if Clemson and Louisville take a step back. Last year's juggernaut played a big game only once a month or so. This one may do it every two or three weeks, especially if Florida turns around. It's very hard to go undefeated two years in a row; it's even harder when the schedule stops being laughably bad. Is it that hard to imagine the revamped Seminoles slipping up in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington against Oklahoma State in the opener? Or even against an improved Notre Dame offense? Maybe last year's team wouldn't have, but sustaining that level of nearly flawless play is impossible.
Why They Will Repeat
1. Jameis Winston
There are still more important off-the-field questions to answer, but let's cover what we know on the field. Winston received enormous preseason hype as the best candidate to be the "next Johnny Manziel," and somehow he met or surpassed even the highest of expectations, winning the Heisman Trophy in a runaway and leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season and a BCS national title. Winston's arm strength and athleticism were the stuff of legend before he took a snap, and immediately upon taking the starting role, began to realize that potential: He completed 25-of-27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns in his debut at Pittsburgh, the proceeded to make some of the most spectacular individual plays of the season, like the Hail Mary against Boston College. By the end of the year, Winston led the nation in yards per attempt (10.6) and passer rating (184.9), ranked second in touchdown passes (40) and had a stellar 66.9 percent completion rate. He's a potential No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft, if he leaves after his redshirt sophomore year, and he gives Florida State the opportunity to say something only Texas A&M last year could say in the history of the sport -- that it returns a sophomore Heisman winner at quarterback.
Saying all that, it is highly unlikely Winston becomes the first person since Archie Griffin to repeat as Heisman winner. Repeating would require somehow surpassing last year's accomplishments, and that's nearly impossible, especially in an era where we're always looking for the next big thing. An argument could be made for Manziel to win last year, but for better or worse, winning the Heisman always relies on the context being right. But that's beside the point. Florida State has the best quarterback in the country returning, and that alone is enough to put a team over the top. Even in the event of some sophomore regression, he'd still be better than almost every quarterback in the country. Swap Manziel and Winston last year, and Johnny Football easily wins the Heisman with the Seminoles.
2. Offensive line
While loaded with stars, the Florida State offensive line wasn't perfect last year, as it especially showed in the national title game against Auburn. Still, even if the Noles gave up too many sacks -- 33, which can partially be blamed on a freshman quarterback who likes to improvise and throw downfield -- it's hard to complain about a unit that paved the way for three of the ACCs top seven backs in terms of yards per carry. And it's only going to get better. Star center Bryan Stork is gone, but otherwise four starters return, including first-team All-ACC picks Cameron Erving at left tackle and Tre' Jackson at right guard, both of whom may be first-round picks in next year's draft. Winston was uncommonly poised in the pocket as a freshman, and with familiar anchors in front of him, it's going to be very difficult for opposing defensive fronts to be disruptive enough to actually force mistakes.
Maybe all that attrition mentioned above isn't even that important. Over the last 10 years, Alabama and LSU have been the gold standard for physical, pro-style programs that recruit well every year and have little trouble reloading. Not coincidentally, Jimbo Fisher worked at LSU under Nick Saban and has molded the Seminoles in a similar way. Florida State is carrying the flag for the ACC and ended the SEC's championship streak, but the Seminoles look like the embodiment of those modern SEC powerhouses.
Fisher has signed five recruiting classes since replacing Bobby Bowden, two of which finished in Rivals.com's top five and none of which finished worse than 10th. Lose a bunch of all-conference players? So what? There are still eight (first-, second- or third-team) returning and plenty more likely on their way to that recognition. Losing Stoops and Pruitt in back-to-back years undoubtedly hurts, but Fisher has now firmly established himself as a premier program builder, on top of his status as a top offensive mind. Fisher's probably not going to go on a Saban-like run of three national titles in four seasons, because that's a once-in-a-generation sort of thing, but that doesn't mean Florida State can't be in the conversation each year, especially with a quarterback like Winston to build around.
The Most Likely Scenario
While the tougher schedule makes it much more likely Florida State will lose a game in 2014, the four-team College Football Playoff also makes it much more likely that a one-loss team -- especially one with what should be an improved schedule -- will get a chance to compete for the title anyway, so a regular-season slip up may not even matter. So, really, the question comes down to whether or not Florida State loses twice, if we're talking about simply getting to the playoff for a crack at the championship.
The ACC has a chance to be fairly competitive in 2014, although it's depth remains thin, and it doesn't help that Louisville, while an upgrade over Maryland, joins the conference just as it loses Teddy Bridgewater. It appears Florida State has an opportunity for wins over more impressive opponents ... but it also wouldn't be entirely surprising if all of those "better" teams ended up 8-4 and the schedule turns out to be decent but unspectacular, depending on the ACC title game opponent (keep an eye on North Carolina, which may be ready to make a leap forward). Most important, as we've already seen this spring, it's going to be very tough for Florida State to roll through the upcoming season as undisturbed by injuries as it did last season, especially if it's forced to play more complete games -- remember, it was so dominant last season that games were often over by halftime.
There's no reason for Florida State to take a massive step back, even if it can't repeat the spectacular dominance of 2013. But that's OK: That was a season for the ages, a perfect combination of luck and unbelievable talent, leading to blowout win after blowout win. Maybe some of the younger players don't make a smooth transition; maybe the Seminoles get into more injury trouble; maybe the defense takes a bit longer to adjust. History has proven repeating is incredibly tough.
After everything went right, something is bound to go wrong in a sport that, even with a small playoff, allows little margin for error. So, the early bet here is Florida State has enough to get through the regular season 11-1, win another ACC title and earn a playoff bid, but falls short in either a semifinal or the national championship. No matter what, though, just the fact that we're having this conversation means Fisher has assembled a special collection of talent over the last few years. Alabama may have company atop the college football world.
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