The first way-too-early question for every college football season: can the champion repeat? Florida State enters 2014 as the favorite -- the Noles lead the 2014 championship betting odds already, ahead of Alabama, Stanford, and Ohio State -- but there's nothing in sports that's harder to do than win consecutive titles. Let's take a look at why FSU could have a chance.
Florida State is going to lose important contributors off its national title team to the 2014 NFL Draft -- some graduating, some leaving early.
The Noles will have to replace senior starters Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Terrence Brooks, and Christian Jones on defense, and BCS Championship star Timmy Jernigan is expected to leave early. FSU might head into 2014 without five of its top six tacklers from 2013.
On the offensive side, Rimington Award-winning center Bryan Stork, wide receiver Kenny Shaw, and fullback Chad Abram are the key seniors on the way out. But FSU's skill positions could be hit hard by early departures.
Receivers Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin are Draft-eligible, as is tight end Nick O'Leary and the team's trio of primary ball-carriers, Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. (who's reportedly gone), and Karlos Williams. However, it seems unlikely they'll all leave at once, since each exit means more of a spotlight for those who remain.
All told, the Noles should lose nine or 10 of their starters. That's around the average for most programs, and it's no reason for alarm. The Seminoles need only look at the talent they had to replace heading into the 2013 season, which included five of the first 42 NFL Draft picks, to see why. With the way the Seminoles are reeling in top talent these days, the question is which former four-star recruit replaces each former four-star recruit.
For one thing, the Seminoles return Jameis Winston, and to some extent that's all really that needs saying. Winston is effectively a trump card on the rest of college football, for one more season at least. His offense is capable of obscuring some of FSU's deficiencies, assuming that the Noles end up having any of note. And now he's battle-tested.
Winston will also likely have four of his five starting offensive linemen, including left tackle Cameron Erving, who won some All-America honors this season.
And the best thing about winning 13 of 14 games by two or more scores in 2013? All those backups who'll be taking over starting roles got a lot of experience in the second halves of games this season.
Keep in mind Alabama had to rebuild its defense and offensive line after its 2011 championship in order to repeat in 2012. It's not easy, but the Tide showed it's possible.
FSU's out-of-conference schedule will be much more challenging next year than it was this year, with a marquee opener in Dallas against Oklahoma State followed by semi-ACC team Notre Dame, plus annual rival Florida. The Cowboys lose a ton of talent this offseason, but Notre Dame gets back former starting quarterback Everett Golson, and the Gators should have a somewhat overhauled offense. Both Notre Dame and Florida visit Tallahassee, however.
After those games? It's not easy to find obvious challengers within the ACC.
The biggest threat to FSU in recent years has been Clemson, but the Tigers are heading into 2014 without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, depriving them of elite-level production that they've depended on for several years. Clemson will still be good, but the Tigers are at a clear disadvantage for that lost experience. Plus they have to play FSU in Tallahassee this year.
Twelve-win Louisville joining the Atlantic Division seems like a major cause for concern, but the Cardinals should face a slight rebuilding year minus Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater.
The rest of the Atlantic offers little reason for worry in the near term if you're FSU, and nobody in the Coastal Division is going to catch up overnight. Boston College and trips to Miami and Syracuse look like the three most potentially dangerous ACC games after Clemson and Louisville, and the Noles beat those three by multiple scores each in 2013.
Florida State has lost its share of upset games in recent years, but there's nothing on the schedule at this point that most would circle as a likely loss.
Those factors considered, it's not surprising that FSU is already topping the way-too-early polls for next season -- the Noles have taken the No. 1 position in early assessments from ESPN and USA Today. There won't be as much pressure associated with what will almost assuredly be a landslide preseason No. 1 selection, either; the BCS is dead now, remember?
Florida State just has to finish as a top-four team to have another shot at a championship next season, and the Noles' high esteem will have them in great position to reach the new College Football Playoff. That's certainly not a bad place to be, especially with that Winston fellow hanging around.