Each year, the top of the preseason polls contains teams we think we really like and a couple we just know will be good.
Last year, for instance, there were plenty of teams that were a couple of ifs away — Oklahoma, LSU, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Washington — and basically two sure things: Alabama and Clemson.
This year, there are either two or three sure things. I haven’t quite decided. We’re pretty sure teams like Washington, USC, Penn State, Clemson, Oklahoma, and maybe Auburn, Michigan, or LSU will be very good. We know Alabama and Ohio State will be.
Where does that leave Florida State?
The sure-thing case for the Noles
- Only three teams ranked in both the Off. S&P+ and Def. S&P+ top 10 last season: the two title game participants (sure things Bama and Clemson) and Jimbo Fisher’s Noles.
- In terms of single-game percentile performances, only four teams were at 90 percent or above at least seven times and below 70 percent no more than once: Bama, Clemson, Michigan, and FSU. Steadiness tends to carry over when you bring back a more experienced team the next year (and FSU does).
- In terms of S&P+ projections, only four teams project in the top 10 in each of three primary factors (recruiting impact, returning production, recent history): Alabama, Ohio State, FSU, and LSU.
The Seminoles laid a significant egg early in 2016 (a 63-20 loss at Louisville). And on Oct. 1, their defense, reeling a bit from the loss of star safety Derwin James, got ripped up in a last-second, 37-35 loss to UNC. The next week, they fell behind Miami, 13-0, at Hard Rock Stadium.
From that point forward, though, the Noles basically played like a national title contender. They came back to beat Miami and won seven of eight to finish the year. Their only loss was a statistical coin toss against eventual national champion Clemson. They beat an awesome Michigan in a fun-as-hell Orange Bowl.
Their single-game percentile performances over the last eight games: 86, 90, 89, 87, 96, 96, 98, 97. They were good, and after holding on to beat a good NC State in Raleigh, they became great.
In a way, Fisher has been building for 2017 since the 2013 national title campaign ended. The depth chart is balanced between veteran leaders and young difference-makers. The table is set.
So what could get in the way?
The case against the Noles
- No Dalvin Cook. Cook was an amazing security blanket for a first-year starting quarterback. He not only rushed for 1,765 yards (and behind a line that started nine guys at least twice, no less) and powered an offense that ranked fifth in Rushing S&P+; he also caught 34 passes for 513 yards and a 53 percent success rate. Among other things, FSU doesn’t win the Orange Bowl without Cook. When you recruit like FSU, you can more capably replace stars, but the training wheels are off for both quarterback Deondre Francois and the line.
- No receivers? FSU must replace last year’s top four receiving targets: Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson, Kermit Whitfield, and Cook. Rudolph, Wilson, and Whitfield combined for 120 catches, 1,616 yards, and nine touchdowns. On a per-target basis, they weren’t great, but continuity in the receiving corps is a big thing, and FSU doesn’t have much.
- No DeMarcus Walker. When you lose only one player from your front seven, you usually end up OK, but Walker was a one-man pass rush, recording 16 sacks (second-most in FBS) and almost single-handedly powering a No. 2 ranking in Adj. Sack Rate. Ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns combined for 16.5 sacks as well, but that came against offenses distracted by Walker. Never assume elite production will replace elite production.
- A mystery at cornerback. FSU is loaded at safety with the return of not only James but also Trey Marshall, A.J. Westbrook, and Ermon Lane. But Marquez White and reserve Marcus Lewis are gone, leaving Tarvarus McFadden and relative unknowns. This is FSU, so the Noles will be choosing between Former Five-Star A and Former Four-Star B, but proven entities are minimal.
All-world freshman Cam Akers is among six former four- or five-star running backs vying to replace Cook, the top two returning wideouts (Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate) were far more effective on a per-target basis (9.3 yards per target, 51 percent success rate) than those they are replacing (8.1 per target, 50 percent success rate), and ... go ahead and try to worry about a defense that includes James, Marshall, Burns, Sweat, tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas, and every linebacker.
The schedule presents a major challenge. Because of the Week 1 battle with Alabama, the Noles have terrible odds of going 12-0 and could live up to their No. 3 projection while still finishing with two losses. This will require some careful skating, but they might have the pieces to pull it off.
2016 in review
This is pretty much the exact definition of “young team rounding into form”:
- First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 74% (76% offense, 53% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.0, FSU 6.6 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-5.5 PPG
- Next 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 88% (74% offense, 72% defense) | Avg. yards per play: FSU 6.1, Opp 5.2 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-1.5 PPG
- Last 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 97% (80% offense, 87% defense) | Avg. yards per play: FSU 6.7, Opp 3.2 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-12.5 PPG
The offense was relatively stable, which is an incredible thing to say about a team led by a redshirt freshman and a shuffled line. Such is the power of Cook and a receiving corps of seniors, I guess.
Francois was a little too much of a gamer and seemed a little too willing to take a hit in the name of making a big pass. He was sacked 34 times, and it seemed like another 100 times, he was getting hit as he threw. But he always picked himself up in time to make another big throw, and he somehow didn’t miss much action — he threw 235 of FSU’s 244 passes.
The defense took a little time to figure things out. The Noles had to replace three of 2015’s top four defensive backs, and then the fourth (James) went down. Plus, they had to face three tremendous quarterbacks — Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, UNC’s Mitch Trubisky — in the first five games.
The passer rating reflects what you would expect. FSU allowed a 154.1 over the first five games, a 121.5 over the next four, and a 90.1 over the last four.
FSU played against an incredible eight defenses that finished in the Def. S&P+ top 25 and averaged 28 points per game and 5.8 yards per play. Even more impressive: against three top-six defenses, they averaged 32 points and 6.3 yards per play.
Predictably, opponent adjustments were kind to the Noles. They finished third in Off. S&P+, second in Success Rate+, and fifth in IsoPPP+ (an explosiveness measure). They were eighth in Standard Downs S&P+ and, with a freshman quarterback getting hit too much, second in Passing Downs S&P+.
Again, you don’t get that without Cook. I cannot emphasize enough how incredible he was, and even with all the blue-chippers in the world, the running back position gets worse in 2017. There’s no way around it.
But that passing-downs success wasn’t driven by Cook. He helped, obviously, but FSU’s passing downs run rate was only 27 percent, 105th in FBS. Fisher and co-coordinators Randy Sanders and Lawrence Dawsey put the game in Francois’ hands on passing downs, and it paid off. On third-and-4 or more, Francois had a passer rating of 155.5, 10 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and five scrambles for first downs.
To be sure, he also took a lot of hits. But FSU’s passing-downs success rate of 39.9 percent was astoundingly good against this level of competition, and that was with a lot of throwaways and safe decisions. If he manages to avoid injury, he could be capable of incredible things.
The supporting cast is still a concern, though. FSU’s line ranked 72nd in stuff rate and 63rd in Adj. Sack Rate, and that was with All-American left tackle Roderick Johnson and all-conference guard Kareem Are. Of the nine guys who started games for the Noles up front, six are back, and if the same five are able to remain on the field for most of the year, the line should improve. It’ll need to.
Here’s who isn’t gone from the FSU skill corps:
- Junior RB Jacques Patrick. The 231-pounder averaged 5.7 yards per carry backing up Cook and was only slightly behind Cook’s averages in efficiency (opportunity rate: Cook 42 percent, Patrick 39 percent) and explosiveness (highlight yards per opportunity: Cook 6.9, Patrick 5.7). He might not have Cook’s upside, but who does?
- WRs Murray and Tate. Their per-target production topped that of FSU’s top receivers last year, and that’s something that tends to translate reasonably well as players move up the depth chart. Plus, they came on strong late: they had 13 catches for 164 yards in the first seven games and 39 for 686 in the final six. They’re ready.
- RBs Ryan Green, Amir Rasul, and Johnathan Vickers. Green and Rasul were four-star recruits, and the trio combined to carry 22 times for 165 yards last year. At least one could become an interesting backup.
- TEs Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders. FSU hasn’t had a Nick O’Leary-level tight end for the last couple of years, but as Francois searches for efficiency options in Cook’s absence, this duo (combined in 2016: 45 targets, 29 catches, 409 yards) could produce.
- Yes, Cam Akers. He was the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2017 signing class. He will almost certainly become a star. But how long might it take?
- Former Star WR Recruits A, B, and C. Sophomores George Campbell and Keith Gavin were four-star recruits, as was incoming freshman D.J. Matthews.
That should play.
Coordinator Charles Kelly deserves massive credit for adjusting on the fly. In the three games following James’ injury, FSU allowed 63 points and 8 yards per play to Louisville, 35 and 8.2 to USF, and 37 and 7.7 to UNC. That’s egregious, even against good offenses. This was a hapless unit for a bit, and it cost the Noles the game against the Heels.
From that point forward, though, FSU found itself. The only opponents to average more than 4.6 yards per play over the last eight games were Clemson and NC State, and FSU still held NC State to 20 points in Raleigh. That the defense rebounded to 10th in Def. S&P+ despite that September speaks volumes.
I like to say that injuries hurt in the present tense but help in the future tense, and 2017 FSU could be a pretty good illustration. The Noles found a new set of effective safeties with Marshall, Westbrook, and converted receiver Lane. And while White logged major minutes at corner with McFadden, freshmen Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers took on heavier loads as the season progressed. And the numbers kept improving.
Of that big batch, only White and is gone. James is healthy, too. To move the ball on FSU, you’ll probably have to be able to run.
Running on FSU wasn’t impossible last year, but it typically came in big chunks (and in the first half of the season). The Noles were 16th in rushing success rate but 99th rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays). It wasn’t impossible to block smaller ends like Sweat (listed at 250 pounds last year) and Burns (218), and when a good back found the edge, there was room, especially before FSU’s safety situation was ironed out.
With the 280-pound Walker gone, Sweat and especially Burns might face more of the same issues. Maybe there’s an opportunity on rushing downs for a younger end like redshirt freshman Janarius Robinson or incoming freshman Joshua Kaindoh, but they aren’t exactly 280.
You can survive issues with your ends against the run, though, when the interior of your defense is dynamite ... and when those skinny ends can rush the passer. Tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas somehow still have eligibility left (Christmas is only a junior), and juniors Walvenski Aime and Fredrick Jones were sturdy rotation pieces last year.
This foursome combined for 14 TFLs and eight sacks (mostly from Nnadi) and ate up blockers quite well for weakside linebacker Matthew Thomas (10 non-sack TFLs). Thomas and basically every other linebacker are back.
This really was a young-as-hell defense last year. It’s not any more.
Call it the revenge of Cason Beatty. After years of being maligned by Nole fans, FSU’s punter had a monstrous senior season in 2015, which, when paired with place-kicker Roberto Aguayo, gave FSU the No. 1 ranking in Special Teams S&P+.
Last year, the first year post-Beatty, freshman Logan Tyler struggled, and FSU’s punt efficiency fell to 107th. Young Ricky Aguayo took well to the place-kicking job, but punting and returns plummeted, and the Noles ranked just 58th. Special teams benefited FSU by about 1.3 fewer points per game. Think that could have helped in a season in which the Noles lost two conference games by a total of five points?
Aguayo’s back, which means a high-ish floor for special teams, but Tyler and the return team have plenty to figure out.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|30-Sep||at Wake Forest||64||20.8||89%|
|27-Oct||at Boston College||76||25.7||93%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||3|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||5 / 8|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||18.8 (3)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||3 / 5|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / -6.7|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+3.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||70% (60%, 80%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||10.1 (-0.1)|
I’ve got good news and bad news.
Good news: That season opener against Alabama is going to be spectacular for the public.
Bad news: That game will make it almost impossible for FSU to go 12-0. In fact, thanks to the 32 percent win probability there, S&P+ gives the Noles only a 3 percent chance of finishing 12-0. And if they lose to Bama, a road loss to Clemson or Florida or a home loss to a top-20 team like Miami or NC State would make FSU a really interesting case study. The Noles could be 11-2, top-three in S&P+ and most computer rankings ... and still be a two-loss conference champion that falls behind unbeatens or one-loss champs. We don’t yet know how the CFP committee will handle that.
We do know that the Seminoles are going to be pretty fantastic, though. That’s enough for now. S&P+ favors them, at least slightly, in 11 of 12 games, and they have more than a puncher’s chance against Bama. Plus, with so many key underclassmen, FSU has a chance to be even better in 2018, too.
After that? We’ll see. But outside of Tuscaloosa and Columbus, FSU is as close as there is to a sure thing in 2017.