August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
Previous entries: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 USC, No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 6 Clemson, No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Washington, No. 10 Auburn, No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 Georgia, No. 17 Florida, No. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 Texas, No. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Washington State, No. 25 North Carolina
No. 2 FLORIDA STATE
2016 record: 10-3
Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 2 vs. Alabama
Biggest conference game: Nov. 11 at Clemson
Key returning player: QB Deondre Francois
Key departed player: RB Dalvin Cook
Three things to know about Florida State
• Deondre Francois had a pretty good redshirt freshman season, but he took way too many hits. And not all of it was on the offensive line.
Francois was sacked 34 times. The line had a rotating cast for a lot of the year, so Francois often didn’t have the cleanest pocket to throw from. But he was a freshman, too. He held on to the ball too long trying to make the big play when he could have scrambled for a few yards or just thrown the ball away. The kid is tough as nails, though, and he got up almost every time.
“When guys are so talented when they come in, they think of all the physical things, making the reads, but at the end of the day, the ability to compete and learn how to compete and learn how to process the game and move on from these situations and take the physical part of the game and understand you’re going to get hit, get pounded, and you’re going to have to come back,” head coach Jimbo Fisher said of Francois.
“There’s no excuse. You’re the quarterback. No matter how you feel, what you do, you’ve got to understand that, and I think that was something we worked on hard. I think he bought in totally. What I love about Deondre, he allows himself to be coached and allows you to take those steps with him, and I think our team gained tremendous respect for him.”
Francois finished the season with 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He had veteran receivers to rely on in 2016 and a nice safety valve named Dalvin Cook in the backfield. In 2017, it’s a bit of a different story.
Cook, Kermit Whitfield, Bobo Wilson and Travis Rudolph are all on NFL rosters, but FSU does have some receivers coming back with experience. Nyqwan Murray — 27 catches, 441 yards, 5 TDs in 2016 — will pair nicely with Auden Tate, who caught 25 balls for 409 yards and six scores, and tight end Ryan Izzo (34 career catches). There’s more, too. This is Florida State, after all. Go through FSU’s recruiting classes from the last few seasons and you’ll find plenty of blue chip prospects at receiver. A few will surely work their way into the mix.
At running back, it could be Jacques Patrick’s time to shine. He combined for 664 yards and nine scores as Cook’s backup over the last two seasons, averaging nearly 5.4 yards per try. Patrick is sure to have a big role, but Cam Akers, the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2017 class, should make an impact, too.
The offensive line dealt with both inconsistent play and injuries last year, but six linemen with starting experience are back with some freshmen pushing them on the two-deep.
“We have good players,” Fisher said. “I think they understand what they have to do. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and I think they got Deondre’s presence around to get us in the right place, get us in the right protections and do all those things. I’m really anxious after spring and how much work we’ve done this summer, I’m anxious to see them in the fall, and I think we’ll be fine.”
• You know you have a good defense when you lose one of the nation’s leaders in sacks and it’s not much of an issue.
DeMarcus Walker was a nightmare for offensive lines last season when he compiled 16 sacks. That total was second-best in the nation behind Boston College’s Harold Landry and his 16.5 sacks. Walker is the only member of last season’s front seven not to return. That group includes Brian Burns, Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi up front, who combined for 22.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss.
The team’s three starting linebackers — Matthew Thomas (77 tackles, 11 TFL), Ro’Derrick Hoskins (53 tackles, 55 TFL) and Jacob Pugh (43 tackles, 6 TFL, 4.5 sacks) — return as well.
Yeah, that will work.
For all of that production, though, the Seminoles really had some struggles on defense early in 2016, giving up at least 34 points in four of their first five games (including a 63-20 loss to Louisville). Things improved from there as FSU played at a high level during the bulk of its ACC schedule.
The unit should pick up where it left off late in the year, and will see the return of safety Derwin James, one of the nation’s best players. His numbers in 2015 as a true freshman were ridiculous: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He returned to the starting lineup in 2016 and was poised for another big year, only to tear his meniscus in Week 2 and miss the rest of the year. Naturally, the defense’s production dipped in the first few weeks without him, before rebounding midway through the year.
At ACC Media Days, James said there were some benefits to missing most of the year. It gave him a different perspective on the game.
“It was a long experience that I went through last year. Of course I wanted to be out there with my teammates and helping my team, but I learned a lot just from being on the sideline, just watching it, viewing it from a coaching standpoint. I learned a lot from my coaches and helped the players the best way I could on and off the field,” James said.
“I learned to appreciate the game more. And basically when the coach is getting on you it’s because of a reason. It’s because of something that they see. I didn’t get that at first coming in, but now I understand why the coaches are on me so hard.”
If James is healthy, his presence vaults the already stellar FSU defense into the elite category.
• So this No. 2 ranking we have here means we think very highly of Florida State. That schedule, though? Woof. As all college football fans know, the Seminoles open up with Alabama, coming off a College Football Playoff title game loss to Clemson, in Atlanta. That’s one of the more highly-anticipated season-opening games in recent memory and a game where FSU will likely be an underdog.
Fisher isn’t worried.
“I scheduled it, so I’d better be ready for it. I think it’s a great opportunity. I think it’s what college football is about. You get to walk in that atmosphere and environment, the two-winningest teams in college football in the last seven years. I think it’s great for our league, I think it’s great for college football,” Fisher said.
Nick Saban made an interesting point the other day about scheduling high-profile games to open the season. He said it makes players prepare even harder for the season and take camp more seriously compared to scheduling a Week 1 cupcake. Fisher offered a similar sentiment earlier this summer and said the game provides a barometer of sorts for the team.
“I think we find out where we’re at, and I think not every year you have those games, but I think sometimes you do, and I think this is a year that we’re both prepared to be able to do that, and I think it’s an outstanding chance for us to take another step toward how we want to play and the things we want to do,” he said.
The tough early-season slate doesn’t stop there. After the home opener against UL-Monroe, FSU hosts Miami and NC State to open ACC play. For a team with offensive line struggles, going against stellar defensive lines like Alabama, Miami and NC State will be big tests in the effort to keep Francois off his back.
FSU gets Louisville at home this year, but its two most-challenging November games — Clemson and Florida — will be away from Tallahassee.
Teams obviously don’t have to go undefeated to reach the College Football Playoff, and Fisher thinks his team’s struggles early in the 2016 season will be a valuable learning experience heading into 2017.
“I think last year will hopefully make us understand that it’s not only a one-game deal at the beginning, that it’s going to be all the way through and that first half of the season, we’re going to have to be extremely prepared physically, mentally, psychologically and every way for it. And then I think last year hopefully will be that teaching tool because you learn from your experiences, good and bad,” Fisher said.
“We open up with Alabama, we finish with Florida. That’s been the SEC Championship game the last two years. I think our schedule is going to be very demanding. But hopefully these older guys will make that transition. At the end of the day, the players have to take ownership for what they do, what they accept and what they want. That’s what great teams do. I think that’s going to be on our players to understand how demanding the first part of our schedule is and how much we have to be ready so we can finish the season the way we want, which is going to be very demanding also.”
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