Today at No. 4: Florida State
Coach: Jimbo Fisher (78-17, entering eighth season; 78-17 overall)
2016 record: 10-3, 5-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference, finished third in Atlantic Division
Look back: Starting quarterback Deondre Francois and the Seminoles started the season with the largest comeback in school history, a 25-point swing against Ole Miss, showing loads of potential for the season.
But FSU’s hopes of contending for an ACC championship and College Football Playoff spot evaporated in early October after a 63-20 shellacking from Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson at Louisville, and surrendering a late game-winning field-goal to North Carolina at home.
The Seminoles regrouped to finish the season 7-1 in their last eight games, with the lone loss coming in a heated battle against Clemson, the eventual ACC title winner and national champion.
FSU enters 2017 with the same expectations, especially after a thrilling Orange Bowlvictory against Michigan that could set the tone for another successful season under Jimbo Fisher.
Offensive starters lost: 7
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: RB Dalvin Cook, DE DeMarcus Walker, CB Marquez White, WR Travis Rudolph, OL Roderick Johnson, WR Bobo Wilson, WR Kermit Whitfield, FB Freddie Stevenson, OL Kareem Are
Top returnees: DB Derwin James, QB Deondre Francois, CB Tarvarus McFadden, WR Nyqwan Murray, DT Derrick Nnadi, DE Josh Sweat, DB Trey Marshall, RB Jacques Patrick, WR Auden Tate, LB Matthew Thomas, DT Demarcus Christmas, DE Brian Burns, OL Alec Eberle, OL Landon Dickerson, LB Ro’Derrick Hoskins, LB Jacob Pugh, DB Kyle Meyers, K Ricky Aguayo, P Logan Tyler.
Strengths: Florida State’s defense, which was arguably one of the worst units in the country after its loss to North Carolina, will be the team’s biggest strength in 2017. The Seminoles return 10 starters with several other players who gained valuable starting experience a season ago.
The defense will be headed by standout safety Derwin James, defensive end Derrick Nnadi, safety Trey Marshall, defensive ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns, and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who led the nation with eight interceptions in his first season as a starter.
James returns from a torn meniscus that sidelined him for 11 games last season, leading one of the nation’s deepest secondary units.
On offense, Francois returns in his second season as a starter, hoping to lead the offense alongside wide receivers Nyqwan Murray, Auden Tate, George Campbell and running back Jacques Patrick, who was Dalvin Cook’s backup for two seasons.
Weaknesses: Florida State’s offensive line, which allowed the fourth-most sacks in the ACC last season, welcomes three new starters behind preseason All-ACC center Alec Eberle and sophomore guard Landon Dickerson, who has recovered from a torn ACL.
The Seminoles also have only five receivers with experience from a season ago, making it the thinnest position group on the team. Any injuries or suspensions to players like Murray, Tate, Gavin, former five-star George Campbell, Da’Vante Phillips could mean early playing time for freshmen like D.J. Matthews and Tamorrion Terry.
Outlook: Florida State will be tested immediately with a showdown against Alabama, a game that will pose Jimbo Fisher and former boss Nick Saban against each other for the first time as head coaches. If the Seminoles win, they’ll have a clear track to the playoff. If they lose, they should have the resiliency from a season ago to work their way back into contention.
An early showdown against Miami, a rematch against Louisville and road tests at Clemson and Florida could derail the Seminoles’ hopes of earning their first ACC title and playoff semifinals berth since 2014.