After breaking the SEC's stranglehold on winning national championships, one could think that Florida State may take a step back. However, not many reams return the Heisman winning quarterback, five senior linemen (all of whom could garner all-conference awards), and a defense littered with potential first round draft picks. While there are some challenging opponents on this year's schedule, top Atlantic contender Clemson lost a lot of talent. The Seminoles certainly have all of the pieces to make a run at a second consecutive national championship.
Easily the most recognizable player in the country, Jameis Winston, returns at quarterback after becoming the second consecutive redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. While he came to Tallahassee with high expectations, his 40 touchdown season in 2013 was the stuff of legend. With an offensive line full of seniors, and multiple senior pass catching targets, Winston could easily replicate his mind blowing numbers if the off field problems that have plagued him stop popping up.
At running back, converted safety Karlos Williams should step in to the role as the main option out of the backfield. The senior picked up 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 91 carries in a shared role last year. Other solid options in the running game include sophomore Marion Pender, sophomore Ryan Green, and true freshman Dalvin Cook. Pender did not record any rushing yards last season, and Green picked up 163 yards on 33 carries. Sophomore fullback Freddie Stevenson is a converted linebacker who has learned the position well early on.
Florida State loses almost 2000 yards and 21 touchdowns between Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw alone. Luckily for the reigning champions, senior Rashad Greene leads a talented group ready to step in. Greene accumulated 76 catches and 1128 yards last season, and was a threat to go pro after his junior season. Seniors Christian Green and Jared Haggins have a chances to step up as seniors, while redshirt freshman Jesus Wilson and sophomore (and national title hero) Kermit Whitfield will be the game breaking threats in the slot. A very talented freshman class of receivers will likely contribute as well, with five stars Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph the most likely candidates. Senior tight end Nick O'Leary had a breakout campaign as a junior, racking up 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. His return will be of huge importance to Winston as a safety outlet as well as a play maker.
As mentioned earlier, the offensive line is positively loaded with experience in five seniors. Four of the five were full time starters last season, with center Austin Barron having experience as well. The two biggest names are tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre Jackson, both of whom considered entering the NFL Draft. Bobby Hart at tackle, and Josue Matias both gathered some preseason all-ACC acknowledgements.
Like on the offensive side of the ball, the Seminoles lost some serious talent on defense. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan went in the first round of the draft, but juniors Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample have plenty of talent to fill his role. Senior Desmond Hollin and several freshman will provide cover inside. Junior Mario Edwards is the marquee name at defensive end after a solid sophomore season that included 3.5 sacks. Chris Casher, Ro'Derrick Hoskins, and DeMarcus Walker will all see many snaps between the two end positions.
Linebacker is one of the few units on the team that is not overwhelming with its experience, but as is the case with the entire team, it is loaded with talent. Junior Terrance Smith is the lone returning starter after posting 59 tackles. The other starting linebacker positions are up for grabs among four of five others, but junior Reggie Northrup is likely to seal one of those spots. Sophomore E.J. Levenberry and Ukeme Eligwe as well as redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas are likely to battle it out for the other spot in the 4-3 defense.
The defensive backfield is stacked with talent, mostly in the junior and sophomore classes. Junior cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are among the best pairs of corners in the country. Senior Nick Waisome and junior Keelin Smith, among others, will provide competition and depth at the position. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey has one safety spot locked down after a big freshman season. Junior Tyler Hunter and sophomore Nate Andrews (who had four interceptions in 2013) are expected to fight for the last remaining spot in the secondary.
Sophomore Roberto Aguayo had a sensational freshman season, hitting 21 of his 22 field goal attempts and all 94 extra points. A repeat of that performance would likely see him repeat as the Lou Groza Award winner. Junior punter Cason Beatty had an average season as a sophomore with 41.1 yards per punt and may face competition for the starting job. The Seminoles have a plethora of options in the return game, but the aforementioned Whitfield is likely to have at least kick returns nailed down.
A challenging non conference slate could be what prevents Florida State form making a return to the national championship game. The opening game against Oklahoma State in Arlington will be tough, as will home dates against Notre Dame and Florida (if they can return to form.) The last spot is the yearly date with an FCS squad in The Citadel. In conference play, the Seminoles play host to Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia, and Boston College. On the road, trips to NC State, Syracuse, Louisville, and Miami beckon.
While Florida State has all the talent to repeat as national champions, a tougher schedule may prevent this from happening. They could be forgive for losing any of the games against Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami, or Florida. Chances are they escape with one loss, but could easily run the table and make a run to the championship game once again. The Seminoles should make the first annual playoff behind a strong season from Winston, and the overall strength in every unit across the board. I do think FSU stumbles somewhere along the road (Miami or Louisville, if I had to guess) but still makes it to the championship game.
While Florida State has all the talent to repeat as national champions, a tougher schedule may prevent this from happening. They could be forgiven for losing any of the games against Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami, or Florida. Chances are they escape with one loss, but could easily run the table and make a run to the championship game once again. The Seminoles should make the first annual playoff behind a strong season from Winston and the overall strength in every unit across the board. I do think FSU stumbles somewhere along the road (Miami or Louisville, if I had to guess) but still makes it to the championship game.