ACC Countdown: No. 1 Florida State

Florida State punter Cason Beatty, believe it or not, might still be the only real weak link that Florida State has. 

The Seminoles dominated college football last season en route to winning the national championship, and they have a lot of their key pieces returning this year, led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston. The talent head coach Jimbo Fisher was bringing in year after year is manifesting itself now in spades, and FSU looks to be just as good as they were last year. But will they be?

Winston, obviously, and that’s huge. But so is last year’s leading receiver Rashad Greene (76 catches for 1,128 yards), excellent tight end Nick O’Leary (33 catches for 557 yards) and explosive senior running back Karlos Williams (a whopping 8.0 yards per rush and 11 touchdowns). Oh yeah, and the Seminoles return four starters from an offensive line that was fantastic a year ago and should be even better this year, if that’s possible. Cam Erving at left tackle and Tre’ Jackson at right guard are as good as it gets. It’s arguably the best line in college football.

The bulk of Florida State’s defensive line returns as well, led by standout end Mario Edwards, Jr. and defensive tackle Edie Goldman. There is only one three-star recruit among the group listed by Bill Connelly in SB Nation’s preview of the Seminoles. The rest are four-star or five-star guys. That’s pretty remarkable. Terrance Smith returns at linebacker, while one of the best duos at cornerback imaginable in juniors P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby join standout sophomore safety Jalen Ramsey to hold things down in the back end.

Two of FSU’s top three backs from a season ago in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. are gone, but Williams — combined with sophomore Mario Pender, five-star freshman Dalvin Cook, and others — should fill that void just fine. Two of FSU’s best three receivers are gone too in big-play guy Kelvin Benjamin and reliable Kenny Shaw, but there are plenty waiting in the wings to take a next step forward, like dynamic returner Kermit Whitfield (a sophomore). It’s still a bit of a question mark until that group proves itself, but FSU shouldn’t miss much of a beat there.

Timmy Jernigan is the only player not returning on Florida State’s defensive line of any consequence, really, but he’s a very big loss. He finished the season with 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, but stats don’t tell the story. Jernigan’s impact had to be seen to be believed, and he’ll be replaced by a guy who began last season starting alongside him in Nile Lawrence-Stample, but was subbed out for a smaller, quicker defensive package. Lawrence-Stample is going to have to take a huge leap forward in spite of off-season shoulder surgery to come close to having the impact Jernigan did.

Telvin Smith and Christian Jones moving on to the NFL hurts the linebacker spot, particularly if Matthew Thomas can’t play. There’s a lot of inexperience and uncertainty there, so if you want to nitpick, that’s the place to do it. In the secondary, it hurts losing Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, but as noted earlier with the return of Darby, Williams and Ramsey, FSU should be just fine on the back end.

The punter. It looks like incumbent punter Cason Beatty is going to keep his job, as the walk-on brought in to push him didn’t really do that. Yes, it’s a punter. But if Florida State is going to have the kind of season it wants to have — again — it’s going to have to get better production out of its punter. The national title game proved that much, as Beatty’s punts often put Auburn in fantastic field position, particularly early in the game. It was by far the weakest part of FSU’s team last year, and it’s not remotely close. Fisher is a perfectionist, and he’s not going to stand for this part of the game being such a weak point for the Seminoles for very long. But if Beatty is still the guy, and he hasn’t improved that much, then if FSU can’t perform at quite as high a level as it did last year every single week, that poor punting effort could make a big difference in a close game. FSU was 116th nationally in punt efficiency last year. That’s not going to cut it again this year, one would think, and it could end up costing them a game. It nearly cost them the national title game.

Florida State goes wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team and wins the national title again. There’s really nothing less that could be considered successful for the Seminoles, which is a credit to what Fisher has done in remaking Florida State into the monstrous machine made of football robots that Bobby Bowden built. The Seminoles bring back their Heisman-winning quarterback in Winston and plenty of talent on all sides of the ball. The defense might have some hiccups early, but it’s talented enough to be just as good as last year’s group was. The offense should be even better than it was a year ago with that ridiculous offensive line. And with the schedule FSU plays, there’s really no reason that the Seminoles shouldn’t go undefeated yet again and easily earn a berth in the college football playoff. Of course, with that schedule, all it will take is one slip-up and FSU will likely find itself on the outside looking in. At the very least, FSU needs to make the playoff and not drop a game until that begins.

November 15, at Miami. Florida State is a better team than Miami, and in theory it should win this game easily. But it will be the Seminoles’ last significant test standing between them and an undefeated regular season. Who knows how Miami’s season will go — the Hurricanes could find themselves mired in a mediocre season, considering their schedule — but Miami has a lot of talent on that roster. It’s not as talented as FSU, but it’s there. Tailback Duke Johnson broke his ankle in the second half of last year’s game in Tallahassee, and Miami was losing when he went out anyway, but he’s a huge difference-maker. That game in Tallahassee was closer than some predicted it would be early on. Miami’s defense is also a year older and better, even though they’ll have a hard time getting past FSU’s stout front. But it’s still a road game, and it’s still against an opponent that (on paper only) has the kinds of players that could compete physically with Florida State.

Yes, I think the Seminoles will do it. I think they will get back to the national title game and lose, but that’s just because it’s impossible for me to comprehend how a team can be as good as FSU has been the last two seasons and maintain that level of concentration, discipline and focus. There has to be a slip-up somewhere. It won’t come in the regular season, but one would think that FSU may slip up against a very good team from another league. Nothing to be ashamed of, losing in the national title game and winning a first-round playoff matchup, but it obviously won’t be what the Seminoles wanted. It wouldn’t shock me if they win the whole darned thing again, but it’s just so hard to do.