Florida State’s defense has look of nation’s best in last five years

Florida State has played two games in 2014, and so far we haven’t seen the best version of the Seminoles’ defense, which was a primary reason why many picked them in the preseason to repeat as national champions.

Having lost key starters to the NFL like second-round draft picks Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan, third-rounder Terrence Brooks and fifth-rounder Telvin Smith, it’s understandable if there has been an adjustment period. The ‘Noles had the best defense in the nation a season ago, but early in 2014 the defense is struggling statistically. Key word: statistically.

We can’t put much weight in raw stats after only two games, but following matchups against Oklahoma State and The Citadel, FSU’s defense is 42nd in the nation in yards per game allowed (343), 49th in points allowed per game (21.5) and — perhaps most alarming — they rank 100th nationally in rush yards allowed per game (205). After watching tape of those two games, however, it became glaringly obvious that the early defensive statistics are not realistic indicators of the potential of the Seminoles’ defense.

This week against No. 22 Clemson, No. 1 Florida State is a big favorite and many project the Noles to run away in Tallahassee, even with QB Jameis Winston sitting out the first half. So instead of a traditional game breakdown like we normally do, let’s take a step back and take a little bigger-picture look at the best collection of talent that will be on display in this game – the Seminoles D.

Florida State fans needn’t worry at all about what’s transpired in the first two games of the year. They should, in fact, be exceedingly optimistic because this defense could not only be even better than last year’s, it could be the best defense in the last five years.

How 2013 Seminoles compare to best Ds since 2009

Despite a couple of “off-games,” the 2013 FSU defense finished the season with statistics that were among the best in all of college football in the last five seasons – a time-span that includes the proliferation of up-tempo offenses.

They were the best team in the nation at keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone, like the 2012 Alabama defense that held opponents to 10.9 points per game. The Crimson Tide had four players drafted after that season including first-round CB Dee Milliner, fourth-round LB Nico Johnson and a pair of fifth-round D-linemen in Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams.

WINSTON'S STATEMENT

The 2013 ‘Noles defense finished top three in the nation in yards per game just like the 2011 LSU squad that allowed 261.5 yards per contest. The Tigers sent first-rounders Michael Brockers (DT) and Morris Claiborne (CB) along with third-rounder Brandon Taylor (S) and fourth-rounder Ron Brooks (CB) to the NFL that season.

FSU’s defense last season was the best defense in the nation at defending the pass as was the 2010 TCU squad that allowed only 128.8 yards through the air per game, and among the best at creating turnovers, much like the 2009 Texas and Ohio teams that each racked up 37 over the course of that season.

It was an impressive display of defense from the national champions, and yet that squad may not stack up to the edition Jimbo Fisher will put on the field this year.

The 2014 defense in two words: crazy talented

It will be no surprise if the Seminole defense puts up even better numbers in 2014. They’re simply loaded with talent.

The architect of last season’s Seminole defense – Jeremy Pruitt, now Georgia’s defensive coordinator – told me that elite defenses at the collegiate level should have at least six players who will be drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft when their time comes. FSU certainly has what it takes to be elite.

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

I talked to several scouts about the level of talent on FSU’s defense and the consensus is that DE Mario Edwards Jr., CB P.J. Williams and S Jalen Ramsey (who one scout called an “animal”) have first-round potential, while DT Eddie Goldman, CB Ronald Darby, LB Terrance Smith and SS Tyler Hunter – who are currently slotted anywhere from fourth-round talents to free agent pickups – could land in the first three rounds if they continue to develop. Outside of the projections of those seven players, however, there are at least four other young Seminole defenders who could be taken in the first three rounds when their draft year arrives if they stay healthy and develop as projected.

What makes this Florida State defense, particularly the secondary, so good is that even though the Noles are young, the starters have experience playing in huge games and all of that NFL talent translates to execution on the field. Their raw ability jumps out at you when you break down the tape.

FSU plays with suddenness, speed and athleticism that is unmatched in college football. Williams may be the first cornerback taken in the draft this year should he leave school early, and Ramsey – who last season became the first true freshman since Deion Sanders to start at cornerback for FSU – may be the best of the bunch even though he’s only a sophomore.

Despite losing Joyner to the NFL, this secondary may already be better than the unit that led the nation in pass defense and interceptions last year. That’s why you don’t overreact to an early game such as Week 1 against Oklahoma State, where J.W. Walsh eclipsed 200 yards passing (more than most thought he’d pile up on FSU) – and 55 of those came on a trick play (fake jailbreak screen). Take that away, and FSU allowed 148 yards passing – better than its No. 1 national average last season – to an offense known for playing fast.

This FSU front seven should be better against the run, too, despite allowing more than 250 rushing yards to The Citadel. As with the Oklahoma State game, don’t read too much into it. The Bulldogs ran the ball 56 times with their confusing triple option scheme, while throwing it only 14 times, and had a significant number of reps against Seminole second-stringers. FSU fans have no reason to be concerned about their front seven.

Headlined by Edwards Jr. and Goldman, the defensive linemen are well-coached, violent with their hands and stout at the point of attack. The linebacker corps is the most inexperienced position group on the defense, but it may be more athletic and possess more big-play potential than last year’s unit.

With some uncertainty at quarterback and the loss of numerous offensive weapons, including No. 4 overall pick WR Sammy Watkins, it’s unlikely Clemson really challenges FSU’s defense on Saturday night, but OC Chad Morris will still present an opportunity for us to learn more about the 2014 Seminoles D.

It’s early and the metrics will take a more concrete shape in the coming weeks, but with no seniors in the starting lineup, this FSU defense has a chance to develop into the best that college football fans have seen in the last five years. 

Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He’s currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.