Previewing Florida’s 2017 Opponents: Game Twelve, Florida State Seminoles

Cece Jefferson and Florida will be chasing their first win over the Noles since 2012.
Florida State Seminoles (2016: 10-3)
Head Coach Returning starters 2016 offense 2016 defense
Jimbo Fisher 7 offense, 8 defense 466 YPG/35.1 PPG 357 YPG/24.4 PPG
78-17, 8th year 64%, 80% of stat production 25th/31st in FBS 29th/43rd in FBS

All time series: Florida 34, FSU 25 (2 ties)

Last meeting: FSU 31, Florida 13

Synopsis: Florida owns the all time series and the ultimate bragging right of 52-20, but four straight losses to the Noles have flipped this rivalry on its head. The memories of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin humiliating the Seminoles are already distant ones, as the Gators search for an offensive identity and a winning formula. For many, this game is a microcosm of the entire sport, a one game season of its own that carries passion, hatred, and both short and long term ramifications. But regardless of how the first eleven games of the 2017 season play out, the Gators and Seminoles will meet in the Swamp with an opportunity to make history: the Noles seek their first ever five game winning streak in the series while the Gators look to join Oklahoma, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Clemson as the fifth team to ever hand Jimbo Fisher multiple losses.

Offensive breakdown: Deondre Francois is back for a second full year at the helm, and at times last year looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate. When his line blocked for him, he could be magical, as the 3,350 yards he finished the season with indicated. He also got sacked 34 times, including five times against Louisville (no, it wasn’t just Lamar Jackson that dominated that game) and at some point you have to wonder how much more punishment he can take. He’s certainly good enough as a passer to lead FSU to a national championship, so at this point his success hinges more on his teammates.

Speaking of his teammates, he loses a big one from last year: Dalvin Cook is gone. There is no Dalvin 2.0 behind him, but there is junior Jacques Patrick, and there’s also true freshman Cam Akers. Patrick is a bull who runs through people, and Akers is a hybrid blend of that and Cook’s home run capability. And behind them is Amir Rasul, perhaps the best third string running back in the country. None of this is to say FSU can seamlessly replace an all time great in Cook, but the drop off should be minimal, if there even is one.

Again, though, that hinges on the offensive line, a unit that was shaky last year even with All-American Rod Johnson at tackle and All-ACC guard Kareem Are. With those two now gone, FSU has some serious work to do up front. The starting five appears to be, from left to right, Derrick Kelly, Landon Dickerson, Alec Eberle, Cole Minshew and Rick Leonard. Remember, this is the unit that let Francois take a beating last year and now its down its top two members. All five of these guys have experience, though, particularly Eberle, so there’s hope that they can take a major step forward in 2017. For Francois’s sake, they better.

The other question for this offense comes at wide receiver. Nyquan Murray, the hero of the Orange Bowl, returns along with Auden Tate (915 yards between them last year). Behind them? It gets a little murky. There’s talent, with names such as George Campbell, Keith Gavin and DJ Matthews, but those three have three catches combined for their careers- all by Campbell in 2015. Tight end Ryan Izzo might help a little, but even still, the Noles will need to find additional playmakers in the passing game.

Offensive Grade: B. The Seminoles’ entire offense is rendered useless if they can’t block. It’s that simple. If the Noles get better up front, they have the potential to be as dominant as ever offensively. But any unit that can’t win the line of scrimmage is susceptible to implosion.

Defensive breakdown: Let’s start with the losses. FSU will lose DeMarcus Walker, who, like Cook, there is no simple replacement for. And also like Cook, Walker’s productivity will be filled by committee. Young ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns will now start opposite each other, while veterans DeMarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi reclaim their roles on the interior. For depth, FSU can turn to freshmen Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson. Don’t be fooled by the loss of Walker: this is still a damned good unit, certainly the best Florida will face pending the status of the SEC East race and their potential opponent in Atlanta, and among the best in the country.

The Noles are slightly less dominant at the next level. Matthew Thomas has had problems staying on the field during his time in Tallahassee for a variety of reasons that included being injured, suspended, and academically ineligible. There’s no denying the potential this former five star recruit brings, but he’s only showed it in flashes and to this point has been a complete bust. Ro’Derrick Hoskins should occupy the other LB spot in Charles Kelly’s 4-2-5 defense for now, and if both he and Thomas can stay healthy and out of trouble (the latter of which is really directed at Thomas) the Seminoles should be OK here.

Finally, this secondary is good. Like, really good. Marquez White was a big loss, but the Seminoles have a plethora of options to replace him between sophomores Marcus Lewis and Levonta Taylor and freshman Stanford Samuels. The other CB spot is occupied by Tarvarus McFadden, who finished 2016 tied for the most picks in the country with eight. The Noles also return a ton of talent at safety, namely Carlos Becker, Kyle Meyers and Trey Marshall. And that’s not even including Nate Andrews and Derwin James, who missed all and most of last season, respectively, with injuries. Andrews is the lone contributing holdover from the Noles’ 2013 national championship team, and James… well, James might be the best player in the country.

Defensive grade: A+. And they get that grade even with a few raised eyebrows at linebacker. Games have to be played, of course, and Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson await, perhaps capable of inflicting incredible amounts of damage. But on paper, this is one of the top five defenses in the country.

Key matchup: FSU offensive line vs. Florida front seven. For all the talent Florida had in their front seven last year, they really didn’t get much pressure on Francois in that game. If they can do so this year, we might be looking at an entirely different game. Of course Florida will need a smartly played game from Feleipe Franks, but that goes without saying. And that alone won’t be enough.

Florida wins if… they can run the football. FSU’s secondary is going to be difficult for even the best quarterbacks to throw against assuming they all stay healthy, so unless Feleipe Franks morphs into Danny Wuerffel by Thanksgiving weekend, the ground game will be Florida’s best bet to win. Not that beating Christmas, Nnadi, Sweat, and Burns in the trenches is going to be easy, but it’s at least doable for what looks to be a solid Gator offensive line.

FSU wins if… the Noles can protect Francois and block for their running backs. This is the only clear cut advantage Florida has over FSU, but it’s a big enough advantage that it can dictate which team wins the game by itself. If the Noles can hold their own against Florida’s front seven, they’re in good shape to win their fifth in a row.

Overview: On paper, the Seminoles appear poised to make another run at a national championship. The main knock against the Noles, though, is that a much improved ACC, plus a pair of non conference tilts with SEC opponents, could see the Noles losing as many as five games: Alabama (neutral), Florida (road), Miami, Louisville and Clemson (road) are all legitimate threats to take them down. Will they lose all five of those games? Probably not. But it’s not totally unfathomable to think they come into this game at 8-3, or even 7-4. They could also come in 10-1 or undefeated, and thus be a truly battle tested team that has has hopes of returning to the Playoff.

As for Florida? It’s difficult to imagine this team being hampered by the credit card incident that’s monopolizing the news in the final week of the season, so unless the big stars affected by it- namely, Scarlett and Callaway- miss the entire season, the Noles will have to deal with the Gators at full strength. (Barring additional injuries, of course.)  And while FSU certainly looks to be superior on paper, the Gators may finally have that missing ingredient that’s eluded them since the departure of Tim Tebow: a quarterback.

So my projection for FSU is simple: the Noles get run over by Alabama in Atlanta, but get better as the season goes on, rebound to run through the ACC and come into this game at 10-1 with a number between one and five beside their name, thus playing for a CFP spot. Florida comes into this game at 9-2, having lost a pair of games they shouldn’t have (back to back home games against LSU and then Texas A&M) and thus out of CFP contention, but sniffing a New Year’s Six Bowl and a top ten finish. The better team on paper doesn’t always win, though, a fact that you only need to say “32-29” to back up, and the Gators will be on the unfortunate side of that at times this year. But they’ll reverse those fortunes in the end, and thanks to the first decent offense since 2009, Florida ends the streak by pulling the upset at home on a game winning field goal by Eddy Pineiro.

 Projection: Florida 20, FSU 17

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