Will Florida State Have A "really good, dominant" defense?

Nigel Bradham and the rest of the 'Nole defense look to make another leap in quality in 2011 . (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Jimbo Fisher recently stated that he expects FSU to have a "really good, dominant" defense this year. That's quite a leap from what 'Nole fans experienced during Bobby Bowden's final season. And though much improved, last year's defense was far from dominant. Let's take a look back at what we said about the defense going into last season:

It's the new defense that FSU fans are most anxious to see. Last year's defense was simply awful.  The 107th best in the country.  Of the 66 major conference teams, FSU was only better than NC State, Louisville, Indiana, Duke, Stanford, Kansas State, Iowa State, and of course, Washington State. The last ACC defenses to be this bad in league play were some of the mid-decade Duke teams. If you want more comparisons and perspective, check out Closing The Book On The 2009 FSU Defense.  This season the group should be a lot better.  We've done a lot of research (some of which we haven't had the time to write about) to figure out just how much a defense can improve in a single season.  The answer is that it can improve a lot.  It won't go from awful to elite, but it can improve significantly.  We'll get into why in a second, but we feel confident in this chart:

BCS Conference Teams FSU's Defense Was Better Than
2009 Projected 2010 

Cincinatti

Colorado

UConn

Wake Forest

Minnesota

Kansas

Kentucky

Rutgers

Maryland

Vanderbilt

Texas A&M

Baylor

Illinois

Washington

Syracuse
NC State NC State
Louisville Louisville
Duke Duke
Stanford Stanford
Kansas State Kansas State
Indiana Indiana
Iowa State Iowa State
Washington State Washington State

There were only 8 BCS conference teams that were worse than Florida State on defense last season.  This year, we would be shocked if FSU isn't at least better than 24 major conference teams (we listed the ones who should be the worst 24).  But can FSU be better than that?  Yes.  Though it would be a huge increase to go from 58th of 66th to 42nd of 66, it can be done.  Let's work backwards here.  FSU is not going to have a better defense than the elite BCS conference defenses like (ACC teams in bold) Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Iowa, Miami, Nebraska, North Carolina (if they don't lose all their players for the season), Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, and Texas.  We also don't feel FSU will be in the next tier of BCS conference defenses consisting of LSU, Auburn, Boston College, Georgia, Mississippi, Oregon, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Texas Tech, USC, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  So better than 43nd of 66, but worse than 25th of 66.  That group of 25-43 consists of Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas, Cal, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Purdue, South Florida, Tennessee, UCLA, and Virginia.

If FSU is in that 26th-42nd range among BCS conference teams what does that mean?  

  • The Range:  It means that FSU will definitely have one of the best 50 defenses in the country.  We'd be shocked if FSU doesn't have one of the 50 best.  Note that we said best, meaning quality.  That doesn't mean top 50 in total yards.  We use advanced statistical efficiency measures to gauge performance because this blow is smart enough to understand their value and wise enough to not be misled by the flaws in raw counting stats.   FSU's defense could be as good as 25th in the country.  We do not expect that, but it is conceivable that if everything breaks right for the 'Noles defense, including perfect health, it could happen.
  • In conference, It means FSU will have the 6th, 7th, or 8th best defense in the ACC.  We see it ranking behind Boston College, Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech, but ahead of NC State, Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke.  FSU will battle Virginia and Georgia Tech for those 6-8 spots.
  • Our official Tomahawk Nation prediction for the defense is that it will be in the 26th-42nd range, and specifically the 37th best defense in the country, as measured by FootballOutsiders' F/+ Defensive Efficiency Measure.  That would be a tremendous jump, from 107th to 37th, but we think that jump can be made.  

There are several reasons why we think FSU can be one of the best 40 defenses in the country.

First, is the tremendous strength and size gains made by the defensive line.  With only one upperclassman on the two-deep, this group won't be excellent, very good, or even good.  But these young pups can be above average, an improvement on last season.  Better coaching for the defensive ends (they had none last year) and actual communication between the tackles and ends should help.  Just playing fundamental football and having a plan on each snap will make a big difference.  Expecting great or even very good things from this group this season is silly. These guys are in their first year of competent coaching at end and are not physically mature like they will be in 2011 and 2012. But it's not silly to think the defensive line will play much better than last year's abomination. And it's not silly to see this group lay the foundation for a dominant unit in 2011. It's not silly to think they will be more disciplined and play with better technique. With the lack of quality depth here, health will be key. Losing Moses McCray for the year already hurt. Another injury like that could mean the difference between another 6-6 record and potentially going 9-3. FSU must avoid injury if it is to have above average play here.  

We expect improvement from the linebackers this year. The difference in coaching will be night and day. Having a better defensive line in front of them will make a big difference. This isn't one of the best groups in the ACC (BC and Carolina have the two best by far), but the starters aren't awful. Actually having assignments will make a big difference. Staying healthy here is key as the dropoff from the starters to the 6th, 7th, or 8th guy is quite large.

And the secondary.   The ACC is absolutely loaded at defensive back, but FSU's corners stack up well against the league. We would only take the corners from Miami, North Carolina (provided they aren't kicked off the team), Virginia, and perhaps Clemson over this group. FSU could have the top corner group in the league next season, however, as these young talents have a second year in the scheme and continue to progress. Safety is a different story. We are really hoping that FSU's safeties can be average this season. It is our guess that FSU will trade some play-making chances for safety, keeping the deep guy deeper in order to avoid the big play. We are not particularly confident in this group and would trade them for every other ACC safety tandem with the exception of NC State, Wake, Duke, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. This group is very much wait and see.  Patience will be required as FSU changes over to its new scheme.

 

How Did We Do With Our Prediction?

Florida State finished as the 37th best BCS conference defense. That was within our (admittedly wide) projected range of 24/66 to 42/66. We were accurate with almost all of the teams whom we projected FSU to finish above or behind in the rankings.

Overall, FSU finished with the 41st-best defense in the country, which was a huge improvement from 107th, and within our predicted range. I'd give Tomahawk Nation an A+ grade for this effort.

Yet for all of its improvement, FSU's defense was only 8th best in the ACC! There is a ton of defensive talent in this league.

Where Will FSU's Defense Finish This Season?

thanks to a huge upgrade in depth on the defensive line and another year in the very new scheme for the back seven, expectations run rampant for this defense in Tallahassee.

In some ways, this is prediction is easier to make this season. In other, however, it's more difficult. I'll stick with the same general format we used last year.

First, let's look at the BCS teams ahead of which FSU's defense ranked:

2009 2010
  Michigan State
  Syracuse
  Georgia
  Connecticut
  Louisville
  USC
  Oregon State
  UCLA
  Vanderbilt
  Tennessee
  Ole Miss
  Rutgers
  Texas Tech
  Washington
  Colorado
  Georgia Tech
  Kentucky
  Iowa State
  Duke
  Cincinnati
  Wake Forest
  Kansas
NC State Northwestern
Louisville Kansas State
Duke Virginia
Stanford Minnesota
Kansas State Baylor
Indiana Indiana
Iowa State Washington State
Washington State Michigan

That's quite an improvement! 

Now, here are the defenses of which I am confident FSU will pass and a brief comment on each:

Purdue loses Ryan Kerrigan and some other key players. Arizona and Arizona State did as well. Wisconsin lost J.J. Watt. He was their best defensive player in a long time. Pitt lost its head coach, defensive staff, and a few NFL draft choices on defense. Auburn lost almost everyone, including Nick Fairley. Illinois lost its dominant guy in the middle, and though their defense is well coached, it would be a shock to see them finish ahead of FSU here. Cal loses Mike Mohamed and Cameron Jordan. USF lost McClain in the middle and they aren't exactly ready to replace him (watch out for them in 2012, however). Oklahoma State's defense was barely better than FSU last year and they lost quite a bit. Iowa too, belongs here after losing six or seven starters (depending on the source). Maryland has major questions at end, linebacker, and corner, a downgrade at defensive coordinator, and a 15% practice time penalty.

To recap, I think you can absolutely expect FSU to be better defensively than these 91 teams:

Illinois
Maryland
Iowa
South Florida
Auburn
Oklahoma State
Central Florida
Arizona State
California
Pittsburgh
Wisconsin
Purdue
Arizona
Michigan State
Syracuse
Connecticut
Louisville
USC
Oregon State
Kent State
SMU
UCLA
Vanderbilt
Air Force
Marshall
Tennessee
Buffalo
Southern Miss
Ole Miss
Rutgers
Texas Tech
Florida International
Fresno State
Northern Illinois
San Diego State
UL-Monroe
Hawaii
Washington
Nevada
Western Michigan
Miami (Ohio)
Temple
Middle Tennessee
Navy
Toledo
Colorado
Tulsa
Georgia Tech
Kentucky
Iowa State
Central Michigan
Florida Atlantic
Arkansas State
Army
Troy
Duke
UAB
Louisiana Tech
Cincinnati
UL-Lafayette
North Texas
Idaho
Utah State
Wake Forest
Bowling Green
Tulane
Kansas
Kansas State
Northwestern
Virginia
Western Kentucky
Minnesota
Ohio
Akron
Baylor
Houston
San Jose State
Indiana
Wyoming
Memphis
New Mexico
Ball State
Washington State
Colorado State
Rice
Michigan
UNLV
New Mexico State
East Carolina
UTEP
Eastern Michigan

Meaning that we are projecting FSU's defense to be no worse than 28th in the country. That's in the top 25% of all college defenses, and certainly a very good showing.

With another expected quality offense, FSU should  find itself in the top 25 in both offense and defense for the first time in a long, long while (2003ish). Only a few teams accomplished that last season, and they are: Boise State, Stanford, Oklahoma, Oregon, Ohio State, TCU, LSU, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and Alabama. That's seven conference championships, a bunch of BCS bowls, and an average season of 12-2.

Here's where the really tough part comes in.

Last year I identified 25 defenses that I thought would definitely be better than FSU. I was right on 20 of the 25. This year? I can only find one: Bama (returns 10 of 11 starters from top-10 unit last season). And that's a really, really good thing for 'Nole fans.

Aside from Alabama, I cannot name with certainty any other defenses which will definitely be better than Florida State's. Now, I am not saying that FSU will have the second best defense in the country. But it does say a lot about the improvement made when you can only name one defense that will for sure be better than the 'Noles unit.

Last year we said 37th. This year, the range will be 28th to 2nd, somewhere in the mix with these teams: Arkansas, Boise State, Boston College, BYU, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Mississippi State, Missouri, N.C. State, Nebraska, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Stanford, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Utah, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Official TN Predictionfor the FSU defense: 9th 

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