The 2015 Florida State team enters this season with an interesting blend of the optimism you would expect from a program that has recruited as well as almost anyone in college football recently and yet with a very real understanding of the vast amount of talent that has left the program. Gone from the program are a record 29 NFL draft picks over the past three years. Gone are some of the better players to have ever played WR, TE and QB in Florida State's illustrious history. And as noted yesterday by Corey Clark, gone are an incredible combined 303 starts from the offense alone.
Despite this mass exodus of transcendent talent and vast experience, Florida State remains as talented as anyone that appears on their 2015 schedule. And while it takes a more creative mind to see how this Florida State team could make a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to see this come to fruition. It would be impossible to list all of the things that will be required for the 2015 team to make college football's version of the final four, but here are some of the more obvious feats Florida State will have to accomplish if it is to make a second consecutive showing in the process now used to crown a national champion.
Run. The. Dang. Ball.
Simply put, Florida State must fully embrace the running game. If there is a transcendent talent on the 2015 offensive unit, it is Dalvin Cook. Cook is joined by a stable of running backs that should prove to be Florida State's greatest offensive weapon over the course of the 2015 season. FSU will also have a mobile QB with the addition of Everett Golson, who, if he is to have a successful final season in college football, must have his mobility leveraged as much as possible by Jimbo Fisher. While this does not necessarily mean running Golson into the ground, the mere threat of Golson running is something that Florida State's opponents will have to account for. Last year, Florida State's running backs touched the ball 1.6 times for every touch by a receiver or tight end. This year, that ratio needs to be at least 2/1. Feature the running backs.
Even when trailing
Seriously. One of the criticisms of Jimbo Fisher's offenses at LSU and FSU are that he too quickly abandons the run when his team is trailing. That is a recipe for disaster with this group due to the inexperience at receiver and offensive line.
Limit traditional dropback passing
When Florida State does decide to throw the ball, Fisher will need to play to the strengths of his new quarterback and offensive line. This would mean limiting the amount of true drop-back pass plays. Florida State needs to move the pocket around with a litany of plays that utilize Golson's mobility, whether they be play action, screens, roll outs, etc. It would not shock me to see Florida State, at least initially in the season, run a decent amount of plays in which the lighter and less experienced side of the offensive line (the right side) is called upon to utilize its quickness and mobility in backside protections while it acclimates itself to this level of college football.
Reach And Fall Back On The Backside Of Sprintout Protection #LinemanLunch pic.twitter.com/ij2UwALJvZ— Coach Matt Jones (@CoachMattJones) September 2, 2015
The other benefit of running the football more and limiting traditional passing is turnover avoidance. Turnovers have a huge random element (see below), but there is no doubt that this 2015 team cannot overcome turning the football over 2.5 times per game against winning FBS competition like the 2014 team did. And we know that turnovers are more likely to occur on passing plays than running plays. Using QB mobility in the pass game gives Golson more safe throws and the option to run if a throw is not there. That will help to limit turnovers.
Find a dependable receiver
For Florida State to make it to the 2015 College Football Playoff, it must find a dependable receiver that Everett Golson can trust. That seems likely to be Jesus Wilson (if he finds his hands again) or Travis Rudolph (if he becomes more consistent). FSU's receivers are extremely young and mistake prone (at least through camp), and are likely to make a ton of mistakes as a group in 2015.
Find a deep threat
In addition to a steady, dependable wide out, FSU also has to develop or find a big play receiver on this roster. Whether that be the ultra talented freshman George Campbell or someone like Pigg Harrison (or even Kermit Whitfield), FSU's offense will have to possess an explosive element that can stretch the defense and make the most of the times when Fisher looks to go deep on of a play-action pass or a play that is extended via Golson's mobility. Golson is actually a very good thrower of the deep ball.
A lot will be expected of the 2015 defense, likely to be a strength of this team, if FSU is to make the college football playoffs.
Force obvious passing downs frequently
First and foremost, Charles Kelly's defense has to be better at forcing more obvious passing downs. FSU has to force opposing offenses to operate out of situations like 2nd & 8+ and 3rd & 5+ to dictate situations for its defense to better rush the passer. Last year, FSU was 77th at doing so. These types of situations will both allow FSU linemen to have less run responsibility and better allow some of the concepts that newly added DE coach Brad Lawing likes to deploy to scheme his players into situations in which they can pressure the quarterback.
Have the linebackers and safeties communicate so FSU doesn't get gashed on first down passes
Going back to what FSU must do in the early downs of a defensive series, it must be noted that last year FSU was 102nd nationally in first-down passer rating. This has to change in 2015, and, to be honest, if FSU is to play at the highest levels of college football, that change likely has to be drastic. If this transformation is to occur, it is likely to be a byproduct of better communication between FSU's linebackers and the secondary as there were frequently times last season, particularly in zone coverage, when the two units did not appear to be on the same page.
Find an edge rusher
Lawing and FSU also have to develop an elite pass rusher in 2015. While the most likely candidates for this pass rushing specialist are Jacob Pugh, or possibly even freshman Josh Sweat, FSU and Lawing have numbers on their side with a fairly deep DE unit that also includes Lorenzo Featherston and Chris Casher.
Mix and match the seven secondary pieces to maximize their talents
FSU and Kelly have a litany of capable pieces in the secondary. While the younger players in this unit are likely the more talented guys, there are roles for guys like Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter to play. If FSU is to have the type of defense that helps them contend for a conference championships and a playoff appearance, Kelly will have to make the most out of unit that has an intriguing blend of raw talent and effective upperclassmen when deployed appropriately.
The stuff FSU cannot (completely) control
Any team that makes it through a college football season and finds itself in playoff contention has likely been, at least in some part, the benefactor of things it cannot control, and the 2015 edition of Florida State could be no different.
Don't suffer injuries to starters at linebacker or offensive line
All teams suffer injuries; when, and perhaps more importantly, where they come will play a huge role in what the ceiling of the 2015 team looks like. Florida State is deep in some spots (running back, defensive tackle, secondary), but it absolutely cannot afford injuries along the offensive line or at linebacker.
FSU will likely also have to experience some form of turnover luck if it is to make it through this season undefeated or even with one loss. There is a huge element of turnovers that are more or less luck, and this is particularly true when it comes to fumbles. The issue of fumble luck could possibly be magnified even further when one considers that Dalvin Cook struggled with fumbling last year and that Everett Golson put the ball on the ground 12 times in 2014. FSU can somewhat control how many times it fumbles, but not how many of those it or opponents recover.
Have the ACC fare well in the non-conference
While the ACC has taken great strides to improve its general perception over the past two seasons, there is still a notion, nationally, that FSU plays in an inferior conference. If FSU, or any ACC team is to make the playoffs, this perception of the conference needs to either change via success in marquee non-conference games or other leagues' conference champions must emerge with two or even three losses.
Don't lose the wrong game
Regardless of what happens in other conferences, this FSU team has little chance of making the playoffs with two losses. To be honest, even a one-loss FSU team making the playoffs could be a real challenge, depending on when and where that loss were to occur. If FSU is to lose a game and still make the playoffs, that loss would likely have to be early in the season and to a team that is not likely to otherwise go on to win the ACC or even the Atlantic division. You could see a situation in which FSU could potentially lose to a Boston College team and possibly fight back to earn a place in college football's final four.
There is also a conceivable series of events in which FSU could lose to Clemson and still win its division and have an outside chance at making the playoffs as a one-loss conference champion. To an extent, this situation would also be possible with a loss in the Louisville game. A loss at Florida would likely remove FSU from playoff contention because it would be to a team that projects as a four or five-loss team likely to finish in the middle to bottom half of a less-than-stellar SEC East division. There are also some situations in which FSU might be able to survive a loss to a team in the Coastal division and then come back and beat them in the ACC title game, but even that might be a hard sell to the College Football Playoff committee.
Blow some people out
Speaking of the playoff committee, if FSU is to have any chance of making the playoff, it simply has to blow some teams out. FSU does not necessarily need to beat teams 51-14 in order to make itself a playoff contender, but it likely does need some impressive wins in its back pocket if the playoff committee continues with their love affair with terms and ideology like "game control". By the end of the 2014 season, it was almost as though the first year playoff committee was looking for reasons to keep an undefeated and defending National Champion FSU team out of the inaugural playoff.
One thing FSU fans can take from 2014 is that they are likely not to get the benefit of the doubt if Florida State does not clearly separate itself from some of the teams it plays in 2015. Blowouts would also afford beleaguered position groups (like the linebacker corps) some additional rest. Those additional snaps in close games add up.
This year's Florida State team is incredibly talented, but most of that talent is couched in youth. It would not surprise me at all for this group to make a playoff appearance, but it would be a surprise if it were to occur in 2015. This team is very well set up to play at college football's highest level in 2016 and possibly even in 2017. But the fact that this talent is currently on the roster gives FSU a legitimate shot to unexpectedly find itself playing in the final games of the 2015 season.