Florida State head football coach Jimbo Fisher has not been coy about the reasons the Seminoles held their 2016 Spring Game in Orlando. Recruiting, fans— and experience. The ‘Noles open 2016 in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, and now they’ve already played there. They know the layout. The locker room. The feel of the venue. Because they’ve been there before.
The same can be said for returning players who’ve started games. They understand the nuanced timing of preparation, of having oneself mentally and physically ready to go at kickoff. And Florida State has more of those with starting experience back since it went to the College Football Playoff in 2014. And perhaps more importantly, the number of returning starts bear a striking resemblance to that of the team that won it all for FSU in 2013.
In that championship season of ‘13, the Seminoles returned 162 starts on offense and 109 on defense. That’s 271 combined starts across those two units. Keep that figure in mind. We’ll revisit it. No tricks, I promise. Just math.
The number of returning starts actually rose in 2014, when 295 total starts came back, but that squad struggled to ever really approach the dominance of the 2013 team, despite a perfect regular season, an ACC title, and an appearance in the first College Football Playoff. And that begs the question: can you return too many starters? Perhaps— it depends upon from what, exactly, they’re returning.
Those who came back from the 2013 title team spent an offseason showered with praise about how great they were. They were, at the time, the highest scoring team in college football history. The had the most interceptions ever produced by the land’s top defense. And, oh yeah, they had a transcendent quarterback to boot. That bled right on through to 2014, when the ‘Noles were a prohibitive preseason No. 1 selection. In short: returning starters may mean experience; but they do not necessarily equal the hunger or drive that produce a national championship.
Of course, the theme of the 2015 team, for which no realistic FSU fan should have held national title expectations, was youth. And the returning starts, which totaled just 38 on offense and 136 on defense for a sum of 174, demonstrated that quite well. When the ‘Noles fell short last season, it was due to the offense. Meanwhile, the defense finished top-10, nationally.
And that defense returns familiar starts (remember how I said to keep 2013 in mind?). The 2013 team brought back 271 starts. The 2016 team will return a staggeringly similar 264. But let’s get more specific. FSU’s 2016 defense returns 109 starts. How many came back in 2013? 109. Let’s break this down. The most single-player defensive starts returned in 2013? 27. In 2016? 27. The second-most returning starts from a defensive player in 2013? 18. In 2016? 18.
Experience is tricky. History has taught that too little is a curse, while too much can be damning as well. But if the 2013 level worked well once, could it work again?