FSU didn’t exactly have the 2016 college football season many had expected. But the Seminoles still have a bright future and could be national contenders in 2017.
There’s no question that Florida State endured a disappointing 2016 college football season.
The Seminoles entered the new campaign as a trendy pick to reclaim ACC supremacy and reach the College Football Playoff after Clemson won the conference and nearly knocked off Alabama in the title game last season.
Jimbo Fisher and Co. had a schedule that set up well for a CFP berth: Clemson and Florida at home, and a non-conference neutral-site game in the Sunshine State against Ole Miss, which is exactly the kind of non-league matchup that would impress the selection committee when it comes time to release its final rankings.
But the Seminoles found out in the season opener that 2016 just wasn’t going to be quite their year.
Against the Rebels, FSU fell behind 28-6, as the defense struggled to contain the high-powered Ole Miss offensive attack. The deficiencies would be a sign of things to come.
Defensive concerns aside, FSU discovered an elite quarterback that night. And having an established star at the position is half the battle for a program with title aspirations.
Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois made his first career start and helped lead his team to 33 consecutive points in the 45-34 win, completing the largest comeback victory in school history. And the toughness he showed, consistently getting battered in the pocket due to shoddy O-Line play yet coming back for more, showed just how special of a player Francois can be in Tallahassee. He is a dual-threat that has no problem staying in the pocket and delivering tough throws even when he knows he will get hit. In short, he’s a difference-maker at the quarterback position.
But the injury bug bit the ‘Noles in a big way in an easy win over Charleston Southern. Star safety Derwin James was lost to a torn meniscus in his left knee, and he didn’t play another down in the regular season.
While the presence of James alone would not have reversed the 63-20 beat down the team suffered at the hands of Louisville, it certainly didn’t help against Lamar Jackson, who began his run at the Heisman Trophy in earnest with his standout performance against Fisher’s squad. James was second on the team in sacks, tackles for loss, and tackles as a true freshman in 2015, and he was leading the team in tackles at the time of his injury. In addition to receiving inconsistent play from a banged-up defensive line, the loss of one of the nation’s best defensive backs after just six quarters of action unquestionably impacted the effectiveness of Charles Kelly’s unit.
Despite the blowout loss to the Cardinals, FSU still had a chance to beat Clemson and ultimately win the Atlantic division title. But a week after holding off a very good USF squad, the Seminoles dropped a heartbreaker at home to UNC, 37-35, as Nick Weiler made a 54-yard field goal as time expired to snap the Seminoles’ 22-game home winning streak. Once again, the defense put them in a deep hole, as they trailed 21-0 in the second quarter before rallying to take a 35-34 lead in the final minute of the eventual loss. The defense exited the game allowing nearly 7.0 yards per play.
The ‘Noles could have folded after the UNC loss, but they didn’t. On the Tuesday following the loss to the Tar Heels, Fisher had the players sign a contract of sorts, agreeing to essentially give top-notch effort and raise the level of play that met the expectations of the coaching staff and the players that came before them.
In the first game after the edict, the defense held Miami to 276 yards. A week later, Wake Forest accrued just 252 yards. Then came the home showdown with Clemson.
For the second straight year against the ‘Noles, Deshaun Watson played like a Heisman Trophy contender, putting up 430 yards of total offense to ensure that the Tigers remained the kings of the ACC mountain for another season. The Seminoles also beat themselves, as they were penalized 13 times for 111 yards. But, even in the loss, there were glimpses of the team that many expected to be a national title contender. And we saw even more of that in the regular season finale against Florida last week, which was FSU’s fourth straight win to close out the regular season.
FSU will head to a bowl for the 35th consecutive season, and it very well could be the Orange Bowl after Louisville’s latest loss, and if Clemson advances to the College Football Playoff. Not too shabby when a down year for a program is a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
While the ascent back to the top of the ACC pecking order will have to wait for FSU, there is a lot to be excited about if you are a fan or an alumnus of this program heading into 2017.
Fisher will be entering his eighth season as head coach and is essentially re-committed to the program with the LSU rumors finally being put to bed, and he praised his team after the UF win for playing hard throughout the season even as their “goals kept going away.” He didn’t lose this team when it was easy for players to shut down after some tough setbacks. The strong play to close the regular season (and even in the loss to Clemson) showed that this team was talented enough to win the ACC had a few breaks gone its way.
Even though there were some inconsistent bouts with Francois, he played well beyond his years and proved to be one of the tougher signal-callers in the country. He’s a difference-maker that changes the entire complexion of an offense.
Next season, the roster will be comprised of players that were not on the 2013 Jameis Winston-led national title team, so the trying 2016 season should serve as motivation for team leaders looking to establish a new championship legacy in Tallahassee. While the Seminoles will lose pieces such as DeMarcus Walker and Dalvin Cook, Francois will be surrounded by a wide array of weapons, and the offensive line should be improved. Meanwhile, James and Tarvarus McFadden should lead a defense that had a much better second half when Kelly simplified the scheme a bit.
While 2016 was a roller coaster ride, the ‘Noles battled through adversity all season, which could prove to be very beneficial moving forward. A sweep of Miami and Florida coupled with a bowl win would at least be a nice finish for a group that suffered much disappointment early on.
Knowing the way this group navigated its pitfalls throughout the fall, it should be well-equipped to avoid a similar fate in 2017.