While Florida State won nine games last year, it still felt like a disappointing season in some ways. There were a couple of losses that were certainly unexpected (Wake Forest and Virginia). I wouldn't put much of that on the defense though. The defense gave up over 100 yards rushing in three of 13 games. The offense seemed to sputter towards the end of the season, especially in the running game. The Seminoles averaged under 3.3 yards per carry in eight of the 13 games.
With eight starters back, this should be an improved offense, anchored by quarterback EJ Manuel. In his first full season as starter, he was a consistent high percentage passer, completing over 65% of his passes last season, with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He only had one game where his completion percentage was under 50%, which was the Florida game, But let's be honest. Nobody wants to remember that game. He did get banged up a little bit, and missed two games, and left early in others. If he can stay healthy, He could have a 3000 yard, 20 touchdown season.
If Florida State is going to be a big time team this year, they will need some big time improvement in the running game. The Noles will likely use three running backs throughout the season. Devonta Freeman was the workhorse last year, and should be again this year. Freeman started seven games, and showed some promise before fading a bit at the end of the season. Freeman finished with 579 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Sophomore James Wilder carried the ball 35 times last year, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He should be getting some more work this year. Chris Thompson is the other back who could see time. Thompson carried the ball 29 times last year.
If you're on the field as a receiver, you're always on the lookout for a pass, because the ball gets spread around to everybody. The leading receiver caught 38 passes last year, which was Rashad Greene. He also led the team with seven touchdowns. On the other side, Rodney Smith caught 36 passes last year, and at 6-6, is a big target for EJ Manuel. Should either go down, there is plenty of depth behind them. Christian Green only started four games, but finished third on the team in yards. Kenny Shaw caught 34 passes as well. At tight end, Nick O'Leary takes over the starting job. He didn't play a lot last year, but did catch 12 passes.
If Florida State is going to go to the ACC title game this year, it needs to have a better showing on the offensive line. The line has gotten worse over the last two years. After allowing only 20 sacks in 2009, that number ballooned to 41 last year. The yards per carry also dropped from 4.8 in 2010 to 4.3 last year. Three starters return on the line this year. There were some injuries on the line this year, and with some better health, this line could improve.
Let's be honest here. You're not running on this team. Try all you want, but you're not going to get much out of it. This is a defense that allowed 2.3 yards per carry last year. Only twice last year were teams able to get above 3.0 yards per carry against this defense. It also gave up over 100 yards rushing three times all year, And guess what? Most of the defense returns intact, so you're not going to get much accomplished running again this year. The defensive line is anchored by arguably the best defensive player in the ACC in Brandon Jenkins. He's a two time first team All ACC player, and will probably get there a third time barring injury. Jenkins had eight sacks last year. On the other side, Bjoern Werner had seven sacks and an interception, and is a formidable foe for offensive lineman. Inside, Timmy Jernigan is a star in the making. He's going to be a lot of fun to watch. Everette Dawkins has started 27 games through three years, and is a nice cog in the middle of the line.There is a lot of depth on the defensive line. Tank Carradine played in every game as a backup, and still managed 5.5 sacks.
The key loss for the Noles is at linebacker. Nigel Bradham led the team in tackles three straight years, something that hasn't happened in 20 years. But the good news is that the other two starters at linebacker are back. Vince Williams and Christian Jones are the team's top two returnees in terms of tackles from last season. Nick Moody takes over for Bradham. Moody did start a couple of games last season, and played in nine games.
Even with Greg Reid's dismissal, the secondary is still strong. Xavier Rhodes is still around. He's started 25 games in two years, and has over 100 tackles Nick Waisome, a sophomore, is slated to take Reid's spot. He didn't play a lot last year, but given what else is in the secondary, he will have help. That help comes from Lamarcus Joyner, who is a ball hawk. Joyner picked off four passes last year, and is among the team's leading returning tacklers. Alongside Joyner will be Terrence Brooks, who as a backup broke up five passes, and had an interception.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins is arguably the best kicker in the conference. His field goal percentage has improved each year from his freshman year to his junior year (he hit 81% last year), and he has a really strong leg, Hopkins has a career long field goal of 55 yards. Cason Beatty is a freshman who is expected to handle the punting duties. The return games may be where Greg Reid will be missed most. He was really good at both. But Lamarcus Joyner will capably handle the kick return duties. He only returned 13 kicks, but averaged over 30 yards per return. Punt return duties are expected to be handled by Marvin Bracy, who can flat out run. He was an Olympic hopeful in the 100 and 200 meters.
Just how dominant has Florida State been over the years? The last time Florida State had a losing record was 1976, Bobby Bowden's first year in Tallahassee.
This season could be very special for Florida State. They bring a lot back, plus the schedule is in their favor. The only tough road game is a Thursday night game against Virginia Tech. The only tough game at home will be Clemson. Health was an issue for the Noles last year, and hopefully they can improve on the health this year. The defense is really strong, led by arguably the best defensive line in the nation. You'll have to pass to beat this team, and given the success the defensive line has had at getting to the quarterback, that won't be easy either. The offense should be better provided that the offensive line improves. I would expect FSU to win double digit games this year.