This week we're running a series on the teams capable of dethroning two-time defending ACC champion Clemson next season. We open the series with Florida State, which might be considered the conference’s early 2017 favorite.
How Florida State can beat Clemson: With Louisville potentially taking a step back with an ongoing defensive reconstruction, there’s a good chance this Nov. 11 game once again defines the Atlantic Division. Last season, Florida State entered the game with two conference losses, killing some of the pregame drama.
The success of the Tigers' offensive game plan was one reason they won this matchup in 2016, but this time the Seminoles should have the kind of defensive line that can wreck it. Brian Burns and Josh Sweat should be one of the nation's better combinations at defensive end, and Derrick Nnadi leads from the interior. Clemson won’t keep the ball in its quarterback’s hands long, but if the secondary can keep on the same page it has the athletes to close down on the space it gives the Tigers’ receivers.
As good as the Tigers were defensively last season, they had their lapses. Florida State dropped 34 points on them, including four touchdowns over a 22-minute span in the second and third quarters. The Seminoles' offense might not be as strong without Dalvin Cook and three receivers with extensive starting experience, but Deondre Francois should be better as a redshirt sophomore. The hope is the offensive line will jell, and another receiver or two emerges alongside Nyqwan Murray.
Cook nearly led Florida State to an upset of Clemson last season with big plays, and Murray provides similar explosion on the outside. He caught a 40-yard pass against Clemson a season ago, and in the bowl game against Michigan he hauled in a 92-yard touchdown and later the game-winning score.
What’s holding them back: Ask coach Jimbo Fisher what he seeks with his team and players, and he’ll routinely open his answer with the word “consistency.” It’s a hallmark of any good team, Fisher said, and the Seminoles struggled with it last season. The Seminoles looked like a top-five team at moments and a mediocre ACC team at others -- like the final drive against Clemson last year.
Trailing late, Florida State moved into Clemson territory in two plays to put itself in position for a game-winning drive. Nine of their next 10 plays resulted in zero or negative yards. With 44 seconds left, Florida State was at the Clemson 34. The drive ended at its own 33.
Francois was sacked on their final two plays, but the Seminoles can end the two-game losing streak to Clemson if Francois can remain upright. The offensive line, receivers, running backs and Francois all deserve blame for the number of hits Clemson levied on the young signal-caller last season. The line progressed late in the year, but now it loses left tackle Rod Johnson.
The defense was equally inconsistent in 2016, but with much of the unit returning there is hope it will build on the success from later in the season. Clemson is rebuilding its offense, too, so the Seminoles defense could catch a break there.
X-factor: Remember who didn’t play in the Clemson game last season -- or hardly any games for that matter? Derwin James was sidelined with a knee injury, and the Seminoles were torched down the middle of the field through the air. Jordan Leggett had five catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. On the Tigers’ game-winning drive, he had catches of 25, 11 and 34 yards.
James, who might also be the Seminoles’ best pass-rusher, will return to the starting lineup in 2017; there is no doubt about that. Senior Nate Andrews might not be installed as a starter once recovered from a torn pectoral, but at minimum he'll add safety depth and leadership with James. Coverage breakdowns occurred far too often last year, but the situation at safety will look much different this season with Andrews, James, Ermon Lane, Trey Marshall and A.J. Westbrook.