As his team prepared to take the field for its first preseason practice after winning the national championship, coach Jimbo Fisher posed a pair of questions. "Once you're up on that podium, do you really want to walk off?" Fisher asked. And: "How important is it to stay on that podium?"
Both had been answered in part last January: After Florida State's 34--31 win over Auburn for a 14--0 finish and the final title of the BCS era, only four players (WR Kelvin Benjamin, DT Timmy Jernigan and RBs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.) left early for the NFL. Senior tackle Cam Erving and senior guard Tre Jackson stayed, meaning Florida State will brink back four-fifths of its offensive line. Wideout Rashad Greene, who has led the team in catches and receiving yards in each of his three seasons in Tallahassee, also chose to return. So did senior tight end Nick O'Leary(right), whose blocking and pass-catching helped ignite a 2013 offense that led the country in yards per play (7.67).
The rest of the answer will be found in the Seminoles who weren't eligible to leave for the NFL. The headliner is Heisman Trophy--winning redshirt sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, (who set an NCAA freshman record 4,057 passing yards and 40 TDs), but Florida State is loaded with third-year talent on defense as well. End Mario Edwards Jr., tackle Eddie Goldman, cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could finish 2014 among the best in the nation at their positions. As could sophomore kicker Roberto Aguayo. No team has a more solid foundation for a championship run, and excellent recruiting classes in '13 and '14 have only intensified the competition for playing time.
The other questions are less daunting. Who will provide leadership on the defense? Fourth-year players such as linebacker Terrance Smith and safety Tyler Hunter will have to help fill the void. And who will replace the tandem of Freeman and Wilder, who combined for 1,579 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns last year? The candidates are Karlos Williams, who averaged 8.0 yards a carry after converting from safety last September, and freshman Dalvin Cook, who bested Williams in a race during a mid-July workout.
If the Seminoles can fill the few gaps they have, Fisher will be asking the same two questions in the preseason a year from now.
Last year Mario Edwards Jr. had 9½ tackles for a loss, including three in the BCS title game. This year the 6'3", 294-pound junior end must do more than fill a stat sheet. Florida State's defense needs leaders, and Edwards, whose father, Mario Sr., played at FSU in the 1990s, must help the seniors mentor younger players the way Tank Carradine and Timmy Jernigan did for him. "We're bringing a new tradition," Edwards says, "by bringing back the swag of the old Seminoles."
The Seminoles can probably lose a game and still make the Playoff. They've beefed up their nonconference schedule with home dates against Oklahoma State (Aug. 30) and Notre Dame (Oct. 18), and annual rival Florida (Nov. 29) should be better than last year. The ACC's overall improvement will help too. Their must-win game is a Sept. 20 visit by Clemson. An FSU loss likely means no ACC Atlantic Division title and no ACC title. An SEC or Pac-12 team might make the playoff without winning its division, but that probably won't be the case in the other leagues.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 90%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Their defense is really talented. To play there, you've got to compete because of the depth they have. You turn on the NFL draft in the past couple of years, their players just keep getting picked. It's talent after talent after talent. That's tough to overcome—but not impossible. It's a very fast, physical defense. Up front, it's a combination of speed and power. There are no weak spots. Normally you can find somebody that has something you can lean on. It's hard to find that against them.
On offense, they're very explosive. They're talented in all the skill positions, and they're athletic up front. You can't double any of their receivers because they are all really good. You have to be prepared to stop everyone. It's tough to cover them because you can't get to their quarterback. When I watched film on them last year, everybody played them soft to buy themselves time to get to Jameis Winston, who is so accurate. As you saw in the national championship game, they can take a slant route 50-something yards to set themselves up to win the game. That's why they're the national champs.
STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES (HUNTER)
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (EDWARDS)
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (O'LEARY)