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College Football Preview 2018: 16. Florida State Seminoles

16. Florida State Seminoles

They were a much better team last year than their 7-6 record may indicate, and new head coach Willie Taggart has this team having fun again

Cam Akers
Offense: Florida State's 2017  took a major turn for the worse on the season's first week, as they lost starting QB Deondre Francois for the entire season due to a torn patella. Backup James Blackman did an admirable job in his absence considering how bad the O-Line was and how unforgiving the ACC is, but the 'Noles still managed just 351.9 yards per game. That was 13th in the conference, and 100th nationally, giving new offensive coordinator Walt Bell plenty to work on entering 2018.

Francois is set to return fully healthy, although there are some around the FSU program that believe Blackman can push him for the starting job. Blackman did gain valuable experience filling in last season, but I still have to believe Francois is the guy, considering he had over 3,300 yards in his redshirt freshman season in 2016. If he can stay healthy, this is a signal-caller that has proven he can move the ball and win games for this team, something they definitely lacked at times a year ago.

New head coach Willie Taggart has proven during his time at places such as Oregon and South Florida that he loves to run the ball. That should fit this personnel perfectly, as the Seminoles have a budding star at running back in sophomore Cam Akers. Akers entered last year with plenty of fanfare and didn't disappoint, rushing for 1,024 yards despite being underutilized under Jimbo Fisher. With Taggart leaning on the run and FSU still figuring things out at quarterback, it isn't unreasonable to believe Akers will have a huge season and likely find himself, at the very least, in the Heisman discussion. Senior Jacques Patrick is also returning as a quality veteran who quietly had 748 yards and seven touchdowns last year.

It will be interesting to see if a true, clear-cut No. 1 target can emerge this season in Tallahassee. Senior Nyqwan Murray had 40 catches for 604 yards a year ago, but has the potential to be so much more. He wasn't 100 percent during the spring, but if he can get healthy, there is no reason the explosive wide out can't step up and be the go-to guy. Junior Keith Gavin is also back after recording 27 receptions last season. However, beyond those two, the Seminoles lack much proven playmakers at the position. Sophomore D.J. Matthews has shown flashes, and could be a breakout star in 2018, while a number of newcomers could also step into big roles, including Warren Thompson and Tre'Shaun Harrison. Tight end is also looking to break in a number of unproven commodities with rock-solid Ryan Izzo graduated. Sophomore Tre' McKitty is the favorite to start, but had just one lone catch in '17.

While QB and wide receiver will have to smooth some things out, the real X-factor for this offense is the O-Line. Francois and Blackman have taken an absolute beating the last two seasons, with 68 sacks allowed during that span, one of the highest totals in FBS football. This group isn't devoid of talent; it just needs to communicate better and figure out to establish some consistency. Senior center Alec Eberle will be counted on to be the leader of the group. Fellow returning starters Derrick Kelly and Josh Ball do bring some valuable experience, making FSU fans hopeful this group could take a big step forward.

There are certainly some questions that need to be answered, but this Seminoles' offense should be able to take a step forward. A healthy Francois and a better-used Akers is legitimately scary for opponents, and if the offensive line can finally figure some things out, this could end up being one of the better offenses in the conference.

Defense: Florida State's defense played pretty well last season and plenty returns for new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett. Barnett has enjoyed plenty of success the last few years as Michigan State co-DC, and is known for aggressive, tenacious defenses.

Barnett will have to oversee some rebuilding throughout this defense, but the good news for him is that the defensive line remains mainly intact. Junior end Brian Burns has already established himself as one of the better pass rushers in the ACC, and many believe he is just scratching the surface of what he can be. Up the middle, senior Demarcus Christmas is returning for his third season as starter, and sophomore Marvin Wilson is ready to showcase his talent, as the former five-star recruit should be able to cause chaos from the get-go. This line will have to play a big role, because the units behind them will need significant time to adjust, particularly the linebacker corps.

Matthew Thomas (85 tackles, 10 TFL) is the most notable name gone from the linebacker group, but is far from the only one. No returning starters are in place at the moment, although there is certainly potential there. Juniors Dontavious Jackson and Adonis Thomas will be the "veterans" of the unit, although neither has seen a very large role in their time at FSU just yet. Another name to watch is another junior, Josh Brown. Brown has played primarily just on special teams with the 'Noles, but the coaching staff is excited about his upside as an edge rusher.

Underclassmen Derwin James and Tavarus McFadden both decided to leave a year early for the NFL, but this secondary could actually still be pretty good. Junior Levonta Taylor appears to be the next in a long line of impactful Florida State defensive backs. Taylor can play either safety or corner (he'll likely play mostly corner in '18) and has already made a name for himself with his jarring hits and nose for the football. He is almost certainly an All-ACC caliber player entering this season. Sophomore Stanford Samuels was the gem of last year's recruiting class, and looked ready to start in the spring, while Hamsah Nasirildeen is going to see more action after managing 28 tackles and three pass deflections a year ago. This also is likely the Seminoles deepest position group on defense, with guys like senior A.J. Westbrook and newcomer Asante Samuel, the son of the former All-Pro NFL defensive back, featuring in reserve roles.

Much like the offense, this defense will have to find some new contributors quickly at some spots, but there is no denying the talent that exists throughout this side of the ball. This D-Line really has the chance to be special, and Barnett's aggressive style could result in even better numbers for this unit as a whole.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Ricky Aguayo has done a fine job replacing his older brother, Roberto, a former All-American and Lou Groza Award winner. He hit on 18 of 21 field goals last season, and could be even better in his third year as starter. Punter Logan Tyler is also back for his third season as the lead guy.

It has been a shaky year for Florida State football, enduring a rough 7-6 campaign in which they rescheduled a game against Louisiana-Monroe to ensure bowl eligibility, and then watching head coach Jimbo Fisher leave for Texas A&M. However, Willie Taggart has come in and given this program a nice breath of fresh air. Contrary to Fisher, Taggart has embraced a much more relaxed, fun-loving style in his short time in Tallahassee, and the team really seems to be buying in. This roster does have some concerns it will need to figure out, particularly the O-Line and linebacker situation, but the talent up and down this lineup is impressive and the schedule relatively favorable. The Seminoles may not yet be at the level to overtake Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, but they should settle in just fine as a 9-10 game winner that should be able to get into a meaningful bowl.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)
Offensive MVP: RB Cam Akers
Defensive MVP: CB Levonta Taylor
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Stanford Samuels

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