Florida State's Inexperience Puts Their Playoff Hopes in Jeopardy
The uproar began Saturday when news broke about Sean Maguire, the senior quarterback of a presumptive playoff favorite, Florida State.
Seminole coach Jimbo Fisher informed reporters following practice that Maguire had suffered a fracture in his foot and would be out until the second or third game of the year.
It was the break heard ‘round the college football world.
Except that it wasn’t. In fact, a top 5 team losing its returning fifth-year quarterback barely created a ripple in the Twittersphere.
That’s because college football’s pundit class had long anointed redshirt freshman, Deondre Francois, the prohibitive favorite in Tallahassee on the back of his impressive spring game. Maguire has been dealing with an ankle injury for much of the year and missed spring practice altogether. Saturday’s injury all but sealed the fate of both Maguire and Francois to start the year, despite Fisher’s refusal to label Francois the starter.
But rather than express concern about a first-year starter who has never played a down of college football, oddsmakers and preseason prognosticators, both before and after Maguire’s most recent injury, have remained bullish on Florida State.
At 5Dimes, Florida State is currently +1400 to win the national championship, behind only Alabama (+650), Clemson (+750), Ohio State (+900), LSU (+1200), Oklahoma (+1200), and Michigan (+1275). Athlon Sports, Phil Steele, and ESPN The Magazine have picked Florida State to make the College Football Playoff.
A closer look at the metrics paint a murkier picture for the 2016 Seminoles. While it is clear that Florida State is an elite program with a track record on the field and on the recruiting trail, inexperience at crucial positions -- yes, including at quarterback -- may leave them outside the College Football Playoff for the second straight season.
The Case for Florida State
All preseason I’ve been using what I call my STaRS system to evaluate teams. The system relies on three key metrics: Sustained success, Talent, and Returning production (with the final element being the team’s Schedule).
Using those yardsticks, the preseason hype on Florida State is well-deserved.
Over the last five seasons, only Alabama has put up better overall efficiency numbers than Florida State. Using composite rankings from ESPN’s FPI, Brian Fremeau’s FEI, and Bill Connelly’s S&P+, the Seminoles have finished in the top 20 in team efficiency in each of the last five seasons, including being a consensus number one in 2013, when they captured the national championship.
In that five-year span from 2011 to 2015, Florida State has won 9, 12, 14, 13, and 10 games, respectively.
Jimbo Fisher has also had high-level success in bringing talent to Tallahassee. With the exception of his 2013 class, which ranked 11th nationally, Fisher has landed a top-four class in each of the last four years, according to 247Sports Composite Rankings. That five-year average ranking puts Florida State only behind Alabama and Ohio State. By comparison, Florida State’s in-division rival, Clemson, managed only one class (ninth in 2015) better than the Seminoles worst class in the same five-year period.
|5-year recruiting ranks||2012||2013||2014||2015||2016||Average|
It is no surprise, then, that this 2016 team is littered with stars throughout its two-deep. Tomahawk Nation’s Bud Elliott told the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast, “I think if you look top to bottom, this roster may be as talented as the 2013 (national championship) roster…..They are loaded at pretty much every spot.”
No one in the country may be as special as running back Dalvin Cook. In the 2015 regular season, Cook torched defenses, racking up 7.9 yards per carry. And according to Phil Steele, Cook will be running behind the third-best offensive line in college football.
Overall returning experience also signals that the Seminoles should be among the nation’s upper echelon. Phil Steele reports that the Seminoles return 79.2 percent of its lettermen from a year ago, good for sixth in the country.
The Case for Caution
Early this year, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, college football’s version of Bill James, introduced some new research that should give Florida State backers some pause. Using two years’ worth of data, Connelly found that continuity in the offensive passing game and the defensive backfield were the two primary predictors of future improvement and success.
On offense, the receiving and passing yards returning categories had the strongest positive correlations with efficiency. This runs counter to the long-held belief that experience along the offensive line is the key indicator when analyzing teams’ prospects in the preseason. Connelly flatly wrote, “Offensive line experience, as calculated by career starts returning, has almost no impact on a team's Off. S&P+. That is rather mind-blowing.”
Connelly found the same to be true on the defensive side of the ball. “Experience in the secondary is worth more than experience in the front seven. And it appears that the skill of being able to either pick off or bat down passes is far more difficult to replace than other skills.”
Even if the measurements aren’t perfect, the assessment is reason to hesitate on plunking the Seminoles down into your playoff bracket.
We know that Francois has not posted a yard of offense at the collegiate level. The receiving corps has similar upside and big play ability, but has lacked efficiency targets. Last year, Florida State’s Z receivers averaged only 6.5 yard per target, leaving the Seminoles without a possession guy. That could be even more problematic this season with a quarterback with no experience.
And perhaps too little has been made of Florida State’s rebuilding defensive backfield, which was by far the hardest hit by 2015 departures. Gone are super stud cornerback Jalen Ramsey and free safety Lamarcus Brutus, as well as Javien Elliott, Tyler Hunter, and Keelin Smith. Add the fact that top returner, All-American candidate Derwin James is currently sidelined with a broken foot, and suddenly questions abound despite undeniable talent.
Overall, Connelly’s returning production metric are far more reserved on Florida State than those experts using traditional statistics, like returning starters and returning letterman. Connelly ranks Florida State just 91st in the FBS in returning production, with 77 percent back on offense and 49 percent on defense. While the Seminoles may have superior talent to step into these holes left by departing contributors, Connelly estimates the lack of returning productivity is worth -0.2 wins, suggesting that improvement from this 2016 Seminoles team is not a certainty.
Florida State will not be able to afford slipups early. The Seminoles open the season in Orlando against Ole Miss, a consensus top-10 team among the metrics systems’ composite rankings.
Two weeks later, the Seminoles will have to go into Louisville and beat a Cardinals team that is a trendy pick to contend in the ACC. Louisville should test the young Florida State secondary with its dynamic passing attack, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson and wide receiver Jamari Staples, a combination that emerged late last season. Louisville will be anything but an easy out.
Even if Florida State emerges unscathed in September, they will face a road test at Miami before hosting Clemson on October 29, a game where S&P+ slightly favors the Tigers. And the Seminoles close the season against a rising Florida team that won the SEC East just a year ago.
|Date||Opponent||S&P+ Win Probability||FPI Win Probability|
|Sept. 5||Ole Miss||52%||71%|
|Sept. 17||at Louisville||54%||72%|
|Oct. 8||at Miami||64%||82%|
Don’t believe talking heads who will spend the next few weeks saying that Florida State’s 2016 hopes essentially rely on the outcome of their game against Clemson. The metrics say otherwise, with FPI ranking Florida State’s strength of schedule as the third-toughest in the nation.
That means Jimbo Fisher’s squad can take nothing for granted. This is especially true when you consider the youth in the passing game and on the back end of the defense. Florida State simply won’t have the time to learn and grow on the fly. Cook and company, sans Maguire, had better be great from Week 1 going forward if Florida State is to live up to the Geeks’ and the Gurus’ lofty predictions.