The Deondre Francois era has officially begun in Tallahassee, with head coach Jimbo Fisher naming the redshirt freshman quarterback Florida State’s starter last week. Francois had been battling redshirt senior Sean Maguire in spring and summer camp, but even Fisher admitted that the decision had been made internally a long time ago. Francois is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who earned Offensive Scout Team MVP honors in 2015. Fisher really likes Francois’ accurate arm and says the guys around him have totally bought in, thanks to the poise and confidence Francois has displayed throughout the offseason.
Projecting poise and confidence comes a little easier when the entire offense (minus quarterback Everett Golson, of course) returns, and is led by an All-American running back. Junior Dalvin Cook had a monster sophomore season, setting Florida State school records for single-season rushing (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935). He surpassed Warrick Dunn’s 20-year-old school rushing record in just his ninth game of the season and led the ACC in six offensive categories including rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry. Dynamic as they come, Cook has a chance to go down as the best running back in Florida State history.
On the outside, junior receiver Travis Rudolph returns after leading the Seminoles in catches, yards and touchdowns in 2015. Rudolph is far from the Seminoles only weapon at receiver. Seniors Kermit Whitfield and Jesus Wilson caught 57 and 58 passes last year, combining for more than 1,400 yards and 9 touchdowns. With a bevy of experienced playmakers and an Ole Miss defense that returns just five starters, Francois should be able to acclimate himself to the real game action with minimal hiccups.
Defensively, senior end DeMarcus Walker leads a Florida State unit that is as stingy and hard-hitting as they come. The Seminoles gave up an average of just 15.8 points per game in the 2015 regular season and ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense, total defense and defensive passing efficiency. That was thanks in large part to a loaded secondary that has since said goodbye to consensus All-American defensive back Jalen Ramsey. However, standout sophomore Derwin James looks poised to lead another deep and talented secondary unit. Walker said he believes this could be the best defense in Florida State history, a testament to “the guys we have, how hard we’ve been working and the attitude we bring.”
Fisher says facing preseason first-team all-SEC quarterback Chad Kelly will be a great early test for the Seminole defense.
“He does a great job with his arm and his feet. And the receivers are big, they're strong. They come back to the football very well,” Fisher said. “They ain't scared to throw it. He can run it. I mean, he ran for about 500 yards, if I'm not mistaken. You're talking about a guy who is one heck of a football player.”
Kelly and the Rebels lost their leading rusher in Jaylen Walton and their top two receivers in Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, but Ole Miss’ recent recruiting success has set it up to fill those holes with top-tier talent. Running backs Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins will take over the majority of rushing responsibilities and have both shown they are more than capable runners. Receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow combined for 1,107 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. They, along with preseason second-team all-SEC tight end Evan Engram, will be Kelly’s top targets.
The biggest question mark for the Rebels is an offensive line that lost a combined 156 career starts from last year’s team. Kelly certainly has the capability to carve up opposing defenses, but finding enough time to set his feet in the pocket will be key.
Overall, this game should prove to be a great barometer for both teams. How will an Ole Miss team that returns fewer starters than any team in the SEC stack up against elite competition? How will Francois perform against an SEC defense in his first college game? Fisher expects to learn a lot about his team in Week 1 and hopes his guys take the next step to playing championship caliber football. The Seminoles have a playoff or bust mentality, and this game will undoubtedly have a big impact on their chances with the selection committee come December.