Saturday Road Crystal Ball: Predicting every Florida State football game for 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Road’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with FSU. We’ll stay with the ACC Atlantic all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every ACC Coastal team.
The one positive aspect of hitting rock bottom is that once you arrive, there’s no place left to go but up.
For Florida State, rock bottom came last Sept. 12. Or at least, coach Mike Norvell hopes it was rock bottom.
That afternoon, Norvell’s Seminoles were beaten by FCS opponent Jacksonville State on a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired in a game they were favored by 28 points.
Even worse than the outcome is the fact that they weren’t in a prevent defense on the final, decisive play.
The only bigger upset in college football in 2021 was that FSU didn’t go Willie Taggart on its coach and ask him to clean out his office and leave town immediately afterward.
Norvell somehow survived that embarrassment and the two more losses that followed in the program’s first 0-4 start since 1974, 2 years before the arrival of coaching legend Bobby Bowden. To their credit, Norvell and his players were able to bounce back and salvage their season by winning 5 of their final 8 games.
“To see this team come together and to play as one, those are the things that we’ve seen in laying that foundation this last year,” Norvell said. “To be able to see the growth, to see the confidence that our players have, I’m going to put no limits to what these guys can accomplish. We have a great expectation as a program.”
As much as the Seminoles succeeded in turning chicken droppings into chicken salad last year, 5-7 records simply aren’t good enough for a program less than a decade removed from a national championship. Especially when they come on the heels of another losing campaign, albeit an abbreviated one in 2020 because of COVID.
So the pressure is on to carry the momentum into the new season and take the next step toward returning FSU to prominence.
Despite the loss of both productive edge rushers, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jermaine Johnson, the Seminoles should be as stout as ever on defense thanks to a secondary that picked off 14 passes a year ago – including 4 by league-leading safety Jammie Robinson.
And while they finally seem to be settled at quarterback with Jordan Travis, there are still questions to be answered in the running game, the receiving corps and on an offensive line in which Novell and his staff are hoping to find some quality to go along with the quantity they’ve brought in.
The expectations are there. Now it’s time for the results.
The Seminoles were a quarterback controversy looking for a place to happen before the season ever started last year. The first inkling of trouble came at the ACC’s preseason kickoff event when Norvell brought 2 quarterbacks to meet with the media.
Uncertainty between Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton undoubtedly played a role in the team’s dismal start. It wasn’t until Novell finally settled on Travis as his starter in Game 5 against Syracuse that FSU finally began to take off.
With Travis throwing for 12 of his 15 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, the Seminoles turned their season around by winning 5 of their final 7 games. He finished the year completing 63% of his passes (122 of 194) for 1,539 yards. He also ran for 530 yards while tying for the team lead with 17 rushing scores.
The team averaged 16 more points per game in Travis’ 8 starts than it did in Milton’s 4.
Now fully entrenched as FSU’s QB1, Travis was the only quarterback Norvell brought with him to Charlotte for the kickoff event this year.
“As you watch quarterback growth, it’s the driver of any offense,” Norvell said. “I’ll tell you that with Jordan being here, seeing his growth and the ownership of this position and just the confidence that started to show up within all of the experiences that he had on the field, I’m so excited about that room and the future that Jordan has because that definitely pushes everything within our offense forward at an accelerated rate.”
The next Jermaine Johnson?
FSU struck transfer portal gold last season in Jermaine Johnson, who arrived from Georgia for his final year of eligibility and won the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year Award after recording 12 sacks and a league-leading 18 tackles for loss.
Now that Johnson has moved on as a first-round NFL draft pick by the New York Jets, the task of replacing him at defensive end will fall on another transfer. But instead of being a recognized name from a high-profile program, it’s a redshirt sophomore who played his first 2 college seasons at the FCS level for the Albany Great Danes.
Jared Verse first came to the attention of Norvell and his staff when they saw him on tape while scouting for their game against Syracuse last season. Albany got beat 62-24 by the Orange that day, but the youngster’s quickness and nose for the ball stood out.
Despite his relative lack of experience, his raw talent made him one of the hottest commodities on the transfer market this offseason. He chose the Seminoles over the likes of Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma and ACC rival Miami in part because of their success with previous pass-rushing transfers Johnson and Keir Thomas from South Carolina.
Is it too much to ask for Verse to step right in and dominate after only 2 seasons at the FCS level? Absolutely not, said fellow edge rusher Fabien Lovett.
“I feel like all competition is the same across the board,” he said. “Wherever you come from, if you’re a dog, you’re a dog. Jared Verse is a dog.”
Verse recorded 53 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and a forced fumble to earn FCS Freshman All-American honors in 2021.
“That’s the kind of guy we need,” Lovett said. “He has the speed, he has the power. I feel like he is going to be a great help this year.”
Deep in the trenches
FSU fans won’t have to ask “Where’s the Beef” this season. They’ll find plenty of it to go around on the offensive line.
It’s a position group that has been a source of frustration in recent years because of a lack of depth. But that shouldn’t be a problem this season, even after transfer center Kayden Lyles was lost with a preseason injury last week.
In addition to 4 returning starters – tackles Robert Scott and Darius Washington, guard Dillan Gibbons and center Marcus Smith – Norvell and offensive coordinator Alex Atkins bolstered the ranks by bringing in 4 transfers and 6 new freshman recruits. There are now 19 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster.
Adding to the depth is an emphasis by Atkins on cross-training that will prepare each of the linemen to play multiple positions. That’s an exciting prospect for the man who stands to benefit most from the upgrade in depth and talent.
“We have a lot of competition now,” quarterback Travis said. “We have competition at every single position. We have guys that push each other. So yeah, that means a lot. I’m very comfortable with all those guys. We work very hard. We’re just going to keep growing and get better every day.”
Week 0: vs. Duquesne (W)
Could the Dukes be this year’s Jacksonville State? Not a chance. The Seminoles learned their lesson last year and aren’t about to let history repeat itself, especially against an opponent that lost by 18 points to Sacred Heart last year.
Week 1: vs. LSU at New Orleans (L)
It could be an advantage that the Seminoles will have already played a game heading into what is being billed as the “Allstate Louisiana Kickoff.” But that advantage is dwarfed by the energy the Tigers figure to bring in their first game under new coach Brian Kelly, In the Big Easy, no less. Kelly didn’t come to the bayou to rebuild. He came to win and he’ll want to make a statement – presumably in a fake Southern accent – right from the jump.
Week 2: Open
Week 3: at Louisville (W)
The week off to prepare for their ACC opener should help FSU prepare a solid game plan to contain Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham, something they weren’t able to do last year in Tallahassee. Toss-up games such as this are pivotal for programs looking to turn things around after recent downturns and both of these teams are in that boat. Louisville has won the past 2 meetings. This time it’s the Seminoles’ turn.
Week 4: vs. Boston College (W)
Yet another one that could go either way. Say what you want about the more difficult matchups to come against Atlantic Division front-runners Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest. These are the games that can make or break a season. Or a coach’s career. Norvell’s footing gets just a little more solid after beating the Eagles in Tallahassee.
Week 5: vs. Wake Forest (L)
Speaking of those Atlantic Division front-runners, here they come. First up, the Deacons. After 7 straight FSU wins, Wake has shifted the dynamic of this series by winning the past 2 meetings. The Deacons are still the better, more experienced team, but only if star quarterback Sam Hartman has recovered from the medical condition that has him sidelined and is back in action.
Week 6: at NC State (L)
The Wolfpack have always given the Seminoles trouble in Raleigh, even when FSU was among the ACC’s best. NC State has won 4 of its past 6 home meetings and is 4-1 in the past 5 games overall. This figures to be a particularly motivated pack of wolves coming off a close loss at Clemson the previous week.
Week 7: vs. Clemson (L)
The Seminoles actually put a scare into the Tigers last season, leading 20-17 with under 8 minutes to go, but couldn’t hold on for the victory. That was a much different Clemson team than this one, however. With a healthy, competent offense to go along with its NFL-caliber defense, Dabo Swinney’s team is ready to flex its muscles again and contend for a national title.
Week 8: Open
Week 9: vs. Georgia Tech (W)
An open date, followed by the lowly Yellow Jackets are a welcome breather for the Seminoles after the 3-game gauntlet they just had to face. Tech ranked 12th in the ACC in scoring offense and 13th in scoring defense last season. This one has rout written all over it.
Week 10: at Miami (L)
The Seminoles came from 8 points down in the final 5 minutes to knock off the Hurricanes for by far their most satisfying victory a year ago. A repeat performance would be even more uplifting since Miami has designs on a Coastal Division title in its first season under new coach Mario Cristobal. It will be close. And it could come down to a late field goal. This time it won’t be wide right.
Week 11: at Syracuse (W)
If that 3-game stretch against Wake, NC State and Clemson was the meat of FSU’s schedule, the next 2 games are the weak underbelly. The Orange will be going through the motions by this time and the Seminoles could very well be playing for Norvell’s job. Chalk one up for the team with more motivation.
Week 12: vs. Louisiana (W)
This is a classic trap game if ever there was one. The Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t a pushover. They’ve won 4 straight Sun Belt West Division titles and return a solid core of veteran talent. But successful coach Billy Napier is gone, having left for Florida. So is quarterback Levi Lewis and all but one starter on the offensive line. If the Seminoles aren’t looking ahead to their rivalry week finale against Florida, they’ll be fine.
Week 13: vs. Florida (W)
Napier didn’t make a great first impression by preaching patience at his introductory press conference last winter, suggesting that it might take time to clean up the mess left by his predecessor Dan Mullen. Between that rebuild and the wear-and-tear of having gone through a difficult SEC schedule, the Gators should be ripe for the picking. FSU has lost 3 straight to its SEC rival but came agonizingly close to knocking them off a year ago. A win now wouldn’t just clinch a winning season, it would also finally take the heat off Novell and firmly establish him as the Seminoles’ leader moving forward.
2022 projection: 7-5 (4-4), T-4th in ACC Atlantic
The climb up from rock bottom is a long one and it doesn’t happen overnight. So while the improvement the Seminoles made following their disastrous 0-4 start last year was encouraging, it was merely a baby step on the road back to relevance.
The next step is equally small by FSU standards. But it’s just as important.
Like learning to walk before you run.
Before the Seminoles can start thinking about challenging for conference championships and a spot in the national Playoff conversation, they must first figure out how to finish a season with a winning record and bowl eligibility – something they haven’t done since Jimbo Fisher’s final season in 2017.
Fisher’s departure to Texas A&M and the dysfunction he left behind were major contributing factors to the Seminoles’ sudden and dramatic recent decline. The attrition that took place during and after Taggart’s less-than-2 season tenure as Fisher’s replacement didn’t help either.
It’s taken two full recruiting cycles for Norvell and his staff to recover and begin the task of replenishing the program’s talent pool, But thanks to some hustle and creative use of the transfer portal, they appear to have gotten the ship steered back in the right direction.
While the journey back to relevance might not be happening fast enough for some, it’s still better than the alternative.