Our college football Top 50 countdown is closing in on the top spot in our preseason ranking as the new season is approaching. Today, we get a chance to do some talkin’ about the ‘Noles as we profile Florida State.

Will Florida State return to the College Football Playoff in 2017?

That’s really the only question to ask right now. While the program may not yet be at the level it was under Bobby Bowden – where the team finished in the top four every year from 1987 to 2000 – the fact of the matter is that the Seminoles compete for the ACC title year in and year out. Since Jimbo Fisher took over the program in 2010, FSU has finished first or second in six of his seven seasons. The lone outlier was last year, when the ‘Noles came in third place. However, the season was far from a failure, as Florida State finished the season ranked eighth in both polls.

Despite losing some key players from last year – most notably, running back Dalvin Cook and defensive end DeMarcus Walker – there’s no reason to think that the Seminoles won’t be a top 10 team again this year. The defense welcomes back nine starters from a solid unit that finished 22nd in total defense last season. It will also get a huge boost with the return of Derwin James – arguably the top defensive player in the country – who missed most of the 2016 campaign due to injury. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Deondre Francois is back to lead a talented offense that averaged 466.2 yards per game last season.

No. 3 Florida State Seminoles

2016 Record: 10-3 overall, 5-3 in the ACC (beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl 33-32)

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (78-17 at Florida State and overall)

Last year in a nutshell

The 2016 campaign was full of ups and downs. Florida State started off the year strong, rallying back from a 28-10 deficit against Ole Miss in the season opener. However, this excitement didn’t last very long, as Louisville throttled the ‘Noles, 63-20, 12 days later. Two weeks after that, North Carolina snapped FSU’s 22-game home win streak on a last-second field goal. Although the Seminoles fought back to defeat archrival Miami, the team was eliminated from ACC contention after a home loss to Clemson. Yet rather than hang its head, Florida State finished the season strong, closing out the year with five straight wins, including impressive “Ws” against Florida and Michigan.

It’s worth noting that the ‘Noles D was absolutely awesome during those final five games. During that span, the team gave up an average of 209.5 yards per game and a mere 3.25 yards per play.

Considering that defense wins championships, Florida State has to like its chances heading into 2017.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 6th

Florida State signed the best recruiting class in the ACC, and the sixth-best class in the nation, according to 247sports.com. Although the class contained players from eight different states, most of them were from Florida (12) and Georgia (6). Overall, the Seminoles signed four five-star recruits and eight-four star recruits. Several players in this class could see significant action this fall, including running back Cam Akers and defensive back Hamsah Nasirildeen.

Three Key Stats

96.49%The percentage of the time that Florida State scored when it entered the red zone last season. When the ‘Noles got inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, they always came away with points. In 57 red zone trips, Florida State scored 55 times, with 44 of those trips resulting in touchdowns. FSU was especially tough in the second half of the season, scoring touchdowns on 22 of it 24 red zone opportunities over the final six games. If the Seminoles can repeat that success rate this season, they’ll be in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

36The number of sacks that Florida State allowed last year, which ranked 108th in the nation. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the ‘Noles struggled in pass protection last season. This was a huge problem against both Louisville and Clemson, which combined for 11 sacks and a number of knockdowns against FSU last year. To the Seminoles’ credit, the team did a much better job of pass blocking at the end of the season – allowing just two sacks in the final two games against Florida and Michigan. If Florida State is going to win the ACC championship, it needs for that trend to continue.

51The number of sacks that the Seminole D recorded last year. The Florida State pass rush was one of the best in the country in 2016, ranking second nationally in sacks. The ‘Noles defensive line was especially sharp over the last three games of the season, recording a total of 18 sacks during that span. As a result of this pressure, the FSU defense was one of the best in the country on third down, allowing its opponents to convert just 33.89% of the time. Although it’ll be tough to match last year’s production with the departure of DeMarcus Walker, the Seminole front seven needs to continue to get after opposing quarterbacks this season.

Make-or-Break Games for 2017

Oct. 21 versus Louisville

Record in the last five meetings: 3-2
Last year’s result: L, 63-20

Why it matters: In a word: revenge. The Cardinals whipped the Seminoles in every facet of the game last year. Not only did Louisville score 63 points, it also held FSU to season lows in yards and yards per play. Given the magnitude of that loss, there’s no doubt that every player in the ‘Nole locker room circled this date on the calendar as soon as the schedule came out. If Louisville should defeat Clemson on Sept. 15, this contest could ultimately decide who wins the ACC Atlantic.

Nov. 11 at Clemson

Record in the last five meetings: 3-2
Last year’s result: L, 37-34

Why it matters: This game matters because it usually decides who wins the ACC Championship. In fact, the winner of this contest has won the league title every year since 2010. Barring any major upsets, that will be the case again this season, as both teams should enter this game ranked in the top 10. That makes this contest a “must win” for Florida State.

Three Key Players

Derwin James, S – Make no mistake about it: James is the best defensive player in college football. There’s absolutely nothing that he can’t do. He excelled in run support for the ‘Noles in 2015, leading the team in solo tackles (51) and finishing second in tackles (91). Yet, he also did well in coverage, breaking up four passes. Of course, he can also rush the passer when needed, and has the strength to overpower opposing offensive linemen (see above). His versatility will allow Florida State to do a lot more defensively this season, which will cause all sorts of headaches for opposing offensive coordinators.

Deondre Francois, QB – Francois was one of the more pleasant surprises in college football last season. In his first career start, he threw for a school record 419 yards and rallied the team back from a 28-10 deficit against Ole Miss. He would continue to play well throughout the year, throwing for 3,350 yards with a solid 20/7 TD-to-INT ratio. In addition, Francois did a great job of stretching the field, ranking 18th nationally in yards per attempt and 15th in completions longer than 10 yards. He’ll be the leader of the Seminole offense this fall, and should push for all-conference honors.

Jacques Patrick, RB – There’s no pressure on Patrick, whatsoever. His task is a simple one: replace the school’s all-time leading rusher. All joking aside, no one expects Patrick to post the type of numbers that Cook did. However, Florida State will need to run the ball effectively this fall in order to keep opposing defenses honest. Patrick has made the most of his opportunities over the past two seasons, posting two 100-yard games in his career, highlighted by a 124-yard effort versus South Florida last year. The ‘Noles will need for him to continue this success – whether it’s as a feature back or sharing the load with Cam Akers – in order to win the ACC title this fall.

Bold Predictions

Florida State will beat Alabama in the season opener.

The Seminoles will return to the College Football Playoff after a two-year absence. For the third straight season, the ACC champion will play in the national championship game.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.