Players were swirling through the victorious locker room, some carrying oranges like edible trophies, all wearing smiles of varying widths. Tarvarus McFadden stopped in front of his stall to soak it in.
“Next year, we open up with (gosh darn) Alabama,” he said to a nearby teammate, slipping him five.
They broke the handshake, and McFadden corrected himself.
“Hold up,” he said. “Alabama opens up with us.”
Florida State (10-3) should be confident. After a 33-32 win over sixth-ranked Michigan in an instant-classic Orange Bowl, the 11th-ranked Seminoles will enjoy top-10 status this offseason. You can also mark them down as the preseason favorite to win the ACC.
Yes, it’s Dec. 31, but how to argue?
Clemson played a playoff game Saturday, which gave its fans one last look at this year’s team. Dabo Swinney will wave goodbye to a truckload of junior talent: record-setting quarterback Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, and loses all-conference seniors at tight end, linebacker, cornerback and center. Sure, he’s recruited as well as FSU, but that’s a heavyweight group to replace.
The other contenders don’t have the same type of players on stage or waiting in the wings. Louisville has the biggest star in the league, Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, for at least another year. There’s a host of graduation-induced questions around him. Coastal Division winner Virginia Tech should be good, but great? We’ll see. The potential quarterback departures at Miami and North Carolina make it tough to foretell the futures of those programs, at least until further notice.
FSU, meanwhile, is on the rise.
In all, 10 seniors on scholarship will depart. Just four are starters, and one of them is fullback Freddie Stevenson — a fine foot soldier, but hardly a game-changer. Defensive end Demarcus Walker is a major loss, but that could mean more playing time for talented backup Brian Burns. FSU will lose cornerback Marquez White, but here comes five-star recruit Stanford Samuels. Receiver Kermit Whitfield is gone, but FSU never lacks wideouts.
“The seniors and the guys that we’re losing, that’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the game goes,” redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois said. “But we have a lot of talent coming back.”
Florida State returns most everyone from a top-30 defense and regains its best player. Star safety Derwin James will be back next year after missing much of this season with a knee injury.
“Losing him hurt us, but it made us better because everyone under him got experience,” Burns said. “They had to step up. Now we don’t have to worry about anything, because our backups are great and D.J. is back.”
Burns, who had more sacks (9.5) than any true freshman and more than any FSU freshman since Ron Simmons in 1977, said “there’s so much information I’ve soaked out of Demarcus I can add to my game. … Me and (sophomore defensive end Josh) Sweat and the rest of our defense, we’re something serious. This defense is going to be amazing.”
The offense? Look at it this way: even if one of the best running backs in the nation turns pro, FSU’s backfield will be one of the ACC’s best.
Cam Akers, the top-rated back in the 2017 recruiting class, committed to FSU last week. He is billed as fast, physical and smart. Elite recruits from Mississippi almost never leave the state, but Akers couldn’t resist Jimbo Fisher’s call.
If Akers — or another blue-chip recruit, Khalan Laborn — isn’t ready to shine as early as Cook did, junior-to-be Jaqcues Patrick and sophomore Amir Rasul should handle the job just fine.
Akers will enroll next week with two other five-star prospects, cornerback Samuels and defensive end Joshua Kaindoh. Five more early enrollees will join them. All will have a leg up going into fall practices.
Francois, the ACC’s rookie of the year, sometimes throws wild, but when he’s on, he does a passable impression of Jameis Winston. If not quite as talented, he’s surely as tough. He was hammered by defenders all year, and got up again and again. The Florida State offensive line returns intact, so that should help keep him healthy.
The most important piece: Fisher, often rumored to be leaving, last month signed a contract extension through at least 2024, and worth at least $5.5 million per year. That’s the price tag for a coach who is 78-17, with a New Year’s Six bowl appearance in each of the past five seasons. FSU has no problem signing the checks, and Fisher clearly loves it in Tallahassee.
“The legacy these seniors left with the youth and talent on this team, boy, the future looks good,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to have a good football team for a while.”