10 predictions for Florida State football's 2021 season
After months of anticipation, Florida State football season is upon us.
Some teams started last week while a few others get a start earlier this week, but FSU has to wait until Sunday for its season-opening game against No. 7 Notre Dame at 7:30 p.m. at Doak Campbell Stadium.
For FSU head coach Mike Norvell, it's his second season atop the program and an important once where his team must show progress. Perhaps knowing this, Norvell and his staff hit the transfer portal hard to bolster the FSU roster with experience.
How will the Seminoles handle a brutally hard 2021 schedule which includes three preseason top-10 teams and five in the top 16? FSU beat writers Curt Weiler and Andre Fernandez are offering up their predictions about the Seminoles and their record for the upcoming season.
Curt Weiler's season predictions
1. FSU will average its most yards per carry since 2013
Even when FSU didn't have much consistent success last season, it succeeded pretty regularly on the ground.
The Seminoles' 5.11 yards per carry last year were the most by an FSU team since 2015. FSU loses La'Damian Webb off last year's team, but it brings back a healthier Jashaun Corbin, a more experienced Lawrance Toafili and one of the offseason surprises in walk-on turned scholarship contributor Treshaun Ward.
FSU doesn't have one running back it should rely on extremely heavily but that is a solid core who are all capable of carrying the load any given week. Add in FSU's leading rusher last season, Jordan Travis, who should have some kind of role this season even if he doesn't emerge as the starting quarterback and that only becomes more clear.
With the questions about FSU's wide receivers, the run game should again be the Seminoles' bread and butter this season. I expect it to be FSU's best rushing season since the team averaged 5.63 yards per carry the last time it won a national title in 2013.
2. Malik McClain will surpass 300 receiving yards
I realize this doesn't sound like an especially bold prediction.
However, FSU hasn't had a true freshman wide receiver reach even 200 yards since Travis Rudolph had 555 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman back in 2014.
Keyshawn Helton came the closest when he had 176 yards back in 2018, but it's been the better part of a decade since a true freshman wide receiver made a significant impact for the Seminoles.
FSU, FAMU football working side by side:Mike Norvell and Willie Simmons: Two coaches, one shared mission for Florida State and FAMU
Inside the FSU athletic department:'We got the right guy': FSU's Coburn anticipates football improvement with Coach Norvell
McClain checks all the boxes for a true freshman capable of making an instant impact. He was an early enrollee in January, giving him plenty of time to learn the offense. He's also one of the more physically impressive FSU wide receivers and has had quite a few really strong practices this preseason.
The uncertainty of FSU's wide receiver room opens the door for just about anyone to step up. I believe McClain is one of a few players that rises to the occasion.
3. FSU's defense will finish in the top 50 of SP+
It won't yet be especially close to the wildly impressive FSU defenses of old, but I think the Seminoles take a notable step forward in this area this year.
I think last year's bizarre, largely virtual offseason hurt the FSU defense more than any other segment of the team. The Seminoles finished 85th in last year's defensive SP+ rankings by ESPN's Bill Connelly and are projected to finish 69th entering this season.
Despite the tough schedule, I think I've seen enough from the defense this preseason, especially on the line and in the secondary, to believe a drastic improvement will come this season.
4. FSU will beat one of the big five on its 2021 schedule
In an important season for Norvell, FSU was done no favors with a schedule that includes Notre Dame and North Carolina in addition to familiar annual foes Miami, Clemson and Florida.
FSU should be somewhat significant underdogs in each of these games. However, the Seminoles showed last season that they're capable of beating a team they have no business beating on paper in a stunning upset of No. 6 North Carolina.
I believe they'll do that again this season to one of these five. Clemson is by far the least likely option. The most likely? Torn between a new-look Notre Dame team in a season opener, a North Carolina team led by a coach that has never beaten FSU and a Miami team looking for a fourth straight win in the rivalry.
5. FSU makes a bowl (barely)
These last two predictions are quite connected.
If FSU doesn't beat one of the five teams listed above, it would have to win all but one of its remaining games. While none of these are quite in that echelon, a number of them are viewed as toss-up games that could see FSU as minor underdogs including home games against Louisville and NC State and a road trip to Boston College.
With such a brutal five-game stretch to close out the schedule, a fast start for FSU seems critical. In order to go bowling once more, a 4-1 or better start may not be a necessity but feels extremely important.
If FSU 's 3-2 or worse after that opening stretch, it will need to improve dramatically over the course of the season in order to get back to six wins.
I have FSU narrowly getting the job done and reaching the six-win mark to reach the postseason for the first time under Norvell.
Andre Fernandez’s five predictions for FSU’s 2021 season
1. Mike Norvell will get another signature win in year 2 at the helm
Here I go getting everyone excited right out of the gate before I cool down expectations later.
FSU’s schedule is brutal this season with five opponents ranked No. 16 or better to open the season including No. 7 Notre Dame in Sunday’s opener.
But no one outside of the most hopeful Seminoles fans could have seen them knocking off a top-5 North Carolina team last season.
So, who does this eye-opening win come against this season?
The best chance would appear to be against the Fighting Irish, which would really send Tallahassee into a frenzy. It’s week 1. Notre Dame has a new quarterback in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who is not Ian Book. They have a rebuilt offensive line and a new defensive coordinator in Marcus Freeman, who is one of the best in the business. But this will be Notre Dame’s first game implementing his new system.
Do they beat North Carolina again? The Tar Heels will be at home and haven’t held back their feelings about getting revenge.
Is it Miami at home, in November, with perhaps a primetime 8 p.m. kickoff? The Canes have won only twice at Doak since 1984 when the Noles kick off one of those meetings at night.
Or the Gators in Gainesville if their season has not gone according to plan with new quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson?
No, I’m not even going there with Clemson.
While FSU figures to be a big underdog in all five games, I just have a feeling that things will click in the Seminoles’ favor in one of those.
2. FSU’s pass rush will have a pulse again and record somewhere around 30 sacks
FSU brought in too much help for their defensive front through the transfer portal to be as anemic rushing the quarterback as they were in coach Mike Norvell’s first season.
Ends Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas bring big game experience from playing multiple seasons in the SEC and should create chaos along with an interior that has shown signs of improvement throughout fall camp.
If there’s a sleeper candidate to lead this group in that category it’s defensive tackle Dennis Briggs Jr. While a lot of attention from opposing offenses will go toward the edges, Briggs should emerge as a force in run stop and pass rush situations. I think Briggs Jr. ends up with about six of those sacks and ends up leading the group.
3. Defensive back Kevin Knowles will be a regular starter as early as the fourth game if not sooner
Multiple true freshmen should make an impact this season for FSU, but defensive coordinator Adam Fuller made it clear one will play against Notre Dame. And it didn’t sound like he meant just a handful of plays either.
Knowles has been one of the breakout stars of camp with his consistency and advanced skill for his age, which could bring a dependable option in a Seminoles’ secondary looking for standouts after the departures of Asante Samuel Jr. and Hamsah Nasirildeen to the NFL.
FSU quarterback battle:Resolution of Florida State football's quarterback battle won't be announced until gameday
FSU's Bobby Bowden tribute:Helmet, banners and more: Florida State to pay tribute to legend Bobby Bowden all season
Knowles makes a couple big plays against Notre Dame and follows that up with a solid performance against Jacksonville State, and at Wake in what’s likely the most pivotal game of the season to give his coaches something to think about.
4. Keyshawn Helton leads FSU in receiving with more than 60 catches and over 700 yards, but true freshman Malik McClain emerges as team’s best deep threat by season’s end
FSU’s receivers will be the surprise unit of the team this season in terms of how much better they will be collectively. While there won’t be any ridiculous statistical years here, I think Helton being 100 percent physically will allow him to utilize his speed and reliable hands to keep the offense moving and rack up catches and yards. The Seminoles are still looking for more vertical threats. McClain will be the first among their new influx of 2021 talent to prove himself in that regard once he gets more experience.
5. The final record won’t reflect the progress Florida State makes in 2021
This is a team still heavily reliant on first or second-year freshmen and transfers who despite their overall college experience are still playing their first games in the Seminoles’ offensive and defensive schemes.
From spending the better part of August watching this team up close in practice, I see signs that a solid foundation is being built for sustained success by Norvell and his staff. Couple that with a potential top 10 recruiting class in 2022 and the future looks bright.
But the present-day Seminoles are a borderline bowl team, which goes 6-6 if several things break right. With this schedule, 5-7 is more likely.
Reach Curt Weiler at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @CurtMWeiler.
No one covers the ‘Noles like the Tallahassee Democrat. Subscribe using the link at the top of the page and never miss a moment.