Jimbo Fisher is signed through the next decade. The entirety of his contract is guaranteed. There isn’t any pressure on Florida State’s coach to make it to the College Football Playoff this season.
The only thing that froze over in Tallahassee this winter was Fisher’s seat. Let’s get that out of the way first.
Yet pressure is not interchangeable with expectations. There are expectations for this Florida State team, and chief among them, as of March 14, is they should be among the final four in 2017.
The notion that any season that doesn’t end with a playoff berth is a disappointment is something no coach abhors more than Fisher, because few know better than him how a championship season often teeters on luck. Like in 2003, when BCS machinery helped LSU edge out USC for the No. 2 ranking. Or in 1993, when when undefeated Auburn missed out on a title run because of probation. Fisher was an assistant on both Tigers teams.
The playoff is the new measure for college football’s penthouse programs, as much as Fisher decries it. The measure shouldn’t be on a year-to-year basis. It should extend over a decade. And it’s fair to expect Florida State to be in the playoff a few times every decade.
This is one of those times. In 2017, the playoff is the principal touchstone of a successful season at Florida State.
Returning is the gutsy quarterback with the potential to be the conference’s best. Flanking Deondre Francois is five-star talent at running back and receiver. Few teams match what the Seminoles have physically on the offensive and defensive lines. The secondary could start two players that will go in the top half of the 2018 NFL draft’s first round. One is Derwin James, who is back after a six-month rehab for a knee tear. The No. 1 recruiting class from 2016 is maturing.
It’s been a better start to 2017 than 2016, too, and Fisher seems pleased with the first three spring practices. The schedule could be the country’s toughest, but future schedules won’t be much lighter.
Outside of the roster, the entire coaching staff returns. Among the 65 Power 5 programs, the Seminoles are one of only five schools to enter 2017 with its staff unchanged for a third straight season.
Just as important is what the Seminoles don’t have ahead -- a Clemson roadblock with a generational talent at quarterback. Much like the Seminoles’ 2015 rebuild helped clear the way for Clemson, now the Tigers’ overhaul opens the door for the Seminoles. Will Clemson successfully transition into the post-Deshaun Watson era? Or will the Tigers suffer the same issues as Auburn, Florida, Oregon and Texas A&M recently after losing their game-changer at quarterback, thus softening the Seminoles’ march through Death Valley and the ACC?
As the season plays out, there will be some wiggle room in the expectations for the Seminoles, because contrary to the prevailing belief at the advent of the College Football Playoff, the charted path of least resistance is not through the ACC. The most recent testimony, offered by the 2016 season, supports the opposite. The ACC has elevated itself from the Power 5 basement.
Since 2012, three ACC teams are among the top eight in FBS winning percentage. No other conference has more than one. The league went 9-3 in bowl season and a combined 16-6 against the SEC and Big Ten, perceived to be 2016’s best leagues entering December. Only the ACC had a winning record against other Power 5 opponents last season. Not every promising Seminoles season is going to end with a conference crown and playoff appearance.
“You got to realize there was a lot of years even in the 14-year run [from 1987-2000] when you’re six, seven, eight in the polls and played in the [bowl] game and ended in the top four. That’s a significant year. You win 10 games or more, and when you start throwing that away, you get in trouble,” Fisher said.
The discrepancy between ending the season in the top four and being there in early December is much different now. The championship participants have doubled since Bobby Bowden’s heyday. Fisher needs to have his team among the top programs every few seasons. This season, the expectation is he will.