Stacked Seminoles ready for epic opener

Aug 14, 2017 - 7:18 PM TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It doesn't get better than Florida State vs. Alabama to start the season.

The Crimson Tide opened at No. 1 in the coaches' poll, with the Seminoles at No. 3. By the rankings, that would be the biggest season opener in college football history.

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher doesn't much care for the historical relevance.

"Hype goes away. Fundamentals win," Fisher said during Florida State's Media Day in early August. "We have respect for them, but they have to play us too."

The last time two teams this highly ranked in the preseason faced off in an opener was 1986 when No. 1 Oklahoma played No. 4 UCLA.

"I think (this game) is one of those things ... you can test yourself. And (Alabama is) going to test themselves with us. You find out where you're team is at," Fisher said.

He is entering his eighth season as the Seminoles' head coach after spending seven years at LSU working under then-head coach Nick Saban, now the head coach at Alabama.

This matchup will be the first between the two titans of college football coaching.

"Who knew we were going to be two of the top two teams or three teams -- or whatever the heck it is," Fisher said.

"We didn't know that at the time (we made the matchup). But we knew they'd have a great program, and I think they think the same thing here. And if you can play those games early at certain times, I think it's good."

There is once again a lot of good for the Seminoles, who are coming off a 10-3 season and a thrilling Orange Bowl win against Michigan. They return 15 starters -- nine on defense and six on offense, including sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois, who was selected ACC Rookie of the Year after he passed for 3,320 yards, threw 20 touchdowns and rushed for five more in 2016.

The offense's biggest question marks come on the offensive line -- which allowed 36 sacks last year -- and also at running back.

Florida State career leading rusher Dalvin Cook left for the NFL after his junior year and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round, leaving big shoes that will likely be filled by junior running back Jacques Patrick and freshman phenom Cam Akers, the U.S. Army High School Player of the Year who was the Seminoles' top five-star prospect of their 2017 signing class.

Florida State's defense, meanwhile, appears to be in great shape heading into Atlanta.

Star defensive back Derwin James was injured in Week 2 last year with a lateral meniscus tear in his knee, but after a medical redshirt, he's expected to wreak havoc on opposing offenses all season. He was chosen as the top-rated player in college football by ESPN.

"It put a bigger target on my back," James said of the No. 1 billing. "But I don't just want to be No. 1 in preseason, I want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, too."

The Seminoles get to host typically tough games against Miami, Louisville and N.C. State in the early part of the season and don't face a tough road test until the final month: Nov. 11 at defending national champ Clemson and Nov. 25 at Florida.

At least one Florida State player likes what he sees when he looks at the Seminoles' 2017 roadmap to a national title.

"If we don't get a national championship, we will feel like we failed," junior cornerback Tavarus McFadden said. "I feel like the only people who are going to stop us are ourselves."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DB Derwin James --- Florida State needs James more than any other player -- and it needs him for all 12 games. When James, a redshirt sophomore, went down in Week 2 last year, the Seminoles' defense was shell-shocked, giving up 135 points in its next three games -- two of them losses -- following their leader's season-ending exit. James used the down-time to rehab and learn every position on defense, so expect to also see him line up at linebacker and defensive end this year. He was the best freshman defensive player in the country two years ago, recording 91 tackles, including 9.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Keith Gavin -- Hard to call Gavin, a sophomore, a potential "breakout star" when he became a household name after the Seminoles' Orange Bowl win against Michigan last year. In the final two minutes, and with Florida State trailing 32-27, Gavin fielded the Wolverines' kickoff deep in the end zone and -- to the shock of many -- still ran it out. Rather than the decision ending in disaster, Gavin galloped 66 yards to set up the game-winning score. It was Gavin's breakout moment after seeing limited action as a freshman, appearing in just eight games and recording zero catches. But at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Gavin possesses a rare combination of size and burning speed, and Seminoles receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey compared him to both Terrell Owens and Dwayne Bowe during the Seminoles' Media Day. "I expect Keith to have an enormous season for us. He's ready," Dawsey said.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Cam Akers -- Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher anointed junior running back Jacques Patrick the starter on the opening day of practice, but Fisher will no doubt make sure Akers, a heralded five-star freshman, sees playing time. Akers, the U.S. Army High School Player of the Year last season, led Clinton (Miss.) High School to the state title his senior season as a dual-threat quarterback. The early enrollee finished his prep career with 8,140 yards passing and 78 touchdowns, while rushing for 5,103 yards and 71 scores.

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