Florida State’s ultimate goal for 2017 went up in smoke last week, when it watched NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb spit on its logo at midfield following a six-point Wolfpack victory. That defeat dropped the Seminoles to 0–2 and effectively ended their College Football Playoff candidacy.
A broader, grimmer reality set in for the Seminoles on Saturday: They’re in danger of having one of their worst seasons of the decade. Florida State escaped undefeated yet unranked Wake Forest with a 26–19 win in Winston-Salem, barely avoiding the program’s first 0–3 start since 1976. With No. 14 Miami coming to Tallahassee in a week, 0–4 was a startlingly plausible scenario up until star safety Derwin James batted down the Demon Deacons’ last shot at the end zone, a jump ball from quarterback John Wolford headed for wide receiver Scotty Washington.
The obvious culprit for the Seminoles’ rocky start is the loss of starting quarterback Deondre Francois, who suffered a knee injury late in FSU’s season-opening 24–7 loss to No. 1 Alabama. With Week 2’s game against Louisiana-Monroe canceled on account of Hurricane Irma, head coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has still played only two full games since the redshirt sophomore went down.
The cancellation left no time for true freshman James Blackman, a former three-star prospect out of Glades Central (Fla.) High, to get his feet wet against a Group of Five defense. Without meaningful reps to build confidence, he was thrown into the fire against one of the most imposing defensive lines in the nation. Chubb and his NC State teammates took advantage by racking up four sacks and three quarterback hurries in a 27–21 victory.
For the most part, Blackman didn’t fare better against Wake Forest, completing only 11 of his 21 pass attempts for 121 yards and taking five sacks. (Against the Wolfpack last week, Blackman threw for 278 yards and a touchdown on 22 of 38 passing.) Blackman’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate in the final minute of regulation was a big-time throw that hints at a higher ceiling, but it doesn’t negate his larger body of work on Saturday afternoon.
As debilitating as Francois’s injury is, it would be misguided to lay all or even most of the blame for Florida State’s 1–2 start at Blackman’s feet. The loss of one player, no matter his position, should not be enough to completely derail a team. Remember: The Seminoles’ biggest selling point as a playoff contender entering this season was not Francois, nor any other offensive playmaker on the other end of his throws and handoffs. It was the defense, which remains stacked with future pros up front and returns James in the secondary after he missed most of last season with a knee injury. The Seminoles ought to be able to manage Francois’s absence without plummeting out of the ACC Atlantic race. Saturday’s choppy performance indicates that may be a lost cause now, although the division could be back up for grabs if Clemson stumbles at Virginia Tech on Saturday night.
That defense might not have as much wiggle room until Blackman gets settled under center, but it nonetheless is capable of smothering most of Florida State’s conference opponents to the point that Blackman and the rest of the offense shouldn’t have to put up too many points to get a result. Eleven completions and negative rushing yards for Blackman sufficed to pull out a seven-point road win over a frisky foe.
Next week’s visit from the Hurricanes, which are coming off a convincing 31–6 win over Duke on Friday, will be a step up. It’s clear Blackman needs more than a week to round into the sure-handed distributor the Seminoles need to mount a conference title run. Florida State can make do without a future first-rounder piloting the offense, though. Blackman’s supporting cast should be able to push him over the finish line most weeks.