By David Healy and Daniel Russell
Last year the Florida State Seminoles started over. When Jimbo Fisher took the reins from the honorable Bobby Bowden, he introduced a new coaching staff, diet, and training mentality that revolutionized the Noles football team. The effort paid off when they went 10-4, with three of those losses decided by missed field goals. After taking the ACC's Atlantic Division, the team lost to Virginia Tech for the ACC title but toppled Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks (No. 19 South Carolina) in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl 26-17.
Ranked No. 6 by the Associated Press and No. 5 by ESPN and the Coaches Poll, the championship rumors are already circulating. Many are considering FSU the new powerhouse in the Sunshine State and few teams stand in their way. Where Urban Meyer had the luxury of entering a program stocked with great recruiting, Fisher has done that recruiting himself as the Assistant head coach. Lying in wait took patience, but the era of Jimbo Fisher has begun. Dadgum, Fisher is no "Ron Zook."
The Seminoles offensive line is made up of seasoned and dependable veterans. Boasting a combined 109 career starts, one of the highest rates in the country, the offensive line returns four of five starters and add junior center Jacob Fahrenkrug, a junior college transfer who was rated the fourth-best junior college prospect overall in the recruiting class of 2011 by Rivals. Fahrenkrug will join a group of three seniors and a sophomore in guard Bryan Stork, who played well after being forced into the starting lineup last season due to injury.
The Noles will be fielding an offense that scored an average of 31.4 points and never scored less than two touchdowns in a game last season. Last season saw a great mix of new starting Quarterback E.J. Manuel as he subbed for the oft-injured Christian Ponder (No. 12 overall in the NFL draft) and played on the same level (69.9% completion percentage - 10% higher than Ponder - including 9.26 yards per attempt) . Back then, Manuel was an inch shorter than Heisman winner Cam Newton and a mere 10 lbs. lighter; this off season he put on 30 lbs. of what seems to be pure muscle.
If there is a question mark at Florida State, it's the receiving core. Last season saw only one player with at least 8.0 yards per attempt, Willie Haulstead (587 yards, 15.4 per reception, 63% catch rate). Returning targets Bert Reed (614 yards, 10.6 per reception, 62% catch rate) and TE Beau Reliford (198 yards, 11.6 per reception, 71% catch rate) will continue to pose somewhat of a threat while the Noles can pray Rodney Smith can hang on to the ball (448 yards, 14.5 per reception, 54% catch rate).
The running game, on the other hand, is quite under rated. Front runners Chris Thompson (845 yards, 6.3 per carry, 6 TD) and Ty Jones (527 yards, 6.1 per carry, 5 TD) will continue to be devastating, and all of FSU's top seven rushers (not including quarterbacks) return this season. FSU rushed for 2,400 yards in 2010 (29th nationally and third in the ACC) and will add five-star freshman James Wilder, Jr. (Bill Connelly for stats)
Last season Jimbo Fisher added two much needed attributes to the defense: strategy and size.
Fisher, along with Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops, introduced a level of strategy to the defensive line that created immediate results. Most notable was the size of the D-Line. The Noles answered an abysmal defensive showing in 2009 by adding a whopping 40 pounds to the defensive line (Taking full advantage of the Size), projected only to increase this season. The Noles defense retained nine starters from a unit that gave up less than 20 points per game last season.
Retention includes three of four returning safeties -- Nick Moody (61.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU), Terrance Parks (36.5 tackles, 2 FR, 6 PBU), Lamarcus Joyner (20.5 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU as a freshman). Also returning are all top three cornerbacks -- Greg Reid (59.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 14 PBU), Xavier Rhodes (53.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 12 PBU, voted 2010 ACC defesive rookie of the year as a red shirt freshman) and Mike Harris (37.0 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PBU).
The free safety position, a role that troubled the FSU defense last year, will be filled by Sophomore Lamarcus Joyner, a cornerback last season, and either veterans Terrance Parks or Nick Moody. The only significant departures from the defense were linebacker Kendall Smith and Mister Alexander. However, the Noles have a crop of rising sophomores who can shore up the holes left by Smith and Alexander. Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Jeff Luc combined for 35.0 tackles and 5.5 TFL/sacks as true freshmen last year.
The two defensive players to watch will be Junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins and Lamarcus Joyner. Jenkins’s performance is only expected to improve this season from his 63 total tackles of 2010, including 21.5 for loss (3rd in ACC) and 13.5 sacks (2nd in ACC). One of FSU's hometown stars (Florida High School), he is expected to be one of FSU's defensive leaders and captains. Joyner’s move from cornerback to safety fills a gap in the defense, and his overall athleticism makes him this year's dark horse. His talent is explosive and the move is hailed by many as FSU's game changer.
The kicking game saw no overturn this season, with long-man Dustin Hopkins still taking kickoffs and field goals (22-for-28 in 2010) and senior punter Shawn Powell doing his thang (44.3 yards per punt, 16 inside the opponent's 20 last season). Hopkins hit a career long 55-yard field goal for the walk off against Clemson last season, and bested himself with a 60-yd kick in the spring game. Of his 86 kickoffs, 41 were touchbacks (48%).
Number 5, junior Greg Reid, will continue to return punts for a third consecutive season. He lead college football in punt returns last season, averaging 18.4 yards, and lead the team in all purpose yards. Last season he set Florida State records with 742 kickoff return yards in a single season and 193 kickoff return yards in a single game (against UNC). Lamarcus Joyner may join him in the endzone. As a freshman, Joyner had 16 returns averaging 20.6 yards.
Florida State had the number one recruiting class this off season (ESPN, Rivals) and may very well continue that trend at the helm of Jimbo. His offensive strategy is a bit bland, the Seminoles run and pass when it seems they should, but if it ain't broke...
FSU was fortunate to retain all of their staff from last season and the team's Def. F/+ ranking (an aggregate stat from Football Outsiders) leapt from 107th in 2009 to 41st in 2010, despite starting from scratch with new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (younger brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops). Part of that could be size, but so much more is great coaching.
The team will be tested twice this season, in week 3 hosting No. 1 consensus Oklahoma and week 4 at No. 20 Clemson. The Noles have not won in Clemson, NC in 10 years, and Oklahoma was a severe beating for "The Unconquered." From there on, we're lucky it's just the ACC.
at Wake Forest
at Boston College
All Times Eastern
Other notable games are the always-entertaining match ups of Florida and Miami. Leaving the Swamp with a win is never "easy" but this season will likely not be a challenge. All of Miami's suspensions will be complete before the Hurricane visits Doak Campbell Stadium, so who knows at what level they will play. At most, nasty weather could await Florida State in Boston on a Thursday night, but that risk is a bit unpredictable.
This team is undoubtedly the best fielded by Florida State since the 2001 Orange Bowl team, where Florida State lost the National Championship to Oklahoma 13-2.
Florida State will win the ACC title, but suffer one loss in the regular season. They will be limited to the Orange Bowl on their championship run and will win the game in a defensive showdown.