No. 4: Florida State
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 31, 2011
Vintage. Vintage is watching Notre Dame not for the sense of schadenfreude you get from watching Syracuse win in South Bend but for the fact that the Irish are a title contender. Vintage is Nebraska-Oklahoma, and we’re all sad that rivalry is officially dead. Vintage is Steve Spurrier riling up the SEC; is Alabama intimidating all comers; is T.C.U. back as a national power after decades spent in the background; is Michigan not cowering in front of Ohio State; is West Virginia going the unorthodox route. Vintage is Florida State in the top five, where the Seminoles made a home for 14 straight years, from 1987-2000. Vintage is all that the Seminoles are in 2011: big, fast, strong, quick and mean — now that’s vintage, both for Florida State and college football at large.
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 8
at Wake Forest
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Calm down, take a deep breath and relax. This season will be marked by transitions, both along the sidelines and on the field, with this proud program searching for its voice under this new coaching staff — the first new staff since 1976, Bowden’s debut season. What should we expect? Remember: in the big picture, this is a very young team — especially on defense. A new day has dawned in Tallahassee, one that should have fans primed for a revival in the near future. I think strides will be taken in 2010, but F.S.U. is not quite ready to be viewed as one of the Top 25 teams — teams, not in terms of its talent — in the country. This team is close… but let’s give Fisher one year to remove the negatives — lack of effort, for starters — that plagued Bowden’s last teams. If the early reports are to be believed, he’s already pushed this team forward in that area.
In a nutshell A very important note about Florida State in 2010: the Seminoles finished 6-2 in A.C.C. play. Why is that vital? Because Bobby Bowden — the great Bobby Bowden — never finished better than 5-3 in conference action following the A.C.C.’s split into two divisions in 2005. If you know nothing else about F.S.U. in 2010, you know enough. There’s more to know, of course. You need to know that Jimbo Fisher has fit like a glove; that Mark Stoops, the first-year defensive coordinator, had his group playing inspired football; that there are many, many young players due to play significant roles in 2011 and beyond; and that — and this is also vital — Florida State will only get better. And the Seminoles were already pretty good in 2010. Fisher had an immediate impact, to put it lightly. Accountability was in; anything less than a supreme effort was out. Toughness was in; folding like a deck of cards was out. Offensive balance, strong offensive line play, speed and more speed defensively — all this was in, which was a bit of a change. Again, repeat after me: Florida State is only going to get better.
High point A tie for first: a 45-17 win over Miami (Fla.) and a 31-7 win over Florida. So that answers the question as to the best team in the Sunshine State, doesn’t it? Both were convincing, not just on the scoreboard but in the way the Seminoles manhandled their two in-state rivals. Very, very convincing.
Low point Three losses to conference competition, including a 44-33 decision to Virginia Tech in the A.C.C. title game. The defeat featured a very poor defensive performance from a group that took a sizable step forward in 2010. Another foul defensive showing: Oklahoma 47, F.S.U. 17. Here’s guessing the Seminoles hang a little closer in a few weeks.
Tidbit Playing 14 games helps, as does the fact that F.S.U. has only had nine coaches in its history. But Fisher was the first coach in program history to win at least 10 games in his debut season; even Bowden, who went 5-6 in 1976, needed two years to reach double-digit wins. Of course, then Bowden went on to win 10 or more games another 18 times before retiring in 2009.
Tidbit (majors edition) What’s the most popular major on the Florida State football team? That would be Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, which the university describes as being “designed to provide a broad background for understanding public affairs and an education for useful citizenship in the American democracy.” Also popular: Exploratory I, Criminology and Biological Science.
Tidbit (three-win climb edition) Maybe you should sit down. Get this: with improved efforts on both sides of the ball come additional wins. For F.S.U., scoring 1.3 more points per game and allowing 11.4 less points per game led to, you guessed, another three notches in the win column. And that’s a serious climb defensively: from 94th nationally in 2009 to 20th in 2010. One quick note: F.S.U. might want to consider who’s next at defensive coordinator, as Mark Stoops may be getting a promotion in four months.
Former players in the N.F.L.
37 LB Mister Alexander (Houston), OT Alex Barron (New Orleans), WR Anquan Boldin (Baltimore), RB Lorenzo Booker (Minnesota), DE Everette Brown (Carolina), DT Brodrick Bunkley (Denver), CB Tony Carter (Minnesota), CB Antonio Cromartie (New York Jets), DE Chauncey Davis (Atlanta), DT Darnell Dockett (Arizona), DT Andre Fluellen (Detroit), K Graham Gano (Washington), WR Richard Goodman (San Diego), DT Letroy Guion (Minnesota), LB Geno Hayes (Tampa Bay), OG Montrae Holland (Dallas), S Chris Hope (Tennessee), OG Rodney Hudson (Kansas City), K Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland), FB Greg Jones (Jacksonville), CB Bryant McFadden (Pittsburgh), C Ryan McMahon (Atlanta), DE Eric Moore (New England), TE Caz Piurowski (Seattle), QB Christian Ponder (Minnesota), CB Patrick Robinson (New Orleans), S Myron Rolle (Tennessee), LS Garrison Sanborn (Buffalo), LB Ernie Sims (Indianapolis), LB Kendall Smith (Arizona), RB Antone Smith (Atlanta), LB Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh), RB Leon Washington (Seattle), LB Dekoda Watson (Tampa Bay), LB Markus White (Washington), OT Ray Willis (Miami), LB Kamerion Wimbley (Oakland).
Arbitrary top five list
F.S.U. wide receivers in the N.F.L.
1. Fred Biletnikoff (1965-78).
2. Anquan Boldin (2003-present).
3. Laveranues Coles (2000-9).
4. Jessie Hester (1985-95).
5. Javon Walker (2002-9).
Jimbo Fisher (Salem College ’89), 10-4 after his first season at the head of one of college football’s premier programs. Fisher has been a part of the F.S.U. staff since 2007, when he was hired by Bowden to run the Seminoles’ sputtering offense. A year later, Fisher was tabbed as the coach-in-waiting when Bowden opted to retire. For all the struggles F.S.U. went through from 2007-9, it’s difficult to place any blame upon Fisher’s offense. The Seminoles averaged nearly 32 points per game from 2008-9 – the 434 points scored in 2008 was the program’s most since 2000 – while the defense set new program lows in 2009. It’s because of the success of his offense that Fisher was able to escape Florida State’s recent downturn unscathed, with his reputation intact and the promise surrounding this new era at a fever pitch. In some ways, though few coaches would embrace the opportunity to replace a legend like Bowden, his predecessor’s struggles over the last decade allow Fisher a bit of leeway as he adjusts to his new position. But don’t be confused: this is Florida State, and winning means everything. Fisher is accustomed to serving under the limelight, both as offensive coordinator at F.S.U. and in his service in the same capacity at L.S.U. (2000-6). The Tigers went 70-20 over Fisher’s seven-year period as coordinator, reaching seven bowl games, winning a pair of SEC championships (2001, 2003) and the 2003 national championship. His F.B.S. experience includes a season as the quarterbacks coach at Cincinnati (1999) and six seasons as the quarterbacks coach at Auburn (1993-98). At Auburn, Fisher coached under Terry Bowden and alongside Tommy Bowden, then the offensive coordinator. His time as an assistant coach began under one Bowden, Terry (at Samford University), and ended under another, Bobby. Florida State fans sincerely hope he learned more from the latter Bowden, obviously. All systems are go.
Tidbit (coaching edition) The entire staff remains intact, from offensive coordinator James Coley to offensive line coach Rick Trickett and everyone in between. And yes, that includes defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, though he will soon turn his impressive resume into a major head coaching position. But after learning together in 2010, it’s very important to F.S.U. that the entire staff returned in 2011.
Players to watch
Click, drag, highlight, copy, paste. Here’s what I wrote about Florida State’s junior quarterback E.J. Manuel in March, and I see no reason to amend a word:
Manuel has patiently waited for this opportunity, never overcoming the second spot on the depth chart but stepping in for short periods as Christian Ponder’s injury replacement over the last two seasons. He did so down the stretch last fall, leading F.S.U. to a hard-earned win over Clemson on Nov. 13 and starting the team’s loss in the A.C.C. title game and bowl win over South Carolina. Like his predecessor in the starting lineup, Manuel is an accurate passer — he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes last fall — who can also hurt teams with his legs. In fact, thanks to Ponder’s injury issues in 2010, Manuel might stand as an improvement under center for the Seminoles. He’ll need to take control of the offense as a first-year starter, but his prior experience in the lineup will help smooth the transition.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The Manuel era under center has been wildly anticipated since his arrival four years ago, with Ponder’s high level of play the only thing preventing the junior from assuming his perceived birthright as the F.S.U. starter. Well, Ponder’s no longer here; it’s Manuel’s time to shine. And shine he will, to the point where I’m surprised that more aren’t touting his status as a dark horse Heisman contender. I can see it, though it’s also clear that Manuel needs to do some work before entering the nation’s upper echelon of players at the position.
Some of this will come with time, added snaps with the first-team in practice and key snaps between the white lines on Saturday. But Manuel, as accurate as he’s shown himself to be, has dabbled with the odd interception here are there; four in less than 100 attempts last fall, compared with Ponder’s eight in roughly 300 attempts. Why was Ponder such a nice quarterback for this team? Because while talented enough to win games on his own, Ponder rarely lost games for the Seminoles — well, maybe the loss to Oklahoma, though F.S.U. dropped that one before the opening whistle. Manuel needs to take a page out of Ponder’s play book: be careful, be consistent, look towards the middle of the field in the intermediate game, don’t be afraid to throw it away. But Manuel does take more chances, which will lead to a few more turnovers than his predecessor. Even though Manuel has some things to work on, I’m every excited about his potential as Florida State’s starter.
The receiver corps would have returned every single player to make at least one reception in 2010, but would-be senior Taiwan Easterling opted to pursue his baseball career rather than return for his final season. With his departure, F.S.U. must replace 43 receptions for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. I couldn’t be less worried, with all due respect for Easterling’s ability. As at running back, which I’ll touch on below, the Seminoles have a top tier of experienced hands and a sizable crop of yet-unproven youngsters, with the latter group benefiting from Easterling’s early departure. The top group is paced by senior Bert Reed (58 catches for 614 yards), a three-year starter who’s steady but unspectacular. All good teams need a Reed, but F.S.U. could use more game-breaking talent at receiver. After a strong finish to 2010 — most of his work came from November on — perhaps junior Rodney Smith (31 for 448) becomes Manuel’s favorite target.
Junior Willie Haulstead (38 for 587) is right there with Reed and Smith, though he’ll miss the season opener following a concussion. That’s your experienced top slice at the position, though it’s far more interesting to consider the wealth of talent the Seminoles have rising up the pipeline. Two sophomores, Greg Dent and Jarred Haggins, look to be the first receivers off the bench while Haulstead works himself back into the rotation. Both ooze talent; both were very strong during the spring. And it doesn’t end there: F.S.U. has redshirt freshman Christian Green, sophomore Kenny Shaw and true freshmen Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, among a few others. Florida State returns starting tight end Beau Reliford (17 for 198), though he’s not a polished pass-catcher. If Reliford makes a larger impact as a blocker, keep an eye on incoming freshman Nick O’Leary as Manuel’s favorite receiving target at the position.
The offensive line moves forward without all-American left guard Rodney Hudson, who’s one of the best — and underappreciated — interior linemen over the last decade of college football. The early train of thought had returning starter David Spurlock, a senior, moving over from right guard to fill Hudson’s shoes; it seems today, however, that F.S.U. will instead simply insert sophomore Bryan Stork, one of last year’s leading reserves, into the open spot. That’s really the only surprise up front, and it’s not all that much of a surprise, to be honest. You can’t fault the Seminoles for looking to maintain some consistency, and Spurlock teams with senior right tackle Zebrie Sanders to form an imposing strong side of the line.
Replacing Ryan McMahon at center is JUCO transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug, who was recruited for this task. Recruit, sign, start. If F.S.U. and Rick Trickett identified Fahrenkrug as McMahon’s replacement, it’s good enough for me. Rounding out the starting line is senior left tackle Andrew Datko, a four-year starter and all-American candidate. One more note on Trickett and Florida State: after a few years of growing pains, the offensive line looks terrific along the starting line. Depth is a bit of an issue, as there’s a pretty significant gap between the starters and the reserves. If F.S.U. stays healthy, everything will be fine.
My goodness. Seriously? There isn’t a senior to be found along Florida State’s defensive line? That can’t be right. Let me get this straight: a group that rapidly developed into one of the nation’s best down the stretch also doubles as one of the nation’s youngest? That can’t be right. Oh, it’s right, and it’s the primary reason why I think F.S.U. is going to take another significant climb defensively in 2011. This line should scare the pants off every offensive lineman, every offensive coordinator, every quarterback and every team on Florida State’s schedule. It’s the deepest defensive front in the country, and the Seminoles might just be getting warmed up. I just scared myself.
Just naming starters doesn’t work, as F.S.U. is going to rotate a tremendous amount of linemen both inside and out. There are starters, mind you, but a reserve may end up playing a similar number of snaps — if not more snaps, based on how an individual lineman plays in a specific game or performs on the practice field during the week. But if you want starters, here are your likely four: junior Brandon Jenkins (63 tackles, 2.15 for loss, 13.5 sacks) and sophomore Bjorn Werner (20 tackles, 3.5 sacks) at end; juniors Everett Dawkins (39 tackles, 6 for loss) at tackle; juniors Anthony McCloud (35 tackles) or Jacobbi McDaniel (31 tackles, 5.5 for loss) at nose guard.
McDaniel’s value increases when you consider he can play both interior spots: big enough to stand up at nose guard, he’s athletic enough to play a penetrating role alongside McCloud. Now, as great as this starting group is — and Jenkins is a future star, if he’s not already — where the Seminoles really separate themselves from the competition is with depth. JUCO transfer Tank Carradine has pushed Werner for the starting role, though he’ll probably end up being the first end off the bench. Sophomore Demonte McAllister (16 tackles, 3 sacks) is a leading interior reserve, as are redshirt freshman Cameron Erving, true freshman Tim Jernigan and junior Moses McCray, the heaviest interior lineman, though he’s still recovering from last season’s knee injury. Jernigan has already turned some heads. I’m telling you: this front four is filthy.
And they’ll do a great job keeping the F.S.U. linebackers clean. Not that the Seminoles are putting out a starting trio of pipsqueaks, mind you: each of the three projected starters come in at around 240 pounds, though things could change in the middle. The leader is senior weak side linebacker Nigel Bradham (98 tackles, 5 sacks), the team’s leading tackler in each of the last two years. Of anyone along the second level, Bradham seems to benefit the most from the increased depth and girth up front: no one doubts his ability, merely his consistency, and the senior should have more opportunities to flash his athleticism in 2011.
Sophomore Christian Jones gets the nod on the strong side after playing in all 14 games last fall, often with the first-team defense, but F.S.U. still has a decision to make in the middle. Either it’s junior Vince Williams or sophomore Telvin Smith. The former has the prototypical size of a middle linebacker, but Smith’s range and running ability — he played on the weak side in 2010 — is intriguing. Williams will play more against the pro-style teams on the schedule, while Smith will be valuable against the spread-based offenses.
Here’s guessing cornerback Greg Reid really breaks out as a junior. Not that he hasn’t already made an impact: Reid finished second on the team with three picks last fall while continuing to be a menace on special teams. But he’s dangerously close to becoming the player most expected him to become when he inked with the Seminoles three years ago — one of the best cornerbacks in the country, not to mention a rare athletic talent who can be a game-changer both defensively and in the return game. The end result of the fall competition on the opposite side was a bit surprising: senior Mike Harris, last year’s nickel back, has claimed the starting role ahead of sophomore Xavier Rhodes (58 tackles, 4 interceptions), a reigning freshman all-American.
That may not last long, however. Rhodes’ demotion is primarily a motivational tool from Stoops, who feels very secure in having Harris as the starter while Rhodes works his way back into the staff’s good graces. Another reason why Rhodes will eventually reclaim his starting role: Harris is just too good as a nickel back not to remain in that spot. He’s a weapon. The key to the entire secondary may not Reid’s development into an all-American but rather the play of sophomore free safety Lamarcus Joyner, a converted cornerback. His ability to play center field will help offset some of the coverage liabilities found in the strong safety pairing of senior Terrance Parks (44 tackles) and junior Nick Moody (79 tackles), who are strong inside the box but not great against the pass.
As a whole, don’t underestimate the importance of a second season under Stoops. There was a learning curve underway for much of last year, though you wouldn’t tell it by looking at the results. Year two will find the F.S.U. defenders more knowledgeable in their assignments and more confident, which will lead to another step forward statistically. The defense is defined by what it can do up front, and that line is absolutely terrifying.
The F.S.U. special teams are as good as they come. Kicker Dustin Hopkins is fairly consistent, but it’s his long-range ability — and stress-free late-game ability — that makes his valuable. Punter Shawn Powell is coming off one of the better seasons in program history, and Reid is there to make plays on both punts and kickoffs.
Position battle(s) to watch
Running back Competition is wonderful. Well, not always: competition between two backup quarterbacks fighting for the starting role is ugly, disheartening and nearly always disappointing. The competition underway at several positions in Tallahassee is the wonderful sort of competition — between several gifted options, each of which could start and produce when given the opportunity. Take the situation at running back, for instance. Junior Chris Thompson has shown the ability to lead the way on the ground after leading the Seminoles with 845 yards rushing last fall, cracking the 100-yard mark three times along the way. Senior Jermaine Thomas (490 yards, 6 scores) was a solid secondary option in 2010, though he’s battled a few injury concerns in the early fall — as has Thompson, who has since returned to the field but missed a few weeks this month with a back ailment. Senior Ty Jones chipped in 527 yards on the ground a year ago, meaning this lead trio combined to rush for 1,862 yards and 17 scores in 2010. That’s a serious total. And the Seminoles aren’t done yet — not by a long shot. There’s a pair of incoming freshmen battling for carries, and based on what Fisher and his staff have seen thus far, at least one is going to be too good to keep off the field. As of today, it’s the somewhat lesser-regarded of the two rookies — based on each player’s recruiting ranking — who finds himself on the still-to-be-updated depth chart: stocky Devonte Freeman, not James Wilder, is running third behind Thompson and Jones, with Thomas seemingly not listed because of those injury issues. Five deep, perhaps six if you count fullback Lonnie Pryor, who can also get it done. So you can see why F.S.U. didn’t panic when some thought Thompson’s back injury would cause him to miss substantial time. He won’t, it’s believed, so F.S.U. is loaded. The Seminoles are loaded even without Thompson, actually.
Game(s) to watch
The game with Oklahoma has it all: two prestigious programs, two rosters chock-full of next-level and, of course, national title implications. It’s the first of a handful of marquee tests F.S.U. must pass in order to play for a national title, joining road games against Clemson and Florida and home dates with N.C. State and Miami.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Up, up and away. Welcome back to the big time, Florida State. And it took only two years, though Fisher’s task was made a bit easier by his built-in comfort level with the program and roster thanks to his assistant turn under his predecessor. But that shouldn’t detract in the least from what Fisher and his staff achieved in 2010, which has paved a way for this team to take another significant step forward this fall. I’m talking a jump from 10-4 to 14-0, though there’s that looming date with Oklahoma growing closer and closer in the distance. What needs to go right in order for F.S.U. to run the table? Not all that much, but the small factors that must go this team’s way is what provides the slight distance between the Seminoles and Alabama, Boise State and the Sooners, the three best teams in the country, in my mind. Manuel needs to be the player F.S.U. believe he can be. The receiver corps needs to find a difference-maker, and I think it’s going to be one of the youngsters. The offensive line must remain healthy. Bradham needs to be a leader at linebacker; Reid needs to play on an all-American level; and Joyner needs to solidify the back end of the F.S.U. secondary. Here’s the good news: I can see each and every one of those things coming to pass with ease. And that’s the reason why F.S.U. is here, right among the top four teams in the country, merely two years into Fisher’s tenure. I think the Seminoles drop one game in the regular season — and no, I’m not automatically saying that loss will be Oklahoma. This outstanding defensive line could chew up and spit out the O.U. offensive front, mind you. But I think we’ll see one slip-up for a relatively young team, albeit one with solid experience. But if I had to bet money today on one program that will win a national title in the next three years, I’d let it all ride on the Seminoles.
Dream season A home win over Oklahoma propels F.S.U. to a perfect regular season, a win over Virginia Tech in the A.C.C. title game and an opportunity to play for the national championship.
Nightmare season With the talent and coaching in Tallahassee, anything less than 9-3 would be a supreme disappointment.
In case you were wondering
Where do Florida State fans congregate? Warchant.com and Nole Digest house the two largest and most dedicated message boards for F.S.U. chatter, but the best football coverage is found at Tomahawk Nation. The latter is really, really tremendous, for F.S.U. and non-F.S.U. fans alike. As always, let me know of any sites I may have missed.
Through 117 teams 374,238.
Who is No. 3? Tomorrow’s program has won at least 10 games in three straight seasons seven times in its history.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: A.C.C., Andrew Datko, Bert Reed, Bjorn Werner, Brandon Jenkins, Chris Thompson, Christian Jones, David Spurlock, E.J. Manuel, Florida State, Greg Reid, Jacob Fahrenkrug, Jacobbi McDaniel, Jimbo Fisher, Lamarcus Joyner, Mark Stoops, Nigel Bradham, Rick Trickett, Rodney Smith
Leave a Comment