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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Florida St. (9-4, 5-3)

Imagine we live in an alternate universe, one where the University of Alabama system Board of Trustees can’t unilaterally dictate the ebb and flow of its athletic programs located outside of Tuscaloosa. It’s a difficult situation to consider, I know, but suspend your disbelief for the interest of this scenario. So it’s the winter of 2006, and U.A.B. reaches out to — nay, actually agrees to a contract with — L.S.U. offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who had just completed his seventh season as an assistant in Baton Rouge. The contract, which hovered around $600,000 annually, was very much in line with what Fisher demanded as a national title-winning assistant coach; in addition, two members of the U.A.B. community offered to pay half of his annual contract.

We’ve been down this road before, and we know how the story ends. U.A.B. approves the contract, but the Alabama Board of Trustees, citing “fiscal responsibility,” vetoes the deal. Instead of setting up shop in Birmingham, Fisher accepts the offensive coordinator position under Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Roughly a year later, in early December of 2007, Fisher is named Bowden’s eventual successor.

U.A.B., left in a lurch, has its next head coach essentially dictated to it by the Board of Trustees. The Blazers can’t pay a competitive salary. They can’t hire any coach who might draw attention away from the system’s flagship university — let alone hire a coach who might actually threaten the Crimson Tide for in-state supremacy. What an outlandishly foolish notion: U.A.B. threaten Alabama?

The Blazers settle for Georgia offensive line coach Neil Callaway, who proceeds to win 18 games over the next five years before being relieved of his duties at the tail end of the 2011 season. During that same hiring cycle, Alabama reels in Nick Saban — who wanted Fisher as his offensive coordinator — and has notched a pair of national titles over his five-year tenure. Fisher heads to Tallahassee, where despite some fits and starts over his first two seasons clearly has the Seminoles poised to crash into the B.C.S. in the very near future.

But let’s close our eyes and imagine the above scenario, where U.A.B. has the fiscal wherewithal and independence to do what it pleases. The Blazers, in this imaginary world, get to cook in the kitchen and buy the groceries. With the 2006 season in the books, having dismissed longtime coach Watson Brown, the Blazers ink Fisher to a five-year contract. The Alabama board of trustees gnash their teeth, but shucks, U.A.B. got its man.

But this isn’t about U.A.B. — not entirely, at least. Consider the second party affected by such a development: U.A.B. may become a Conference USA power, but Florida State’s future is drastically altered. Forget finding a new offensive coordinator; if we fast-forward to the 2007 and 2008 seasons, it’s clear that F.S.U. needs a transition plan.

Where is Florida State today if U.A.B. succeeds in hiring Fisher following the 2006 season? Instead of Fisher, Bowden brings in one of his tried-and-true, loyal lieutenants as offensive coordinator. The results are more of the same: 7-6 in 2007, 8-5 in 2008 and 6-7 in 2009. Now, with Bowden clearly lacking the same fire and energy that stoked his furnace over his first two decades with the program, Florida State wants to make a change. Again, close your eyes and imagine the ugliness that would have ensued had the university not already had a plan in place.

Perhaps Fisher is still on the program’s wish list. Sticking with this dream scenario, Fisher has led the Blazers to three straight bowl games, complete with a pair of Conference USA titles, over his first three seasons with the program — remember, this is a dream scenario. This makes Fisher a hot commodity, not just for Florida State but for another southern power with an opening.

But let’s say that the Seminoles get their man, just as the Blazers did three years earlier: Fisher, in Tallahassee, for the 2010 season — just as things turned out, in a way. No harm, no foul? A win-win for all parties? Not quite. U.A.B. wins, but for Florida State, it’s a clear loss.

Come back to reality. Florida State is where it is today, knocking on the door of a title run, because Fisher had his feet on the ground back in 2007. His three years as Bowden’s offensive coordinator — the last two as head-coach-in-waiting — provided Fisher with his learning curve; any growing pains, the sort that plague any first-year coach, were covered by his three-year turn on Bowden’s staff.

Typically, a first-year coach learns his new team’s strengths and weaknesses on the fly. Not for Fisher, who knew far before the 2010 season where F.S.U. needed improvement: the Seminoles needed defensive linemen, offensive skill players and an infusion of talent along the offensive line. Done, done and done — though the latter still needs work.

Florida State’s where it is today for one reason: because the Alabama board of trustees vetoed Fisher move to Birmingham. Reality’s great for the Seminoles; it stinks for the Blazers.

Season grade: B+ Perhaps not the finish Florida State imagined in August, but the Seminoles did weather several storms in winning at least nine games for the second straight season — something the program hadn’t achieved since 2003-4. Perhaps no other team in college football was so drastically stymied by injuries, and not just at quarterback, where E.J. Manuel again struggled staying on the field, but also along the back end of the defense and the offensive line. By the time the Seminoles took the field against Notre Dame in late December, the offensive line was manned by four true freshmen. One, 17-year-old right tackle Bobby Hart, should still be in high school. Yet the Seminoles persevered, perhaps coming with one or two breaks of an 11-win regular season.

High point Another sweep of the Sunshine State. Not that either win was pretty, mind you. On Nov. 12, F.S.U. overcame a late Miami (Fla.) charge and its own offensive incompetence in a 23-19 home win. In the regular season finale, the Seminoles gained only 95 yards of total offense in a 21-7 win over Florida in Gainesville.

Low point The games that got away. After tying Oklahoma at 13-13, the Seminoles allowed 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for its first loss of the season. That was followed by a 35-30 loss at Clemson, which was followed by a 35-30 loss at Wake Forest. A 14-13 loss to Virginia in November literally brought Fisher to his knees.

Offensive M.V.P. Manuel missed one full game, the loss to Clemson, and a portion of the loss to Oklahoma. You wouldn’t think that someone with his physique would battle injuries in the way Manuel has over the last two seasons; needless to say, the Seminoles need a full season from the senior-to-be in 2012. But when on the field — and despite some bouts with inconsistency — Manuel continues to be the engine behind the Florida State offense. After tossing four picks against the Sooners and Wake Forest, Manuel threw only two interceptions over his final eight games. That a light turned on during the second half against Notre Dame only increases the expectations surrounding his final season.

Defensive M.V.P. You can’t go wrong with linebacker Nigel Bradham, safety Lamarcus Joyner or defensive end Bjoern Werner, if not the entire defensive line altogether. My head says Joyner, a sophomore, who was likely the most irreplaceable member of the defense altogether. But Werner deserves some degree of recognition; at times, there wasn’t an offensive tackle in A.C.C. who could keep the sophomore under wraps. With Werner on one end and Brandon Jenkins on the other, not to mention the talent F.S.U. has stockpiled in the middle, the Seminoles’ defensive front should be the best in the country in 2012.

Stock watch A wheel came off the Florida State bandwagon in 2011, but don’t worry: the Seminoles have a spare. Prepare for the inevitable love affair to blossom during the spring, sprout in the summer and catch fire around August, when most will tout the Seminoles as the A.C.C. team to beat — if not a genuine national title contender. I’m on board, as I was a summer ago. There’s senior leadership at quarterback. Rising talent like wide receiver Rashad Greene and running backs James Wilder and Devonta Freeman. A defensive line with the potential to dominate. A back seven that took a nice step forward over the second half of 2011. If there are questions that remain unanswered they lie along the offensive line, which still needs to improve. But the pieces are there. Let’s just see if Fisher can bring it all together.

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  1. Lee says:

    They don’t have the running game or the CONSISTENCY at QB that you must have to compete for National Title. Their defense will be great. It just can’t disappear at times like it did last year. A la Clemson and Wake Forest.

    Another 9 to 10 win season sounds more realistic.

  2. Jmac823200 says:

    @ Lee
    I guess you didn’t really grasp this reading so I’ll break it down to you. There’s this thing called 7 on 7 that involves offensive skill guys vs. the defensive skill guys. It is intended to work on the passing game. Now imagine 7 on 11 with no offensive line. That was Florida State most of last year. How can there be any consistency at any offensive back position if you don’t have a line??? The author clearly states, “If there are questions that remain unanswered they lie along the offensive line, which still needs to improve. But the pieces are there. Let’s just see if Fisher can bring it all together.” What about that was so tough for you to understand?

  3. Polaris says:

    I agree with Jmac — injuries were significant and unfortunately critical for FSU. RBs and QBs get eaten for lunch if your OL isn’t up to spec. And that of course doesn’t mean they won’t be plagued with that injury bug in 2012. All that said, I am drinking the koolaid. I feel FSU’s D will keep them in the game against any team (including SEC teams). If the OL grows up — I think you see the running game stabilize. And if that happens — so does the passing… After that, its the ACC Title. Sorta wierd to even consider the ACC breaking the SEC streak… Nah, not gonna think about that.

  4. Jesse D says:

    FSU will have national championship type of talent, but they have to learn how to win the close games. In 2010, their 10-4 record becomes 12-2 if not for an inexplicable fumble inside the NC State 5 on the last play of the game (with a WR WIDE open in the endzone) and two missed DHop FGs in the final 4 minutes against UNC. In 2011, potential game winning drives were stopped by mediocre defenses in Clemson and Wake, and again Hopkins missed a FG that turns the UVA game. Poor execution in crunch time is the difference between their actual 19-8 record and a 24-3 one.

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