TAMPA—This is the year.
It wasn't supposed to be the year, and by most indications, after a lopsided early-season loss to the Sooners in Norman, the Seminoles were looking like a squad that was at least a year away from being a legitimate contender within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But, after four straight wins, all in impressive fashion, the Seminoles seem to have been rejuvenated somewhat unexpectedly, suddenly begging the question "are they back?"
With a profoundly convincing victory against then-13th ranked Miami, the Seminoles have been growing exponentially ahead of even the most positive prognostications heading into the second-half of the 2010 season. While coach Jimbo Fisher and his new staff are not necessarily surprised by the poise in the growth in the team—namely on offense—it's the defense that seems to be shocking everyone, including themselves.
Less than a year removed from one of Florida State's worst defensive showings in over 30 years, the Seminoles defense has statistically become one of the best against the run and has vastly improved against the pass. This has created more opportunities for the potent offense led by quarterback Christian Ponder, as well as the trio of running backs—Ty Jones, Chris Thompson and Jermaine Thomas—who are proving to be among the best backfields in the country.
With just six games left to play, and FSU already in the driver's seat to become bowl eligible this weekend, there are still plenty of areas for improvement and growth. But for the first time since 2005, with the Seminoles firmly atop the rankings of all Florida FBS schools, there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into the second half of the season.
Let's break down what the Seminoles need to do to keep their momentum on track toward an ACC Championship berth.
The Oklahoma Sooners Offense lit up Florida State to the tune of 394 Passing Yards, and 4 TD's in the Seminoles only blemish through their first six games.
With half the season gone, it seems only appropriate to take a look back at the 'Noles' opponents for the first half of the season, to better determine just how well the boys in Garnet and Gold are truly doing, and get a gauge on how well their chances are to finish with an equally impressive mark in the second half of the season.
Let's take a look—
Game 1: Samford
What it told us: nothing. Samford is an average (at best) FCS opponent. While the game was supposed to be draped in historical anecdotes like "Bobby Bowden played FSU in the 1950s losing the last contest between these two teams," and "Jimbo Fisher was also a quarterback at Samford, under Terry Bowden," etc. Well, the only stat or anecdote this game provided was that Florida State dominated from the word "Greg!"
My preseason prediction: Florida State by 67.
Actual outcome: Florida State by 53.
Game 2: @Oklahoma
What it told us: For every step FSU seemed to take forward in the offseason, it was painstakingly clear that they had taken two giant steps back in Norman.
After losing convincingly to big brother Bob Stoops, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops went back to the drawing board. Looking for inspiration, he turned one of the Seminoles' most lopsided losses into one of its defensive successes. Since the Oklahoma game, Florida State has not allowed more than two touchdowns in a game, has one shutout (Wake Forest), and is a national leader in scoring defense, rush defense, sacks and tackles for a loss.
My preseason prediction: Oklahoma by 12.
Actual outcome: Oklahoma by 30.
Game 3: BYU
What it told us: FSU might not be in for such a long season after all. Granted, BYU was a team with their own offensive woes, breaking in a top-rated freshman recruit quarterback (Jake Heaps), as well as replacing several key losses on both sides of the ball.
But, the Seminoles' effort against BYU exceeded that of a key common foe in upstart Air Force, who managed to take the Sooners (just one week removed from the 'Noles victory) down to the wire. This vital benchmark told us that Florida State was, indeed, not as bad as their worst loss. This also put FSU back in the green in the "wins" column.
My preseason prediction: Florida State by 35.
Actual outcome: Florida State by 24.
Game 4: Wake Forest
What it told us: Florida State would finally get their much anticipated revenge over a Wake Forest team that handed them their first home shut-out loss since 1973. The silver lining to this game wasn't only that FSU won in convincing fashion, but that they managed their first shut-out victory in the Doak since that 2006 matchup.
With the win, the Seminoles moved to 3-1, and provided some much needed encouragement to the young, but up-and-coming defense.
My preseason prediction: Florida State by 34.
Actual outcome: Florida State by 31.
Game 5: @Virginia
What it told us: FSU's oft questionable passing defense could handle a top 25 passing offense. Mark Verica and the upstart Cavaliers were anything but their 2009 former selves under the new direction of head coach Mike London. For a team capable of going toe-to-toe across the country against then-ranked USC, the Cavs were hoping to spoil Florida State's season in Charlottesville.
What ended up happening was a bit of the opposite. Florida State's defensive line came out of the gate putting pressure on fifth-year senior Verica, recording six sacks on the day in addition to two interceptions. FSU's offense established three rushing scores in addition to an overwhelming 256 yards on the ground compared to Virginia's 25.
My preseason prediction: Florida State by 8.
Actual outcome: Florida State by 20.
Game 6: @Miami
What it told us: The Seminoles are the team to beat in the ACC. No disrespect to the likes of Maryland (4-1) or NC State (5-1) but the Seminoles are firmly in the driver's seat after soundly defeating the Coastal's best—and a huge rival—in Miami just a week ago.
It also told us that Jimbo Fisher is every bit as good as billed and has revitalized a once middle-of-the-pack Florida State squad. Combined with losses by USF and Florida the same week, FSU was the only BCS conference school in the state of Florida to win this past weekend and sits atop the rankings among all Florida schools.
While it is far too early to crown them "State Champions," the skies do seem to be clearing a bit since handling the Hurricanes.
My preseason prediction: Miami by 6.
Actual outcome: Florida State by 28.
My record through the mid-point of the season: 5-1, (with a win over Miami my only incorrect pick.)
*All of my preseason predictions can be located here.
So, the Seminoles have exceeded their expectations through the first six games of the year, posting a 5-1 record, compared to most experts' predictions (including mine) of a 4-2 record, with losses to Oklahoma and Miami. Jimbo's "Fishermen" are all playing like they haven't had a catch in weeks—which, incidentally, is somewhat true with regard to the lack of production from the passing game—and the resurgent Seminoles seem to be on a mission, with something to prove.
Where the Seminoles will go from here is still anybody's guess, but I still plan to take my best stab at it.
There are some entertaining games of interest that fans and experts alike may want to pay particularly close attention to heading into the second half of the season. With the Seminoles firmly in the mix for a shot at an ACC crown or, more importantly, a BCS Bowl berth, there are still plenty of games to tune into this year.
Here is a breakdown of each of those remaining contests.
With a certain degree of uncertainty in Chestnut Hill, Head Coach Frank Spaziani finds himself making several adjustments at key positions in 2010.
With Boston College heading to Tallahassee the winners of the last two contests between these two teams, the story here seems to be that "Christian Ponder has never beaten Boston College."
Well, unless Dave Shinkskie has a coming-of-age (no pun intended) party against the Seminoles this weekend, all signs indicate that CP7 will finally get that signature win against the other team wearing the Garnet-and-Gold-like attire from Bean-town.
Head coach Frank Spaziani has the arduous task of determining who will be the signal caller against the Seminoles in Tallahassee this weekend, as both Dave Shinskie and Michael Marscovetra failed to do anything against a potent NC State Wolfpack defensive unit. Many fans are looking for freshman phenom Chase Rettig to be that answer. Since spraining his ankle against Notre Dame on October 2nd, all indications are that Rettig may be game-ready.
It should make little difference though, as Florida State's front-five on defense have a knack for getting after the quarterback. Granted, BC's O-Line is huge (one of the largest in the nation), but the Seminoles pass rush is based off of the shift play of defensive ends Markus White and defensive tackle Jaccobi McDaniel. Expect the pass rush and defensive line play to be an obstacle early and often for the Eagles this weekend.
Likewise, for Boston College's defense, the return of Mark Herzlich has been the darling story of the Eagle's defense in 2010. That being said, there is no reason for optimism in this contest for BC, even though the Eagles will pose the toughest challenge of the season on the ground for FSU's dominant run game. With BC ranked 101st against the pass, this should be a solid passing game for Christian Ponder and his work-in-progress receiving corps of Easterling, Smith, Haulstead and Reed.
All in all, expect a big win for the Seminoles in this contest.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 4.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 20.
Score Outlook: 37-17, Florida State.
Russell Wilson's Wolfpack will have a hostile crowd on hand in Raleigh for a Prime-Time Thursday Night match-up of the ACC Atlantic's two best teams.
How to solve a problem like Russell Wilson? Pray. If prayer doesn't work, do what Virginia Tech did. Make them run.
Florida State has established itself as a strong front-line and a stellar run defense. However, the Seminoles still have a chink in their armor on defense—the pass. While remarkably better than a year ago, the Seminoles secondary has still given up the long pass from time to time this season, and the test that they face in a hostile Carter-Finley will be no different and perhaps dangerously worse.
With one of the league's best passers (fifth in the nation in total offense), Russell Wilson will be anything but easy to handle. But if the Seminoles can manage to take the legs out from under the dangerous signal caller, all roads may lead to Rome. The Seminoles' zone package may have to play more linebackers deep, and perhaps even insert a 3-4 defense to limit the long plays of the talented Mr. Wilson.
With an oddly similar, yet completely opposite set of circumstances defensively, NC State, compared to Boston College, will feature a defense that is talented but weak in one of its two key areas. With a solid passing defense and a porous run defense, the Wolfpack will need to hope for Christian Ponder's backfield to be having an off night. If they aren't, the Wolfpack may also be forced to stack the box, to limit the run, exposing large chunks of real estate for the senior signal caller downfield.
All in all, NC State may play this game like their season depends on it, and I would imagine they will be every bit better than they were against Virginia Tech. Expect a very close contest, with the victor winning the battles in starting field position and special teams play.
Florida State wins a close one and overcomes their biggest ACC hurdle of the season.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 10.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 1.
Score Outlook: 28-27, Florida State.
Without Marvin Austin in the fold, the Tarheels have holes to fill, yet are still potent enough to be a road block for the Seminoles.
Butch Davis may still be feeling the Tar Heel Blues with all of the difficulties surrounding his team. With the NCAA’s probe already ending the season of three talented UNC players (receiver Greg Little, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and defensive end Robert Quinn), six other players currently serving open-ended suspensions may be facing the prospect of similar punishment.
That, however, has not slowed down the Tar Heels on the field, who are now the winners of three straight, including impressive wins over a Clemson team that just weeks prior gave the undefeated Tigers of Auburn all they could handle.
UNC is anything but lacking in the talent department, especially on defense. With playmakers like Quinton Coples on the defensive line boasting 14 tackles for a loss and linebackers Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown leading the team with 28 tackles each, this North Carolina squad seems to be gelling just fine without their missing athletes.
With a passing game that has grown fairly respectable in standing compared to last year’s squad, the Tar Heels have the needed offensive dimension they lacked a season ago, as well.
However, Florida State has proved to be more explosive offensively, in addition to becoming a more respectable defensive unit as well. If this is any indication of last year’s slug fest in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels will be back on their heels throughout the contest.
Expect a hard-fought loss for the Tar Heels in Tallahassee.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 6.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 6.
Score Outlook: 32-26, Florida State.
DeAndre McDaniel will take a shot at playing opposite Christian Ponder again in 2010. Will he be successful in sending Ponder packing?
DeAndre McDaniel vs. Christian Ponder: Part II.
Both of these talented players decided they wanted one more year in the saddle to lead their respective units to a final season of glory. One player by choice, and the other for revenge.
Christian Ponder has earned the respect of McDaniel, who, this offseason, was quoted during the ACC Media Days as having gained that respect when Ponder took such a lofty shot from a defensive back who was gunning for him. What Ponder looks to accomplish this season is to finish his career how he started it against Clemson—with a win.
Coach Swinney's team will be anything but a walk-in-the-park, as the Tigers boast impressive nail-biters against the likes of Auburn and Miami. Entering this contest, Clemson should be around 6-3 or 5-4 at worst, making this a very important statement game for the Tigers, who hope to make a statement over a ranked team for perhaps their last time of the season. A late November rivalry matchup is looking more and more bleak for Clemson as South Carolina has become the SEC East darling and heads-on favorite to contend for a BCS Bowl game this season.
Offensively, the matchups should be about equal, with a slight edge to FSU's ground game. Not to be outdone though, the Tigers backfield of Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper is proving that they too have a tandem backfield worthy of playing against the highest level of competition. With DeAndre back and a defensive line that is second in the nation in tackles for a loss, Kyle Parker's bunch will have plenty of opportunities to touch the ball and score some points.
The edge still goes to Florida State, who should be, at this point, looking to finish strong before a final scrimmage against Maryland, heading into the Sunshine State Showdown.
Seminoles win bigger than originally predicted in the Doak.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 8.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 15.
Score Outlook: 42-27, Florida State.
Ralph Friedgen's two-Quarterback system may cause headaches for FSU's Zone schemes.
Florida State wins BIG.
There really isn't a lot to say here.
Maryland may have started strong against some lesser opponents (Navy, Morgan State, FIU and Duke), and yet this game may very well decide whether the Terps play in a bowl game. Granted, Navy is not a terrible team, but Maryland's upset of Navy was a very lopsided affair, where the Midshipmen lost the game more so than the Turtles won it.
Statistically, Maryland is much better on paper than in reality, and this will show in the coming weeks. Aside from some talented play by the defense, specifically against the pass, Ralph Friedgen's squad still has plenty of strides that will need to be made between now and November.
Jamarr Robinson is engulfed in a QB battle with Danny O'Brien, and Da'Rel Scott at RB and Torrey Smith at WR are still talented guys who can break the long play, but with no true and trusted guy under center, these talents will take a small step back this year, compared to 2009.
FSU should mirror the 2008 contest against the Terps in College Park, with nearly every matchup heavily in FSU's favor.
Anything short of a 25-point victory against UMD would be a huge momentum killer for the Seminoles heading into their final game of the season against in-state rival Florida.
While Maryland may come out with a chip on their shoulder, even with their postseason hopes on the line, expect this game to be over by halftime.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 33.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 30.
Score Outlook: 46-16, Florida State.
John Brantley's arm has seen it's share of troubles in 2010. Will FSU's Secondary be up to the challenge?
Six years. This much is still true.
Florida State has still not defeated the Gators in six years. Just like my preseason article suggests, this is not to serve as punishment, but as a gentle reminder that Florida State has their work cut out for them. But, no longer is Florida the "Goliath," and no longer are the Seminoles the "David." Now? It's just two groups who have an intensely passionate and hated rivalry.
It will still likely have no national championship implications, unless Florida State enters this game 10-1 and UF enters it 9-2, which, suffices to say, is a long shot.
Still, this game means much more than anything to Florida State for so many reasons. It is a statement of the future of the program under such a young and new direction.
It will still signify to the fans, coaches and prospects whether Florida State has managed to pull itself back into contention for recruits, wins and titles within the state.
A Gator win in Doak Campbell in 2010 would mark the second-longest win streak in this series, dating back to its inception in 1958, with only a nine-game streak being longer from 1968-1976.
The Seminoles' best opportunity to defeat Florida in perhaps the next three seasons would likely be in 2010. While the Seminoles have revamped their coaching staff, defensive unit and personnel, the same holds true for the Gators.
Unlike my preseason prediction, it should be fair to say that Florida State may very well be a favorite in this contest. Playing at home to a capacity crowd who has long waited to see the Seminoles triumph over the Gators will be more than the perfect setting for Senior Day, which will see the departure of not only Christian Ponder, but O-Lineman Rodney Hudson, center Ryan McMahon, defensive end Markus White and linebacker Mister Alexander.
On offense for Florida, John Brantley will have to hope his offense can rise to the challenge of rebuilding over the next couple of weeks to compete with the young upstart defense of FSU. Odds are, with the return of Chris Rainey, one of Florida's biggest threats offensively, the Gators should improve on their 96th nationally ranked offense.
Before the season began, I firmly expected this to be the Christian Ponder show. While that may still be the case, odds are this may actually turn into the Chris Thomson and Jermaine Thomas show. FSU's ground game should be a menacing triple-headed monster for the Florida defensive line, who has been pounded hard on the ground against the likes of Alabama, LSU and USF to the tune of 575 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
With this game no longer considered an "upset," the score may actually go in favor of the Gators if the Seminoles do not come with 110 percent intensity. This should feature matchups that no statistic can supplement. Throw out all the hypotheses in this one, as FSU will be playing hard, and UF will be playing harder.
This is a game neither team wants to lose and both teams want very badly for very different reasons.
For the Gators, this will be a game of atonement and for bragging rights for a seventh consecutive year.
For FSU, this will be their last shot at sending their signal caller out a winner over their hated rival.
Still, I'm going with the 'Noles to break the streak and finish 11-1 heading to Charlotte.
Preseason Prediction: Florida State by 6.
Midseason Prediction: Florida State by 11.
Score Outlook: 38-27, Florida State.