Before anyone wants to go ahead and anoint the Seminoles as one of the premiere teams to beat in 2011, it's fair to first take an introspective glance at where the Seminoles have come over the span of just one season, compared to it's rivals down in Gainesville and Coral Gables.
Now this isn't to say that the Noles aren't fully capable of being every bit as good as billed, but just to remind everyone how the nature of cycles work normally, and why the Seminoles still have a mighty tall order placed at their table:
"The Seminoles have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation."
"The Seminoles only need to beat Oklahoma to stamp their ticket."
"The Seminoles are the best team in Florida."
"The Seminoles will win the ACC."
"The Seminoles are a favorite to win the National Championship."
The truth is, the Seminoles have their work cut out for them before they even hear the whistle blow. Florida State very well may have one of the most talented quarterback recruits in a generation finally starting under center full-time. He may even be every bit as improved as Coach Fisher has pushed him to be—rumored to be even bigger from all of the lower body conditioning E.J. Manuel has undergone in the offseason. But there is one thing E.J. Manuel is not, yet—the quarterback whose job it is to lose. Playing behind Christian Ponder since his recruitment to FSU, Manuel has done everything to prepare himself for the moment he would become the man under center, and while he has played plenty in Ponder's absence (mainly due to injury,) Manuel was always the backup—a quarterback in waiting.
In much the same way Fisher coached behind the man who was in control of the team, Manuel has had to bide his time as the secondary signal caller. Even with his fascinating performance in the Gator Bowl (Bowden's final game in 2009,) and his impressive win over the SEC East Champion Gamecocks in the Chik-fil-a Peach Bowl, in 2010—E.J. has shown some inconsistencies in games where his attention to his receivers may be sidetracked by his "happy-feet," which have pressed him to take off and run with the ball, rather than following his targets, and perfecting his throws from the pocket.
When the Seminoles take on what will likely be the #1 Oklahoma Sooners on Sept. 17th, there will be a heavy fanfare for both camps, who will be expecting a showdown of two Top Five teams in Tallahassee. Odds are, both camps will get their wish, should Oklahoma take care of upstart Tulsa, and the Seminoles have no problems against Lousiana-Monroe and Charleston-Southern. Aside from the Sooners losing running back DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma will be loaded with talent and ready for another opportunity to play in a big game environment against the Seminoles—a team they embarrassed a season ago in Norman. Don't expect Oklahoma to lay down in this contest, and yes, FSU will show their true grit in this contest, with remarkable improvements since last September, and an improved confidence with signature wins following that early season letdown. This game will be anything but easy—for either team.
Following the Oklahoma game, the road doesn't get any easier, as the Seminoles will then travel to Death Valley to take on Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers just one week later. With Clemson also breaking in a QB in waiting, this duel has major ACC Atlantic implications—with most media writers predicting the winner to control their destiny toward a berth in the ACC Championship game in December. While FSU is likely favored, a hostile atmosphere, and a quick-turnaround could be disastrous for the Seminoles ACC and National Championship aspirations.
While the remainder of the ACC schedule could provide some peril, not drawing North Carolina, Georgia Tech, or Virginia Tech does give some breathing room for the Seminoles. While a late season Thursday-Night contest against Boston College will be met with short rest, both teams will be equally unprepared with each playing a Saturday night contest just five days prior. With Miami rebuilding, and a trip to Tallahassee, this game could be another tough knuckle-dragging contest, but all indications are that Al Golden's talented athletes are still two to three recruiting years away, and with several departures and transfers after Randy Shannon's termination, it would seem FSU has a dominant advantage in this contest.
At season's end, FSU will play visitor to a new, and somewhat depleted roster in Gainesville. A year ago, it seemed almost far-fetched before the season started to predict that FSU could or would beat the Gators in Tallahassee. All signs indicated that Florida would make it an unheard of seven-in-a-row. As fate would have it, Jimbo's first year met or exceeded Seminole Nation's hopes for him. Likewise, Urban Meyer was experiencing some sour-grapes for his failed attempt to step down following his amazing run from 2005-2009, which included two National Titles, a Heisman Trophy recipient, and three one-loss seasons. If the Seminoles are working their magic come November, there isn't any reason why Jimbo Fisher's beach-house co-owner and former colleague at LSU, newcomer Will Muschamp—won't be the loser of his inaugural in-state showdown with the Seminoles. But let's not count any chickens before they hatch. While FSU may be the better team pre-season, on paper—Florida still has plenty of talent around from several top ranked recruiting classes, and Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis are talented and capable coaches who know how to produce winners. If Jon Brantley 2.0 can revamp his pocket presence, and some confidence can find it's way into his throwing arm, the Gators may very well look to repeat the 1997 contest, where an undefeated Seminoles team came into the Swamp looking for one more notch on the way to a Championship.
All in all, there are some very big hurdles for these Seminoles, and they start with recognizing that there are some very important roles being broken in. If Florida State can maintain their focus and recognize that there is pressure in living up to these lofty expectations, there isn't any reason this team can't go 10-2, 11-1 or even 12-0 heading into the ACC Championship game.
If the Seminoles can do all of this—odds are they would be favored, yet again, in the ACC Championship game. But, wait a tick, waiting for them, yet again, is their old Coastal nemesis, the Virginia Tech Hokies. With arguably the easiest schedule of any FBS Automatic Qualifier Conference Team, the Hokies will likely be 11-1 or 12-0 heading into this contest—not on the strength of their program, but on the weakness of their schedule. With their toughest competition out of conference coming against East Carolina, the Hokies will have virtually every advantage this season, meaning no major injuries, or major pressure. A perfect storm for the "underdog" to overachieve in one big game, beating the Seminoles, and grabbing the Automatic Bid to a BCS Bowl, or perhaps even a National Title Game.
FSU, a dark horse favorite to win the big one? Well, Virginia Tech is hoping to catch FSU sleeping, and if that isn't enough—there are plenty of teams waiting in the wings on January 9th who would be all too happy to oblige the upstart Seminoles, and knock them off that pedestal. Without these lofty expectations, the Seminoles are really just a 10-4 team from 2010, who has plenty of work cut out for themselves. Can they clear the hurdles? Or do too many hazards lie in the way?