2011 Florida State Seminoles Football Preview: Over and Under the Radar

Jeff KessockFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2011

2011 Florida State Seminoles Football Preview: Over and Under the Radar

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    Greg Reid's impressive Sophomore season has led many to believe he could be a legitimate contender for the Nagurski Award.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Florida State Football Program looks to improve on an impressive first year under Head Coach Jimbo Fisher, in which the Seminoles won the Atlantic Division of the ACC, and defeated the SEC East Champion South Carolina Gamecocks in the Peach Bowl.

    Under Fisher, the rules are simple: Improve. In all aspects of the game, both on-field, and off. Improvements were apparent in 2010 as the Seminoles took their 2009 brand of defense and went from a bottom 15 program, to a top 40 program, with first-year Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops, first-year Linebackers' Coach Greg Hudson, and first-year Defensive Line Coach D.J Eliot anchoring the new-look D for the Noles.

    Offensively, Florida State was more complete, yet still somewhat lacking in the receiving area—the Noles became more potent than ever in the backfield, showcasing four talented and capable ball-carriers (Jones, Thomas, Pryor, and Thompson.)

    2011 should be no different. With only 3 starters lost on both sides of the ball, FSU has not only the returning talent, but plenty of depth at key positions to make a deep run this season, and with a springboard of fortune, FSU could be entertaining a trip up the road to New Orleans on January 9th.

    Taking a closer look at the lofty expectations reveals why some experts have the Seminoles pegged as a pre-season contender for the Waterford Crystal.

Over the Radar: Lofty Expectations Brought Down to Earth

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    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?  

Under the Radar: Plenty of Reasons to Believe the Hype

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    So by all accounts the Seminoles have their work cut out for them to make any real progress over their impressive improvements last season. Well, with all the talent coming back, as well as strength and depth improvements—these Seminoles should be every bit better than they were in 2010. 

    Sure, by most accounts the 2011 Seminoles did lose key O-linemen Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon, not to mention quarterback Christian Ponder, but Florida State will still retain many of the same players who backed these two up, or played in consecutive seasons next to these two players. Rhonne Sanderson, Zebrie Sanders, Jacob Stanley and Andrew Datko still comprise the bulk of the Rick Trickett zone/shift blocking-line that has done FSU quite well over the last two to three seasons. Look for the Seminoles to shore up some depth concerns this fall as Dan Foose, Henry Orelus, Bryan Stork, A.J. Ganguzza, and Blake Snider compete for spots on the line. Jacob Fahrenkrug has already been slotted at center in a surprising selection this spring, by Coach Trickett.

    With an offensive warehouse for a line, the stable of backs will be equally deep for the 2011 edition of the Seminoles. While E.J. Manuel will be breaking in his new role as the full-time leader and starter at quarterback, his backfield will be plenty busy with Lonnie Pryor, Jermaine Thomas, Ty Jones, and Chris Thompson all healthy and ready to vie for playing time behind him. Tight ends Ja'Baris Little and Beau Reliford both return, with an eager recruit prepared to give them a run for their money on the practice fields, in Will Tye—one of James Coley's pickups in the 2010 class from Salisbury, Connecticut. Tye could actually see some time working out as an H-back, or a blocking back that lines up in the TE position.

    At receiver, the Seminoles have still been mired by a lack of a main "go-to" receiver. With the departure of Taiwan Easterling, one of FSU's top receivers from nearly a season ago, the Seminoles have plenty of depth to replace him—but none with nearly the experience at the position. The Seminoles will look to compliment incumbents Bert Reed, Willie Haulstead, Rodney Smith and Cameron Wade. Christian Green, Kenny Shaw and Jared Haggins could find themselves competing for potential starting slots, but at the present it would appear it is Wade's to lose.

    Defensively, it's all about the front four. Brandon Jenkins is coming off a monster 2010 campaign, and he is assisted by the dominant prowess of Jacobbi McDaniel, Anthony McCloud, and Moses McCray. Opposite of him at strong-side DE will be Bjorn Werner or JUCO Five-Star Transfer Cornelius "Tank" Carradine. The depth at the line, will permit for many players to rotate in fresh legs and keep opposing lines off-balance, early and often. Dan Hicks, Toshmon Stevens, and Moses McCray will certainly factor in significantly.

    Behind the D-line, is a very talented, but not nearly as deep linebacker corps, with Nigel Bradham, Nigel Terrell, and Jeff Luc seeing their share of the field in 2010. Terrell and Luc will see time this fall in a backup role, as sophomores Christian Jones and Telvin Smith have moved up in the depth chart above them, alongside Junior Vince Williams.

    In the deep secondary—fan-favorite, and multiple pre-season watch-list candidate Greg Reid returns with his small frame with a powerful punch. Alongside him at Weak Side will be Xavier Rhodes, who arguably had the better season in 2010. Terrance Parks and Nick Moody will continue to share duties at the Strong Side Safety spot, while newcomer Lamarcus Joyner earned a spot atop the depth chart on the Weak Side over Justin Bright and Terrance Brooks.

    Opposing teams will be looking at possibly one of, if not, the best deep passing threats, and rushing defenses in 2010—with only the middle of the field looking even remotely capable of exploitation. Expect improvement from Mark Stoops' bunch in 2011, and an even smaller window for opposing offenses to gain meaningful chunks of real estate.

    If that weren't enough, the Seminoles return both their talented punter Shawn Powell, and Kicker Dustin Hopkins in 2011. Both of whom are already receiving pre-season nods for the Groza and Guy watchlists.

    With shored up depth, a rather manageable schedule, and players all healthy from spring football, it would seem FSU is very close to having a complete team that will be capable of competing—should they get all of their key replacements primed in time for the fall.

    If they don't, you can expect many of the "expectations" for their fall, may simply do just that: fall, and fall well short at that. All indications are, there is nowhere to go but down for this Seminole team, since the expectations are already sky high.

    While it's anyone's guess—there is a very good chance this could be a very special season for the Seminoles, and don't pass on them being good enough to make it to the big game in January. There are very few reasons to question the reality that the Noles are back.