9/1: Murray State
9/8: Savannah State
9/15: Wake Forest
9/29: @ South Florida
10/6: @ NC State
10/13: Boston College
10/20: @ Miami
11/8: @ Virginia Tech (Thu.)
11/17: @ Maryland
Skip: Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia
QB: E.J. Manuel (5Sr.)
RB: Chris Thompson (Sr.)
FB: Lonnie Pryor (Sr.)
WR: Rashad Greene (So.)
WR: Rodney Smith (Sr.)
TE: Nick O'Leary (So.)
LT: Cameron Erving (rSo.)
LG: Josue Matias (So.)
C: Austin Barron (So.)
RG: Tre Jackson (So.)
RT: Bryan Stork (rJr.)
DE: Bjoern Werner (Jr.)
NT: Anthony McCloud (5Sr.)
DT: Everett Dawkins (5Sr.)
DE: Brandon Jenkins (Sr.)
SLB: Nick Moody (Sr.)
MLB: Vince Williams (5Sr.)
WLB: Christian Jones (Jr.)
CB: Xavier Rhodes (rJr.)
CB: Nick Waisome (So.)
SS: Lamarcus Joyner (Jr.)
FS: Terrence Brooks (Jr.)
K: Dustin Hopkins (Sr.)
P: Cason Beatty (Fr.)
(Italics indicate new starter.)
Coach: Jimbo Fisher (3rd season)
Media prediction: 1st, Atlantic Divison; ACC champion
2011 1st team: OT Zebrie Sanders, K Dustin Hopkins, P Shaun Powell
2011 2nd team: DE Brandon Jenkins, S Lamarcus Joyner
2011 HM: LB Nigel Bradham, DT Everett Dawkins, SP Greg Reid, DE Bjoern Werner
2012 preseason: DE Brandon Jenkins, S Lamarcus Joyner, K Dustin Hopkins, SP Greg Reid
(Italics indicate departed player.)
Once again, Florida State is the runaway media favorite for ACC champion, and once again they're a preaseason top-ten team. And once again, the reaction from Joe Blowhard on the message boards is: OVERRATED. The Seminoles failure to live up to expectations last year was blamed on an offensive line whose makeup shifted almost weekly, and who was doomed to underperformance by injury and "not playing good." The Noles return to action this year with a revamped line and little change anywhere else, and FSU's hope is that that's good enough to send them to the Orange Bowl.
That O-line is an interesting story. Fed up with the lousiness, Jimbo Fisher inserted a whole bunch of freshmen into the lineup late in the season and started a line of mostly freshmen in the CS Bowl against Notre Dame. The experiment apparently worked, and most of those guys are back this year, going into to fall camp as the starters. The only holdover is right tackle Bryan Stork, and he's only sort of a holdover because he spent last season as an interior lineman, at both guard and center. This year's interior linemen are members of that freshman experiment; in particular, center Austin Barron came out of practically nowhere to seize the starting job in November. The final projected starter, at the all-important left tackle position, is converted defensive tackle Cameron Erving. The whole thing is an interesting experiment; if it doesn't go well, it might just start the grumbling in Tallahassee. At least Jimbo Fisher will have some experienced options, if it doesn't.
Fifth-year senior E.J. Manuel is part of the ACC's very deep roster of quarterbacks, and while his stats from last season aren't the gaudiest around, they're still excellent, and worthy of FSU's title-contending status. He'll be in the running all year for first team all-conference in the postseason, and could be the player of the year. He can throw to anyone he likes; FSU has a very deep corps of wide receivers and they rotate them frequently. Five different receivers had between 26 and 38 catches in 2011, and between 400-600 yards. The Noles expect Rashad Greene to be the star; he narrowly led FSU receivers in all categories last year despite missing a bunch of games with an Achilles injury. Greene has great speed; he's complemented by Rodney Smith, a towering presence and very difficult cover at 6'6", 220. They come even bigger than that; Willie Haulstead, who led the team in touchdowns in 2010 but missed 2011 with a concussion, checks in at 230, and redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin is listed at 242. This latter is bigger even than the new starter at tight end, sophomore Nick O'Leary.
If FSU is to win the division title, they'll need more production out of the running game. They hope that Chris Thompson can be the man to carry them there; Thompson is a scatback about the size of Perry Jones, and at full strength can be pretty explosive. However, he wasn't healthy at all last year and missed the second half of the season with a back injury. Continued health is no guarantee this season. In his stead, Devonta Freeman ran decently but unremarkably, and though part of that was due to the offensive line shakiness, Freeman doesn't put the fear of God into you. Even if Thompson is healthy, FSU will probably rotate through a few different players in the backfield before settling on a final answer.
On the whole, this offense isn't exactly lightning in a bottle. Truthfully, Clemson has better players at the skill positions and probably the better line as well. But it's likely to be brutally efficient. Manuel has developed into a very good quarterback who can frustrate you with his legs if necessary, and while he doesn't have the flashiest arsenal of receivers, he might have the deepest. A really good defense can hang with these guys, but the Noles will be good enough to grind up most of the ones they see on a weekly basis.
This is where FSU should be making a name for itself. This group is big, deep, and has a lot of continuity even with the loss of Greg Reid, booted from the team for being on a first-name basis with the Tallahassee PD booking clerk. Nowhere is that more exemplified (the depth, not the criminal behavior) than on the line. DE Brandon Jenkins, thought to be a candidate for the NFL draft after his junior year, is back after a strong 2011 where he racked up 8 sacks and 12 TFL; Jenkins is an all-American candidate. His bookend on the other side, Bjoern Werner, is also a productive player who has a way of disrupting the passing lanes; Werner was second on the team in pass breakups. The same three-man primary rotation the Noles used last year at defensive tackle is back as well. Big NT Anthony McCloud is listed at 322 pounds and is a fearsome run-stopper, and FSU also boasts a pair of nasty three-techs in Everett Dawkins and Jacobbi McDaniel.
The bounty of experience up the middle continues in the linebacking corps, where Mike backer Vince Williams is a solid, productive player and a fifth-year senior, and he's backed up by junior Telvin Smith, who's nearly as productive despite playing as a reserve. Christian Jones moves from the strong side to the weak side where he'll be expected to replace leading tackler Nigel Bradham, and taking his place at Sam is converted safety Nick Moody, who should be more natural there as he couldn't earn himself any pass-defense statistics in the defensive backfield. This group won't put up crazy stats, because a lot of the tackles are picked up by the D-line, but it's solid.
Secondary was supposed to be where the star power was. Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes would've made up perhaps the league's top cornerback duo. Without Reid, opposing quarterbacks will probably avoid Rhodes like the plague, so he won't have a lot of INT opportunities; they'll pick on Reid's replacement instead, likely sophomore Nick Waisome, who spent most of last year on special teams. The best player in the secondary, though, is definitely strong safety Lamarcus Joyner, an undersized player who nevertheless led the team in picks in 2011 with four, and was fourth in tackles.
The theme here is definitely strength up the middle, with Joyner, a solid platoon of middle linebackers, and an outstanding DT rotation. Five seniors and five juniors highlight the starting lineup, and the only reason an underclassman enters the lineup is because of Reid's departure. That's how you build a defense. FSU had the nation's best run defense last year and was third-best overall (yards per play is the standard around these parts) and they return just about everyone. After a wake-up call at Wake Forest, the most points they allowed the rest of the year was 19. If FSU misses the mark this year, it won't be the defense's fault.
Dustin Hopkins is one of the conference's steadiest kickers, but the Noles lose the league's top punter and will almost definitely take a step back in that department. Same goes for kick and punt returns, where Greg Reid made his reputation.
With a defense like that, nine wins is the barest of minimums. It'd almost be a shame to waste that defense on a non-championship team. It's that good. The offense determines whether this team lives up to those expectations, or whether Jimbo Fisher's seat starts to warm up a bit. ACC schedulemakers, in their infinite brilliance, put the Clemson showdown in September, which means the winner of that game will be expected to cruise through the rest of the season and the loser will be hoping they don't. The Noles open up November, though, in Blacksburg, in what the media thinks will be a preview of the ACCCG. If the two teams' respective offensive lines hold up all season, it will be; it's OB or bust for both of them.
I was gonna combine a recruiting board update into this post, but it's getting late so I'll bother with that tomorrow. UVA just became one of the beneficiaries of the Penn State sanctions, reeling in Zach Bradshaw, who's being recruited as a linebacker. UVA was a finalist in Bradshaw's first go-around, but apparently made up his mind - and wisely ensured he had a landing spot - before officially decommitting from PSU this morning. It causes a shakeup and purge of the recruiting board, which you'll have to sit tight for a bit to see.