Seminoles look for return to glory

PINEHURST, N.C. – This fall marks the 20th season since Florida State joined the ACC – perhaps the most unusual union of a football team and its conference in the nation.

When FSU first started league play in 1992, it immediately became obvious: This is going to be obscene. And it was. Week after bloody week, the Seminoles turned their new conference friends into piñatas. They won the league each of their first nine seasons, going 70-2 in ACC play during that stretch.

The lopsided, one-team conference became a punch line.

Florida State and coach Jimbo Fisher were voted the landslide favorites to win the ACC title at the conference media day.
(Gerry Broome/AP Photo)

Now, though, the ACC misses those jokes because the jabs of “irrelevant” hurt even worse.

Perhaps the worst thing for the league’s reputation was when the other teams eventually knocked out the giant. Various ACC teams have taken turns replacing FSU atop the league standings. But none has done so in the national polls.

“It’s important for every conference to have somebody in that game [national championship game] and that limelight,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said Monday at ACC Media Days. “We haven’t had that recently, but in time we will. Everything goes in cycles.”

Miami was supposed to be that “limelight” team for the ACC. Hasn’t happened. So was Virginia Tech. Nope, not really. Boston College, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Clemson … they’ve all had their chances. Not even close.

Now, the ACC has turned back to its giant.

Florida State is the landslide favorite to reclaim its ACC throne this season. The Seminoles received more than two-thirds of the votes to win the league title, it was announced Monday, and the sense nationally is that FSU is on the cusp of consistently competing for national titles again.

“It seems like yesterday we won a national championship in 1999, but now it’s 2011,” junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins said. “It’s time to get back.”

The first day of the new millennium featured the Seminoles winning the national championship, but the 2000s have since been cruel to the ACC. The league is a miserable 1-10 in BCS bowl games since FSU’s title. Its champion lost to schools such as Kansas, Iowa and Louisville in those games, and by scores of 40-12 and 56-23. Rarely has an ACC squad been part of the national discussion beyond Halloween.

ACC commissioner John Swofford on Sunday called for his league to become more competitive in non-conference games. That starts with Florida State on Sept. 17 at home against Oklahoma. Last season, the Sooners humiliated the Seminoles 47-17 in Norman.

“It’s a super opportunity for Oklahoma and for Florida State,” Fisher said.

Much more super for Florida State.

That’s the evening the Seminoles need to prove this isn’t another summer of undeserved expectations, because it sometimes feels as if FSU is one of those teams everyone outside its biggest rivals simply want to return to the national elite.

Even though the Seminoles averaged nearly five losses per season over the past decade, their preseason ranking didn’t necessarily reflect the program’s decline.

FSU opened the season in the rankings every year of the past decade, including these Associated Press preseason misfires:

• 2002: Preseason No. 5, final poll No. 21.

• 2004: Preseason No. 5, final poll No. 15.

E.J. Manuel gained plenty of experience in relief of Christian Ponder the past two seasons.
(Sam Sharpe/US Presswire)

• 2006, 07, 09: Ranked in preseason, fell out of polls for good in first half of season.

In other words, predictions of FSU’s revival have become common in July and laughable by October.

So what makes 2011 different?

“We’ve got talent everywhere,” Jenkins said, “and a lot of talented young guys.”

The Seminoles return 17 starters to blend with the No. 2 incoming recruiting class in the nation – a class that features five-star prospects at running back (James Wilder Jr.) and safety (Karlos Williams), as well as 13 four-star players. The top two receivers, the top three rushers and quarterback E.J. Manuel, second behind Boston College tailback Montel Harris in ACC preseason player of the year voting, are back.

Manuel, a freakishly athletic quarterback at 6 feet 4 and 245 pounds, gained plenty of experience in relief of Christian Ponder the past two seasons. He played a starring role in two bowl wins and appears primed for a big junior season.

“Toughness and competitiveness, right off the bat, and that translates into your team,” Fisher said of Manuel. “I’ve never been around a tough team or a competitive team and the quarterback wasn’t that way. Teams take the personality of the quarterback. He has those qualities. Then he’s very athletic, great arm talent, and he can process information to make decisions.”

So there’s evidence the Seminoles will make that leap in 2011. But for now, it remains another rash of “Florida State is back” declarations.

Virginia Tech senior free safety Eddie Whitley has heard the hype surrounding FSU’s resurrection and offered a simple reminder of last season’s ACC title game: Hokies 44, Seminoles 33.

“Everybody knows who wore the last ring,” he said.

Great point. But it has been a long time since anyone in the ACC wore a ring that really mattered. And the last time that happened, the Seminoles absolutely owned this conference.

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Derek Samson is the Assistant Managing Editor/Recruiting for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Send Derek a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jul 25, 2011