Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher believes his Seminoles still have enough talent to make a run at a second straight ACC championship despite all the talent they lost to the NFL.
Picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in its first year in the ACC, Pittsburgh knows critics aren’t expecting much.
The 11th-ranked Seminoles and Panthers meet for the first time in 30 years Monday night at Heinz Field.
Eleven players were selected in the NFL draft and another handful of Seminoles signed free-agent contracts after helping Florida State (12-2, 7-1) win the conference for the first time since 2005.
Fisher’s major challenges include finding replacements for quarterback EJ Manuel, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Bjoern Werner, who were all first-round picks in the draft earlier this year.
“We lost a lot, but there’s still a lot coming in,” Fisher said.
Fisher is confident the Seminoles will be right in the middle of things again this season.
“We’ll tweak and turn, we’re learning,” Fisher said. “The infrastructure of our program about how we do things won’t change right now.”
Fisher has named redshirt freshman Jameis Winston as the starting quarterback. Winston, who completed 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game in April, was chosen over redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker.
Coker, who threw five passes in 2012, completed 15 of 26 for a touchdown and two interceptions in the spring game.
Fisher said he felt comfortable with both quarterbacks but that Winston was a little more consistent during preseason camp. He said the competition between the two made them better and that the decision was like splitting hairs.
Winston has plenty of talent surrounding him with a pair of 600-yard rushers back in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, and a playmaking receiver in Rashad Greene.
“I want everyone to feel comfortable,” Winston said.
He also said success wouldn’t change him.
“If I get (Johnny) ‘Manziel disease,’ I want everyone of y’all to get your mics and just start (hitting me) on the head,” he said, adding that Manziel was a good person, based on what he’d heard from other athletes.
Florida State has gone 31-10 in Fisher’s three seasons, a successful transition from coach Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles, though, have struggled in games in which they were heavily favored, losing ACC matchups to N.C. State and North Carolina in 2010, Virginia in 2011 and blowing a 16-point second-half lead at N.C. State in 2012.
A favorable schedule would appear to benefit Florida State this season. A game at No. 8 Clemson in mid-October and the season finale at 10th-ranked Florida are likely to be the only times the Seminoles may not be favored to win.
They’re favored by more than a touchdown this week against the Panthers, who for months have been watching the countdown clock in their weight room subtract the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the program’s baptism into the ACC.
“Whenever you see the clock winding down, it gives you the jitters like it’s almost game time,” tight end J.P. Holtz said. “It’s just going to be a great atmosphere.”
One coach Paul Chryst knows he can’t duplicate in practice, not that he’s trying anyway. Though he’s a creature of habit, Chryst knows not all openers are created equal. While 11 more games remain regardless of what happens Monday, he’s aware the Panthers will never get another opportunity to make a first impression.
“I do believe games like this are why guys want to come to Pittsburgh,” Chryst said. “When guys think of college football, they think of games like these.”
While Chryst is pleased with the way his team has responded during training camp, the Panthers remain very much a work in progress.
Starting quarterback Tom Savage hasn’t played a live down in nearly three years. The running backs are banged up and the offensive line includes two guys making the first starts of their career.
Still, Holtz wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would rather start off with all big games to tell you the truth,” Holtz said. “That’s why you come to play Division I football. You come to play the best of the best.”
Chryst’s arrival gave Pitt needed stability at the top, but he spent most of his first season trying to get a handle on his roster while figuring out his personnel. It led to a 6-7 year in 2012.
The feeling-out process is over. Chryst has earned his team’s trust, and his players have earned his respect.
“We know what we can do,” Holtz said. “A lot of people don’t have faith in us, but us as a group we all have faith in each other.”
Pitt leads 5-3 in the all-time series. The teams last met in 1983, with the Panthers coming away with a 17-16 win at home.