Team countdown: No. 9 Florida State

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Florida State went into last season ranked in the top 10. The Seminoles will go into this season ranked in the top 10. The question is whether they meet expectations this season.

Last season, the Seminoles fell far short, not even winning their ACC division.

The defense is a big reason for the high expectations. Eight starters return, and depth along the line is excellent.

But there are numerous questions offensively, with the biggest about the line. FSU ranked 112th nationally in rushing offense last season. Seminoles sophomore TB Devonta Freeman has 1,000-yard potential if the line gives him the room to run.

The particulars

Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in ACC (tied for 2nd in ACC Atlantic)
Coach: Jimbo Fisher (19-8, 3rd season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – G Jacob Fahrenkrug, TB Devonta Freeman, T Bobby Hart, QB E.J. Manuel, FB Lonnie Pryor, WR Rodney Smith, C Bryan Stork (moved to T). Defense (8) – T Everett Dawkins, E Brandon Jenkins, LB Christian Jones, SS Lamarcus Joyner, T Anthony McCloud, CB Xavier Rhodes, E Bjoern Werner, LB Vince Williams. Special teams (1) – K Dustin Hopkins.
Fast fact: Florida State won at least 10 games each season from 1987-2000. But the Seminoles have done it just twice since.

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E.J. Manuel gained plenty of experience in relief of Christian Ponder the past two seasons.

Offense

Senior QB E.J. Manuel is a big-timer when healthy. But the "when healthy" caveat frequently has come into play. He has started 17 games and missed seven in the past two seasons. He is a good runner and possesses a strong arm. He threw for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. But he has just 24 TDs and 18 picks in his career, and is looking for a strong senior campaign.

Freeman might not be an elite tailback, but he is good enough. He came on strong in the second half of last season and also gives Manuel a solid receiver out of the backfield. Depth at tailback isn't as good as it has been in recent seasons. Senior Chris Thompson has good speed, but he had back problems last season. Sophomore James Wilder Jr. is strictly a between-the-tackles runner. True freshman Mario Pender would have seen time, but he will miss the season with a groin injury. FB Lonnie Pryor has become a good lead blocker and a competent receiver.

While there is no elite go-to receiver, the receiving corps is deep. Sophomore Rashad Greene led the team in receptions (38), yards (596) and receiving TDs (seven) last season as a true freshman. Greene (6 feet/170 pounds) has a nice size/speed combination. There are numerous other good targets, too: senior Rodney Smith, juniors Willie Haulstead, Kenny Shaw and Greg Dent and sophomore Christian Green. All have 50-catch potential, but Manuel likely will spread it around. Haulstead missed last season with concussion issues and is a physical presence on the outside.

Sophomore Nick O'Leary should start at tight end. O'Leary has the speed to get deep and should double his 12-catch total from last season. Junior Kevin Haplea, who transferred from Penn State last week, could end up as the No. 2 tight end.

That brings us to the line, the Seminoles' biggest area of concern. Three starting linemen are back, but two could lose their jobs and the other has changed positions. Bryan Stork, who started 10 games at center last season, moved to tackle in the spring. He, Bobby Hart and converted DT Cameron Erving will vie for the two starting spots. Actually, Erving appears set at left tackle, leaving Hart and Stork to battle it out on the right side. JC transfer Daniel Glauser, who has one season of eligibility remaining, also will be in the hunt for playing time. Replacing Stork at center will be sophomore Austin Barron, a heady, instinctual player who started three times last season. Senior Jacob Fahrenkrug is a returning starter at guard, but he seems likely to lose his job. Sophomores Tre Jackson and Josue Matias are the favorites to start, with Fahrenkrug and Garrett Faircloth the top reserves. Some good news for coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff: Of the top 10 linemen, just two are seniors.

Defense

If the offensive line is a question, the defensive line is an exclamation point. The end duo of Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner should be one of the top three or four nationally. Jenkins is a big-time pass rusher who has improved against the run, while Werner – a native of Germany who played high school football as an exchange student in Connecticut – exploded onto the scene in a big way last fall. Cornellius "Tank" Carradine provides senior leadership as a reserve, and it seems extremely likely that true freshman Mario Edwards will be part of the rotation, too.

There is ample depth at tackle. Senior Everett Dawkins and sophomore Timmy Jernigan are the starters; they are stout against the run and occasionally flash their pass-rush abilities. Seniors Anthony McCloud and Moses McCray and junior Demonte McAllister are solid backups. True freshman Eddie Goldman arrives with a ton of hype and could force himself into the picture. A wild card is senior Jacobbi McDaniel, who is good enough to start if healthy. But he is not 100 percent recovered from a leg injury suffered late last season and could end up redshirting.

Christian Jones and Vince Williams are returning starters at linebacker; they combined to make 110 tackles last season. Jones has a huge upside; if he plays with more consistency this season, he will be an All-ACC selection. The one new starter at linebacker should be Nick Moody, a former starter at free safety. He has bulked up to almost 240 pounds and should have no problems being physical at his new position. Junior reserve Telvin Smith is a proven performer, but the other backups are untested.

Senior CB Greg Reid was dismissed from the team in late July, and he will be missed. He would've been a three-year starter. Junior CB Xavier Rhodes had a fabulous redshirt freshman season in 2010, but struggled some last season. If he regains his 2010 form (four interceptions, 12 pass breakups, 58 tackles), he will vie for All-America honors. Sophomore Nick Waisome steps into Reid's open spot, but there is no proven depth now. Speedy true freshman Ronald Darby could play his way into the mix.

Junior SS Lamarcus Joyner, a converted cornerback, was impressive last season and should contend for all-league honors. He's only 5-8, but he has good coverage skills and plays aggressively. The new free safety will be either junior Terrence Brooks or sophomore Karlos Williams, Vince's younger brother. Brooks had six pass breakups as a reserve last season.

Special teams

Senior Dustin Hopkins is one of the best kickers in the nation. He was 22-of-27 last season and has a huge leg, making at least one 50-yarder each season. The new punter is expected to be true freshman Carson Beatty.

Reid will be tough to replace as a return man; he was especially good as a punt returner. Joyner, Shaw, Karlos Williams and true freshman WR Marvin Bracy – one of the top two or three high school sprinters in the nation last year – are some possibilities.

FSU's kickoff coverage was strong last season, but the punt coverage needs to improve.

Schedule

Florida State plays its first four games at home, including two FCS teams in a row to open the season.

The fourth home game is a big one: Clemson comes to town in a game that very likely decides the ACC Atlantic Division title. The game with the Tigers and the regular-season finale with Florida are the only tough contests among FSU's seven home games.

The road schedule is a tough one, as it includes visits to USF, North Carolina State, Miami and Virginia Tech. FSU has lost at least two road games in eight of the past 10 seasons.

Overview

The Seminoles haven't won the ACC title since 2005, but they're definitely going to head into the season as the league favorite. FSU possesses a defense that certainly is good enough to win the ACC title and at least contend for a national title. Can the offense do its job?

The offensive line is the key. Line coach Rick Trickett has enough bodies with which to work, but can he put the right guys in the right places? The offense doesn't have to be great; it just has to be good because the defense is going to be great.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 7th nationally
The buzz: Fisher and Florida State looked for quality over quantity in 2012 and found it. The class is led by two five-star defensive linemen in Edwards and Goldman. Another five-star prospect, dual-threat QB Jameis Winston, is expected to be the next great signal-caller in Tallahassee. Other top signees on defense include Darby, four-star DE Chris Casher and four-star LB Ukeme Eligwe. Of FSU's 19 signees, 12 were members of the Rivals250. – Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

OT Cameron Erving. Without question, the offensive line is the No. 1 key to Florida State's success in 2012. Fisher took a huge gamble in Erving from defensive tackle to first-team left tackle. Erving, a third-year sophomore, never had played offensive line until spring practice, where he took every snap with the first team at his new position. Despite his lack of experience, he flourished at left tackle. Coaches have raved about his natural ability and NFL potential. – D.C. Reeves, WarChant.com

For more on Florida State throughout the season, check out WarChant.com

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