July 12, 2010
Questionable certainties advanced by the summer pundits. Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
I've admitted before to being held in the nostalgic sway of the garnet and gold unis and tomahawk'd helmets that ran roughshod over the rest of the ACC throughout my formative years. For more than a decade, the men who inhabited those colors were big, fast, dangerous and almost always victorious. So I understand where the preseason magazines are coming from when they break unanimously for Florida State as the Atlantic Division favorite this fall. Just like I understood it when they picked FSU to win the Atlantic last year, and pretty much every single year before that.
In fact, since Florida State was last Florida State – the 'Noles haven't come close to contending for a national championship since losing the BCS title game to Oklahoma in 2000 – the mainstream preseason consensus tracked by Stassen.com counts FSU as the go-to favorite, year after year, regardless of the actual returns:
Florida State Preseason Consensus Since 2001
2001: 1st ACC (Unanimous), 6th National.
2002: 1st ACC (Unanimous), 4th National.
2003: 1st ACC, 15th National.
2004: 2nd ACC, 6th National.
2005: 1st ACC Atlantic (Unanimous), 14th National.
2006: 1st ACC Atlantic, 10th National.
2007: 1st ACC Atlantic, 21st National.
2008: 3rd ACC Atlantic
2009: 1st ACC Atlantic, 17th National.
2010: 1st ACC Atlantic, 21st National.
FSU justified the pundits' optimism with ACC titles in 2002, 2003 and 2005, though even in '02 and '05 they wound up falling well short of national expectations with five losses in both seasons. The teams projected to win the Atlantic in 2006, 2007 and 2009 all finished far from the polls at 7-6, good for fifth, fourth and third place in the division, respectively.
Why do we keep coming back for this prognosticative punishment? The most obvious answer may be that there's no competition: Where the Coastal Division is shaping up as a cutthroat battle to the death between four poll-worthy contenders, the 'Noles actually remain as reliable a bet as there is on the other side of the divide. The only Atlantic rival that can remotely keep pace with Florida State in recruiting, Clemson, is regarded as a chronic underachiever in its own right, still enduring a 20-year conference title drought after croaking away golden opportunities in 2006 and 2007 and collapsing as a runaway favorite in 2008. The resident overachiever, Boston College, can't touch the 'Noles' overall talent. And the less said about the current states of Maryland, N.C. State and Wake Forest as viable contenders, the better.
But this particular edition also has a couple substantial edges on its predecessors, beginning with Christian Ponder, the first reliable, veteran quarterback at FSU since Chris Weinke in 2000. After a decade of enduring Chris Rix, Wyatt Sexton and the Drew Weatherford/Xavier Lee Experience, Ponder seems like a godsend, if for no other reason than he's clearly doing more good than harm on a consistent basis. Between Ponder, coach Jimbo Fisher and an entirely intact line entering its third year with the same lineup, the offense works.
The other major development for 'Nole optimists, of course, is the long-awaited departure of Bobby Bowden, along with longtime sidekicks Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato. For all anybody knows, the geriatric regime has been the only obstacle keeping a perennial top-10 recruiting power from once again fulfilling its limitless potential. As vicious as most of Andrews' defenses were through the decades, this particular unit certainly isn't going to get any worse in his absence.
Off three 7-6 finishes in four years, though, even deep-seated nostalgia can't quite make this team look like a serious contender outside of the context of a down Atlantic Division. (If they played in the Coastal, they'd probably be pegged for fifth this time around, behind solid-looking editions of Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.) As I've written before, aside from Ponder, this is probably the least interesting, least explosive Florida State team in decades; it may be the first time I recall thinking that an FSU lineup lacked the players to contend with pretty much anyone in the country. But they've still got the goods to take this division, though, so if the question is limited to the odds of making it out of the Atlantic to the ACC Championship Game, the 'Noles are probably the best bet after "N/A."
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.