ACC preview: Florida State

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- If there was any question about the ascending expectations Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has placed on himself and the program entering his fourth season, Fisher answered it within the first 10 minutes of the ACC's annual media days in July.
"National championship and ACC championship," he declared, then looked around the room for any follow-ups. There were none.
Coming off a 12-2 season, a BCS Orange Bowl victory and the school's first ACC Championship since 2005, Fisher earned the right to puff out his chest a bit. But 2013's goals might seem a little lofty for a team that wasn't even picked by the media to win its own division or conference title this season -- and the preseason No. 12-ranked Seminoles are just fine with that. They'll let the league's other perceived powerhouses this year, Clemson and Miami, shoulder the pressure of preordained success.
"We love that (Clemson and Miami were picked to meet for the ACC title)," FSU star defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, who is moving from safety to cornerback this season, said in Julyt. "Good luck with that, Clemson. Woe to them because that's a lot of pressure. We've been in that situation before. I know how that feeling can get. So good luck with that. We like the fact that the attention has shifted to someone else."
Since the days of legendary former coach Bobby Bowden, FSU hasn't flown under the radar very often, but the Seminoles will try to for as long as they can this season. After all, the bevy of preseason question marks surrounding the program -- starting with which underclassman quarterback, Jameis Winston or Jacob Coker, will make his first career start when the Seminoles open on the road against ACC newcomer Pittsburgh on Sept. 2 -- are enough to make a case for taking a wait-and-see approach. FSU was ranked 10th in the nation a year ago in points per game (39.29) and third in yards per play on offense (7.01), but that was under the leadership of senior quarterback EJ Manuel, who is now in the NFL after being taken with the 16th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills. So it's reassuring for FSU that its receiving corps, led by junior Rashad Greene and senior Kenny Shaw -- as well as its running backs and offensive line -- all return veteran leadership nearly top to bottom.
"I think we have a chance to be a pretty good football team," Fisher said. "I don't think we're going to have a lack of leadership. We had some dominant leaders last year, but I feel we also have some really good leaders this year. Some older, some younger. I'm very comfortable with where we're at right now."
Fisher likely won't name a starting quarterback until the week of the Seminoles' Labor Day night matchup against the Panthers, but Winston is the clear-cut favorite. After a redshirt freshman season, he wowed at the Seminoles' annual Garnet & Gold Game in April when the first pass he threw in an FSU uniform was a 58-yard laser for a touchdown, finishing an impressive 12 of 15 for 205 yards and two scores in his anticipated debut. Winston, a two-sport star at FSU who is also a shut-down reliever for the baseball team, carries the heaviest expectations of any of the program's scholarship quarterbacks. He was the No. 1 overall QB recruit in the nation in 2011 -- but Fisher won't crown him just yet.
No matter who wins the job, "our philosophy won't change (on offense) with where we're going and how we're playing," said Fisher, who lost offensive coordinator James Coley to rival Miami this offseason and will not give the title to any one coach this year, instead joining minds with receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey and new quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders to call plays.
And while solidifying the QB spot is crucial, the defense might be a bigger concern, which is why Fisher brought in a three-time national champ to lead the unit.
Alabama's Jeremy Pruitt, the former Crimson Tide defensive backs coach who won BCS titles with the school in 2009, 2011 and 2012, inherits a group that said goodbye to key pieces of the nation's No. 2-ranked total defense from last season. It lost seven starters to the NFL, as well as coordinator Mark Stoops, who was hired to be the head coach at Kentucky. The blitz-happy Pruitt will overhaul the Seminoles' approach, going away from Stoops' traditional zone packages and moving toward all-out aggression almost every down. And senior starting linebacker Christian Jones, for one, thinks the new scheme will carry the Seminoles' "D" right back to the top.
"We had a chance to learn some of the (new) stuff in the spring, and we have a chance to be just as good if we continuing working hard," said Jones, who is joined by junior defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan as two of the more experienced returners. "We have some good leaders -- myself, (linebacker) Telvin (Smith), Joyner. We have experience, and we know what to expect."
Unlike last year, when FSU opened with five straight home games, including the first three against undermanned and out-classed opponents -- Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest, winning by a ridiculous combined tally of 176-3 -- the 2013 opening slate is considerably harder. After going to Pitt, which took BCS title-game runner-up Notre Dame to three overtimes last season, FSU hosts one of the Western Athletic Conference's top programs in Nevada in their first-ever meeting Sept. 14, then opens ACC play two weeks later Sept. 28 on the road against what's expected to be a much-improved Boston College team. The back half of the schedule is brutal as always, highlighted by an Oct. 19 bout against preseason No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley, where the Seminoles haven't won in more than a decade; a Nov. 2 showdown at home against bitter rival Miami, which was picked to win the Atlantic Division over Florida State; and finally, the annual showdown to close the regular season Nov. 30 at rival and preseason No. 10 Florida -- a game that could have national title implications if either team enters unbeaten (or with one loss) and a conference championship game still looming ahead of them.
Fisher wants FSU to be in that very position come December. Furthermore, he expects it.
"How far we go depends on how everybody's commitment to excellence is," Fisher said. "We expect to be good. We want to be good. We have the coaches to be good. I like this football team. I really do."

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Fisher badly wants to deliver FSU its first national championship since Bowden won the last of the Seminoles' two rings in 1999, but to do that, the Seminoles must be in position -- something they've struggled to put themselves in during the last decade-plus. To be in the mix for a BCS crown, FSU must find a way of stopping an alarming trend of having at least one inexplicable loss every year but one since 2001 that has derailed its title hopes again and again. Last year, FSU blew a 16-0 halftime lead to a lowly N.C. State squad, which ruined the Seminoles' unbeaten 6-0 record and No. 3 national ranking at the time. In 2011, it was Virginia at home -- on Senior Night -- that knocked the Seminoles out of the running for playing for anything of significance in the postseason. In 2010, it was N.C. State again; in 2009, it was South Florida and Boston College in the same season. And the list goes on. In all, FSU has been on the wrong side of 19 major upsets since 2001, including nine straight years of at least one shocker. And those losses either happened so late in the season that it dropped the Seminoles out of the running for the national title, or were so embarrassing -- look no further than Wake Forest's 30-0 shutout of FSU in 2006 in Tallahassee for the Demon Deacons' first-ever victory vs. the Seminoles -- Florida State could never recover in the eyes of the pollsters. Already, some are pointing to possible "trap" games this year being the season opener in front of a national television audience Sept. 2 at Pitt, which leads the all-time series 5-3, or at home Nov. 16 against Big East power Syracuse, which ended last season on a four-game winning streak.
AREA OF CONCERN: The terrifying trio of Bjoern Werner (first round, Indianapolis Colts), Tank Carrdine (second round, San Francisco 49ers) and Brandon Jenkins (fifth round, Washington Redskins) are gone to the NFL after a combined 62.5 career sacks. That leaves just five players -- Timothy Jernigan, Chris Casher, Giorgio Newberry, Dan Hicks and Mario Edwards Jr. -- who return with experience on the defensive line. And when Fisher announced on the opening day of practice Aug. 5 that Newberry (6-6, 280 pounds) had been switched to the depleted tight end position, that list grew smaller -- not to mention Hicks hasn't played in more than a year following a season-ending knee injury in 2012. Last year, FSU's defense ranked No. 1 nationally in two categories: yards per play allowed (3.85) and yards per rush allowed (2.75). But with so much inexperience up front -- the remaining players on the defensive-line depth chart are all newcomers -- FSU may struggle to duplicate last year's success that saw the defense hold six of the teams on its schedule to 10 points or fewer. Fisher, however, doesn't seem too worried -- at least not at the moment -- saying at the outset of practice: "I feel very good about where we are defensive end-wise. There's a group where we feel very comfortable with size and speed and with the things they do."

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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