Preseason countdown: No. 9 FSU

Are we there yet?

The Seminoles will essentially be looking for a do-over in their return to glory, which took a sudden detour in the wrong direction a year ago. Pegged as the program’s long-awaited breakthrough following a decade of mediocrity, Florida State went a disappointing 9-4, failing to even capture the ACC Atlantic Division. However, with as many as 18 starters back from last year’s underachieving squad, the ‘Noles are hell-bent on putting it all together, and possibly vying for national championship contention in 2012.

The process of recapturing momentum and putting 2011 in the rear view mirror began in the spring. And it will continue in earnest in August. To be sure, no unit in Tallahassee will get more attention than an offensive line that struggled mightily with injuries and ineffectiveness throughout the most recent campaign. If this eclectic group of young kids, JUCO imports and transplants from the defense can come together by mid-September, Florida State has the surrounding talent to finally reach its stated goals. In fact, there may not be another serious hole on the entire two-deep roster.

The Seminoles will begin the season with a fifth-year senior, EJ Manuel, behind center and he’ll be playing as if his career in the NFL depends on it … it does. He’ll have no shortage of playmakers with which to connect, including an embarrassment of riches at running back and wide receiver. On defense, Florida State is SEC-caliber, and will have few peers across the country.

The ‘Noles are stacked at every level, but especially along the line and in the secondary, where no less than a half-dozen players might be drafted next April. With Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner rushing the passer, and Xavier Rhodes, Greg Reid and Lamarcus Joyner locking down receivers, it’s going to be vintage Florida State, potentially drawing comparisons to some of the great teams of the 1980s and 1990s.

Florida State believes that it’s ready to finally return to standing atop the ACC, and even carrying the league banner in the national title discussion. Seeing is believing, of course. After having a false start in its return to glory, a potentially loaded Florida State team is more determined than ever to follow through and complete the journey in Jimbo Fisher’s third season as the head coach.

What to look for offense: The distribution of snaps. There will be an unmistakable scent of competition in the air at running back and wide receiver when the Seminoles reconvene in the preseason. Four talented backs, Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Mario Pender, are standing on equal ground in the battle for carries in the fall. All bring something different to the offense. The wide receivers are even deeper, with only Rashad Greene and Rodney Smith appearing safe in the quest for snaps. Florida State needs more pop on offense, and has about a dozen gifted athletes eager to fill the void.

What to look for on defense: A revival from the secondary. It’s not as if the Seminoles defensive backs played poorly in 2011, but they weren’t quite as nasty as expected. Suffice it to say that they’re eager for a do-over. Considering the athletes comprising the defensive backfield, namely Xavier Rhodes, Lamarcus Joyner and Greg Reid, Florida State ought to get its hands on a lot of balls this season. The group breaks quickly on throws, sports excellent ball skills and has no shortage of aggressiveness. With opposing quarterbacks being harried by the ‘Noles pass rushers, there’s no reason why this defense can’t lead the ACC in interceptions.

The team will be much better if: FSU runs the ball more effectively. In 2010, the Seminoles ranked 39th nationally in rushing, and averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Last season, those numbers dipped to 104th in the country and 3.3 yards per carry. Florida State cannot continue to be so pedestrian on the ground, and the backs and linemen must improve upon last season’s performances. If the team gives Manuel more support on the ground, the quarterback is bound to pay it back with a higher passer efficiency rating.

The schedule: The Seminoles get two true NFL-like preseason games against Murray State and Savannah State before kicking off ACC play with a winnable opener against Wake Forest. If the following week against Clemson isn’t for the Atlantic title, it’ll go a long way to deciding it. The ‘Noles can’t lose focus after the huge divisional showdown with a non-conference trip to South Florida kicking off a run of three road games in the following four weeks. Five of the final eight games are on the road including the date with Miami and the possible ACC championship preview against Virginia Tech. However, the off week arrives before going to Blacksburg. Finishing up with Florida isn’t always fun, but at least it’s in Tallahassee.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Manuel. No, Manuel hasn’t hit his ceiling yet in Tallahassee. Yes, it still remains very high. He was decent in his first season as the starter, going 203 of 311 for 2,666 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also added 151 yards and four more scores on the ground. The program realizes that the 6-5, 238-pound former blue-chip recruit is capable of so much more. Not only is he entering his fifth season in the program and possesses an immense amount of physical ability, but the ‘Noles are deep at running back and wide receiver. If Manuel gets even slightly better protection from the line, he’s capable of using 2012 as his breakthrough season.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Brandon Jenkins. Jenkins has plenty of competition for this honor on a loaded Florida State defense, but no one is better at creating havoc than No. 4. He’s one of the game’s premier pass rushers, using his speed, moves and upper body strength to whip opposing tackles around the edge. Even in the face of frequent double-teams and schemes designed to stop him, the two-time all-star still managed to amass team-highs with a dozen stops for loss and eight sacks.

Key players to a successful season: The offensive line. The Seminoles are only better-play-up-front away from being one of the country’s top five programs of 2012. It’s really that simple. Florida State was besieged by injuries last year, which forced the program to employ far more unproven kids than it would normally prefer. Those blockers, like Josue Matias, Austin Barron, Tre’ Jackson and Bobby Hart, are a year older, but there are guarantees that they’ll be a year saltier. FSU simply cannot be the team it wants to be if it’s consistently getting schooled at the point of attack on offense. O-line coach Rick Trickett, it could be argued, is every bit as important as the head coach these days.

The season will be a success if: The Seminoles win the ACC, and appear in their first BCS bowl game since 2005. Anything less must be labeled as missing the mark. This is the team that Florida State has been building toward over the past few years, a squad deep in stars and veteran talent on both sides of the ball. While this certainly won’t be the program’s last chance to finish among the nation’s elite, it is the best chance it’s had in quite some time. It’s incumbent upon the 2012 edition to vanquish last year’s memories by playing up to its ability from wire-to-wire.

Key game: Sept. 22 vs. Clemson. This annual meeting is rapidly turning into a terrific rivalry that’ll feature a parade of stars on both sidelines. For the Seminoles, it represents their first really big test of 2012 after opening with Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest. The Tigers are the defending league champs, but have stumbled in their last two trips to Doak Campbell Stadium. Obviously, the winner here gets a major leg up in the race to capture the Atlantic Division.