Samford-Florida St. Preview

For the first time in 35 years, it won’t be Bobby Bowden calling
plays on the Florida State sidelines.

After the legendary coach retired following another mediocre
season, Jimbo Fisher will try to start returning the No. 20
Seminoles to prominence as they open the season at home against
Samford on Saturday.

With their program being eclipsed by the state’s other big
football schools, Florida State is counting on Fisher to bring new
life after several mediocre final seasons under Bowden.

Despite winning two national championships and posting 14
straight top-five finishes, Bowden hadn’t coached a team to a
10-win season since 2003 and his squad finished 7-6 in three of the
last five seasons, including 2009.

While Bowden said in an interview last week that the decision to
retire wasn’t completely in his control, all sides seem ready to
move on.

“He was my hero, but we have to move forward,” Fisher said. “I
have to control what we do now.”

Fisher, who was an offensive coordinator under Bowden for three
years and had been named the coach-in-waiting two years ago,
quickly began making changes. He brought in a sports psychologist
as well as a nutritionist to improve players’ diets.

He also named Mark Stoops as defensive coordinator. Stoops
previously held the same position at Arizona, and he’ll be trying
to improve a Florida State team that had one of the nation’s worst
defenses last season.

The Seminoles ranked 108th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in
yards allowed per game with 434.6 and were 94th in average points
allowed with 30.0.

“We’ll never be a great team until we’re great on defense,”
Fisher said. “I like where we’re going. We’re not there yet.”

On offense, there’s a lot more confidence. Christian Ponder is a
third-year starter and he’s especially eager to get back on the
field after his 2009 season was cut short by a separated shoulder
suffered in November. He said he had been considering leaving for
the NFL, but believes the injury may have been a blessing in
disguise.

“In the long run it’s definitely better (returning),” said
Ponder, who had surgery on the shoulder. “A lot of juniors who come
out don’t really pan out.”

Ponder threw for 2,717 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven
interceptions in nine games in 2009, completing 68.8 percent of his
passes. He’s already being talked about as a possible first-round
draft pick.

“He does not want to be average in anything he does, and he’s
willing to put the sweat in to get the glory,” Fisher said.

However, Ponder will be looking for a new target after losing
leading receiver Rod Owens to graduation. Also, Jarmon Fortson, who
had 45 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns, was dismissed
from the team. Bert Reed is back after recording 710 yards
receiving.

While Samford is a Football Championship Subdivision team and
doesn’t figure to pose much of a challenge, Florida State is trying
to avoid looking ahead to its matchup at No. 7 Oklahoma on Sept.
11.

For Bowden, who attended Samford, he said he’ll keep his
distance but has no ill will toward Fisher or the program and
wishes them luck.

“I love Florida State,” he said. “I’ll be pulling for them. I’ll
be pulling for Jimbo.”

Samford went 5-6 last season, losing 28-24 to Central Florida in
its season opener in the only game it played against an FBS
opponent in 2009. The Bulldogs were led by Chris Evans, who rushed
for 1,152 yards and seven touchdowns, and Dustin Taliaferro threw
for 1,692 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 59.2 percent
of his passes.

Ponder will provide a big test for Samford’s defense, which was
the team’s strength last year. The Bulldogs ranked 15th in the FCS
in yards allowed per game with 284.5 and were 19th in scoring
defense with an average of 17.5 points allowed.

“The first thing you noticed about (the Seminoles) is the talent
and the overall speed,” coach Pat Sullivan, entering his fourth
season at Samford, told the Bulldogs’ official website. “I really
think this is the most talented football team we’ve played since
we’ve been at Samford.”

Florida State lost its home homer to Miami last season, 38-34.
This is the second time these teams have met and the first since
Florida State’s 20-6 win in 1950 when Samford was known as Howard
College.