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Preseason countdown: No. 4 Florida St.

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After just one season with Jimbo Fisher at the helm, Florida State is talking championships again.

With great deference to Bobby Bowden for all that he did for the sport and the program, last year was Exhibit A why he needed to be replaced by the Seminole brass. With Fisher calling the shots for the first time, Florida State was finally on the verge of being Florida State again.

No. 4: Florida State

The team was sharper in all possible measurements. There was a tangible feel that the 'Noles were shaking free from the mediocrity that had latched on like a leech. Not only did they win 10 games for the first time since 2003, but they routed rivals Miami and Florida, and closed with an impressive win over South Carolina and Steve Spurrier in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. And that appears to be just the beginning.

Fisher and his assistants are set to begin their second year on the job, which means another solid recruiting class to mold and less of a need for introductions. Plus, the 2011 version is loaded with returning starters and as talented a mixture of youth and experience as any school in the ACC.

Fair or not, Florida State’s ability to hit its mark in 2011 will hinge on the development of a single player, junior QB E.J. Manuel. An uber-recruit from three years ago, he has an opportunity to be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Seminoles. If he’s up to the challenge, there’s no telling how high this team can reach in the fall.

Florida State is trending up for a change, the result of the right staff coaching an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball. The Seminoles are just one year into the tenure of Fisher, but it’s getting harder and harder to contain enthusiasm about their potential.

The defense and special teams are going to be first-rate, leaving the offense, specifically the passing game, as the linchpin for success.

What to look for offense: The center of attention. The Seminoles plucked a gem out of the junior-college ranks in the winter, signing offensive lineman Jacob Fahrenkrug out of North Dakota State College of Science. He’s made an immediate splash, taking control of the opening at center and allowing veteran David Spurlock to remain at guard. Fahrenkrug has been a revelation for a front wall that needs to replace Ryan McMahon. The tackles are outstanding and the guards will be stout. If the prized import plays as well as he did in the spring, Florida State will boast one of the ACC’s toughest offensive lines.

What to look for on defense: A mess of game-changing plays from the secondary. In safety Lamarcus Joyner and corners Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, the 'Noles are harboring three incendiary athletes in the secondary. Each of them brings speed, explosiveness and an extra helping of swagger to the defensive backfield. They’ve got a knack for breaking quickly on throws, jumping the route, and getting their hands on the ball. A nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators, they’ll be good for around 35 passes defended and 10 picks this fall.

The team will be much better if: It eliminates the lapses in pass defense. Yeah, the secondary is flush with potential and great athletes, but consistency has still eluded it. Last season’s four losses tell a sobering tale of inconsistency at times during the year. Sure, the Seminoles improved markedly in pass defense, but in their only losses to Oklahoma, NC State, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech, they allowed 11 touchdown passes … and picked off just one. The defensive backs need to bring it every weekend because the offense might not be equipped to win shootouts, especially in the early going.

The schedule: The schedule shapes up for a huge season if, and it's a big if, the 'Noles can survive September. Two light scrimmages against ULM and Charleston Southern should be enough to be ready for the home date with Oklahoma, and then comes the ACC opener at Clemson. And then things ease up. If FSU is as good as advertised, it'll be favored from October 1st to the regular season finale at Florida, and that includes the showdown against Miami and a possibly tough date against N.C. State. Missing Virginia Tech and North Carolina from the Coastal is a huge break.

Best offensive player: Senior LT Andrew Datko. For the second consecutive year, the Seminoles can point to a blocker as their best offensive player. Thank you, Rick Trickett. Datko has been a starter since his freshman season, gradually getting better with each passing year. Built like a tight end when he first arrived, he’s been able to bulk up without losing his agility or quick feet. Also one of the strongest players on the roster, he gave up just one sack in 2010, which hasn’t been lost on the NFL scouts who’ve started breaking down his film.

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Best defensive player: Junior DE Brandon Jenkins. At this time last year, Jenkins was an unknown defender outside Tallahassee. Today, he’s considered one of the premier pass rushers in the country. What occurred in between was a breakthrough campaign for Florida State’s next big thing at defensive end. Lightning quick around the edge, he earned All-American honors in 2010 by compiling 63 tackles, 21.5 stops behind the line, and 13.5 sacks. If he’s an amateur beyond this season, it’ll qualify as an upset.

Key players to a successful season: Junior QB Manuel. Is there even a debate? Manuel is going to be under a ton of pressure this season, the former can’t-miss recruit looking to replace first-round draft choice Christian Ponder. His physical tools are beyond reproach, but a big arm and quick feet never guarantee success at this position. The junior needs to immediately show that this is his team and that he can command the respect of the veterans. The Seminoles need more than a game manager in order to achieve their goals, meaning Manuel must throw the ball with consistency and deliver in the red zone.

The season will be a success if: Florida State takes another step forward by winning an ACC championship. No one has more talent or is better positioned for the crown than the 'Noles, so anything less than a first BCS bowl game since 2005 will be a disappointment. The conference schedule isn’t daunting, with trips to Clemson and Boston College shaping up as the only tough road tests. Florida State is going to be the favorite to beat the Coastal Division champ in December, which is what it needs to do in the name of progress.

Key game: Sept. 17 vs. Oklahoma. Are you really back, Florida State? If so, go out and prove it in what could be the biggest game at Doak Campbell Stadium in a decade. Not only might the Sooners be the nation’s top-ranked team at the time, but the ‘Noles will be looking to regain some respect after last September’s 47-17 drubbing in Norman. Obviously, the outcome has no bearing on the ACC title chase, but the winner of this showdown stays at the forefront for an even bigger prize, a chance at a BCS National Championship.

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