TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida State is heavily favored to win its first Atlantic Coast Conference title in seven years and perhaps challenge for a national championship.
Still, Jimbo Fisher said though there is a sense of urgency, there is no more pressure than usual on the Seminoles.
“I don’t think it’s this year or bust at all,” said Fisher, now in his third year as head coach. “We have much more depth than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here.”
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Still, the Seminoles have plenty to prove to a fan base that expected more than a 9-4 showing a year ago and no longer fills Florida State’s 83,000-seat stadium on a regular basis.
The Seminoles were expected to get back among the nation’s elite in 2011, but an early three-game losing streak took care of their preseason hopes of winning the ACC and a BCS bowl berth.
This season begins with the same optimism.
Florida State should have little trouble posting its 36th straight winning season and receiving a 31st consecutive bowl bid, but Fisher expects much more. He believes another year of experience will help his team avoid last year’s pitfalls and get back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2005.
Fisher points to his team’s wealth of talent that includes one of the best returning defenses in the country (the Seminoles gave up only about 15 points per game last season), an experienced fifth-year senior quarterback EJ Manuel and one of the nation’s top placekickers in Dustin Hopkins.
“We’ll be a very good football team,” Fisher said. “Everybody’s got to be ready when their number is called.”
A favorable schedule — the Seminoles only leave the state three times — doesn’t hurt. A seven-game home schedule includes a pair of lower-division schools to begin the campaign followed by two more home games before a trip to Tampa where Florida State hopes to avenge a 2009 loss to South Florida.
The only trips outside Florida boundaries are at North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Maryland.
The 46-year-old Fisher has banned his players from using social media accounts during the season in hopes of keeping them more focused on that task at hand.
Florida State finished 9-4 in 2011 after posting a 10-4 mark in Fisher’s first year as head coach following three seasons as predecessor Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator.
The much heralded defense salvaged the 2011 season by smothering Florida and Notre Dame in the final two games That unit returns virtually intact led by defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins, and safety Lamarcus Joyner.
The Seminoles have recorded 88 quarterback sacks the past two seasons, including 21.5 by Jenkins. Florida State gave up an average of only 15 points a game last year despite surrendering 35 to Clemson and Wake Forest on successive weekends.
The Seminoles will have to replace punter Shawn Powell, who graduated, and return specialist Greg Reid, who was kicked off the team after several violations of team rules. Reid, who was also a two-year starter at cornerback, was only 180 yards shy of the ACC punt return mark of 1,296 yards held by former Virginia Tech star Eddie Royal. Powell’s 44.2 career averaged stands as the best in Florida State history.
But Florida State does have Hopkins, the placekicker known for his gold-colored shoes, returning for this final season. He is within reach of both the school and ACC scoring records of 393 points. He has four field goals of more than 50 yards, including a 55-yard kick that beat Clemson 16-13 in 2010.
It’s been a dozen years since Florida State’s last run at a national title — an exasperating period for fans spoiled accustomed to the Seminoles being contenders.
Those successful teams were always strong at quarterback, especially in the national title years of 1993 and 1999 when Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke were at the helm. Fisher said EJ Manuel, his first marquee recruit, has similar abilities.
“He can lead you to a championship,” Fisher said about his 6-foot-5, 238-pound quarterback.
He’s much bigger than the elusive Ward and far more mobile than Weinke.
“They understood what to do in order to win games whether they were having a great game or having a bad game,” Manuel said of Ward and Weinke. “They still understood what it took, how to put their teams in situations to win the game.”
Manuel, sporting a new beard, said he dropped about 10 pounds in the offseason and believes he’s in the best shape of his life headed into the Sept. 1 opener against Murray (Ky.) State. He’s 13-4 as a starter in a career and has thrown for 4,344 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Manuel and the offense could get a boost from the return of wide receivers Willie Haulstead and Rashad Greene, both attempting to rebound from serious injuries.
Haulstead, who sat out all of last season with concussion symptoms, caught 38 passes for 587 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010. He’s 6-3 and provides another big target for Manuel, who already has 6-6 senior Rodney Smith and 6-6 redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin available along with a handful of smaller veteran receivers. They’re led by 6-foot, 175-pound sophomore Rashad Greene, who caught 38 passes for 596 yards and seven TD’s last season as a freshman despite missing several games with injuries.
Chris Thompson, who ran for 845 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010 when he had three touchdown runs of more than 70 yards, suffered a season-ending back injury in the fifth game last year, but is back in the mix at tailback with sophomore Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr., for carries.
But the offensive line hasn’t been able to provide enough protection or open holes; its been the Seminoles’ Achilles heel the past two years.
Fisher said that problem is solved now with a sophomore-dominated front that didn’t see much action until the win over Notre Dame in a season-ending bowl game.
“Guys have played and even guys who haven’t played who are young are very talented,” Fischer said. “Our weakness last year may now be our strength because we had to play so many guys.”
Manuel, who missed one full game and a half of another after being knocked out of the Oklahoma game in the third quarter, took a pounding last year behind a line that gave up 41 sacks.
But Fisher is counting on the group to do a better job protecting Manuel and helping ignite a dormant running game.
“I think we’ll have a very good offensive line,” Fisher insisted. “When you’re good on the offensive line, you can have a very good football team.”