Mon May 17 06:13pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Seminoles.
For his own sake, Jimbo Fisher needs to make a splash: Finally, Florida State is his team, and the specters of Bobby Bowden as doddering figurehead overseeing a geriatric coaching staff beset by generational squabbles has been lifted. For a certain segment of the FSU base, it's morning again in Tallahassee, the decisive moment for the old ACC order to be restored.
Even among the most ardent Bowden loyalists, Fisher's first mandate is to deliver on that optimism. As offensive coordinator, he made obvious strides in raising the offense from the depths of the ill-fated experiment with OC Jeff Bowden, who still stands as the prevailing symbol of the 'Noles' overall decline. As head coach, he has another mole to whack, this time to recharge a vastly underachieving defense. At the end of the year, though, the only question that will matter is whether a stagnant program has regained some momentum toward its birthright as ACC overlord and perennial national contender. If so, it's full speed ahead to the top. If not, we may get a chance to see sooner than later just how deep FSU's issues really run.
What's Changed. The BIG CHANGE, obviously, is the nominal transition from Bowden to Fisher at the top. But on the field, the shift from longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews – molder of generations of sleek, NFL-bound pass rushers and misanthropic velociraptors at linebacker – to noted little brother Mark Stoops will be far more dramatic, and not nearly as painful as it's supposed to be for a unit replacing seven starters. The '09 Seminole D was unrecognizable as an Andrews creation, falling on its face almost immediately and stumbling in at dead last in the ACC in rushing, pass efficiency and total defense. FSU gave up at least 26 points in every conference game and had to be bailed out by repeatedly by the offense in shoot-em-up wins over bottom-dwellers N.C. State (45-42), Wake Forest (41-28) and Maryland (29-26) – all of which put up more 400 yards total offense – as well as at North Carolina (30-27), where the offense overcame a 24-6 hole in the second half.
Stoops doesn't have anyone who remotely resembles a potential star at his disposal, and the cornerback situation is, uh, fluid to say the least. But there's more than enough talent among returning regulars Markus White, Nigel Bradham, Mister Alexander and sophomores-to-be Greg Reid (see below) and Jacobbi McDaniel to ensure a healthy improvement – though, compared to 2009, eleven entirely new faces would be likely to improve from rock-bottom, too. A return to respectability (that is, finishing among the top 40 or 50 defenses nationally) would be a solid step back in the right direction, which only reinforces what a wholesale collapse last fall was.
What's the Same. Before he was knocked out for the season at Clemson in early November, quarterback Christian Ponder was accounting for almost three-fourths of FSU's total offense, one of the best numbers in the country and evidence of Ponder's value as the best Seminole quarterback in a decade. He put up at least 250 yards passing in all but one game (the run-oriented, 54-28 win at BYU, in which Ponder was 21 of 26 with two touchdowns) and went off in back-to-back midseason displays against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, combining for 754 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions in a wild shootout loss and a wild comeback win, respectively. He would have had another fourth-quarter comeback to his name if Jarmon Fortson had been able to hold on to a last-gasp throw into the end zone in 38-34 Labor Day loss to Miami.
Ponder was occasionally turnover-prone, notably in the fumble-filled loss to South Florida and the four-interception disaster at Clemson. Given a familiar surrounding cast and another year in Fisher's system, though, Ponder should be back with a 3,500-yard/20-touchdown season that puts him among the most prolific passers in school history, with more than a few "gutsy" runs to his credit, too. They'll probably still need every one of them.
Waiting for their man ... and waiting ... Incredibly, despite a parade of first-rate talent, Florida State hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996. Travis Minor was stuck on an offense with a Heisman-winning quarterback who ruled the skies along with Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles; thundering Greg Jones was derailed by injuries; Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington shared too much for either to grab the spotlight; Antone Smith yielded an unusual number of carries to mobile quarterbacks and never quite lived up to the big-play flash of his recruiting hype. The last decade has been a nonstop parade of mostly adequate but ultimately disappointing role players.
Junior Jermaine Thomas didn't have the blue-chip cred as a recruit, but If all goes well, with all five starting offensive linemen returning for their third season together as an intact group, he probably has as good a chance as any of his predecessors to break the 1,000-yard drought. Thomas clearly emerged from an undistinguished pack as the top back over the second half of last season, beginning with a 19-carry, 98-yard effort in the shootout loss to Georgia Tech and continuing with four 100-yard games in the last six – all on at least 20 carries, a rarity at FSU since Jones blew out his knee in 2003. It won't be a dominant force by any means, but between Thomas, up-and-coming sophomore Lonnie Pryor and the veteran line, it can be a more consistent complement to take some pressure off Ponder than it was throughout last year's roller coaster.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Even with first-rounder Patrick Robinson on hand, cornerback was often a nightmare, and five-star freshman Greg Reid didn't exactly come flying off the bench in a red cape to save the day – for all the acclaim he earned as a shifty return man, and despite a pair of interceptions early in the year (one returned 63 yards for a touchdown at BYU), Reid didn't crack the starting lineup all season and contributed his own lapses to the secondary's overall struggles. Thanks to the recruiting hype and flashes of obvious potential, though, he was still met this spring as the heir to the Florida State cornerback crown once worn by Deion Sanders, Terrell Buckley, Clifton Abraham, Corey Sawyer, Tay Cody, et al., and the primary candidate to emerge as the elite playmaker the defense so desperately lacked in '09.
At any rate, he's the shining beacon: If Reid's not the superstar-in-waiting on that side of the ball, the field of candidates behind him is alarmingly thin.
Best-Case. Athletically, Florida State still ranks with Clemson as the most talented team in a grim-looking Atlantic Division, which has never looked more ripe for the plucking. In a handful of games last year, Ponder showed the makings of a special quarterback and should have every opportunity to make good on that opportunity over an entire season at the helm of an attack that should average well over 30 points per game. Fresh blood and maturing youth could lead to a vastly improved defense that could reduce its per-game yield (30 points per game in '09) by at least a touchdown.
With non-conference obstacles Oklahoma, BYU and Florida on top of Miami, North Carolina and Clemson, it's hardly the kind of schedule that gives the 'Noles an avenue back into the national elite. But Coastal Division heavies Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are notably absent, and a win over Clemson at home may be the only big win FSU needs to punch its ticket to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2005, with a shot at 10 wins therein.
Worst-Case. The 'Noles teetered on the brink of a losing season throughout the end of the Bowden era, struggling through two 6-6 regular seasons and three 7-6 finishes since 2006 without ever taking the sub-.500 plunge at year's end. This team, plagued by an alarming dearth of playmakers on both sides, could be the one that finally goes under. Ponder's throwing shoulder is an unknown quantity after offseason surgery, and his gung-ho style tends to put him in harm's way more often than Fisher would probably like; the defense could significantly improve and still qualify as "bad." With this schedule, FSU is only an upset loss away from another 6-6 regular season and the sobering realization that the malaise didn't leave with the old man.
Non-Binding Forecast. Aside from Ponder, this is probably the least interesting, least explosive Florida State team in decades; it may be the first time I recall thinking that an FSU lineup lacked the players to contend with pretty much anyone in the country. Whatever the problem has been here – out-of-touch coaches, injuries, discipline, division on the staff, whatever – "talent" has never figured into them. Maybe it still doesn't, especially compared to the rest of the Coastal Division, which seems to be in a universal down cycle. In that context, the 'Noles can still easily get back to eight or nine wins and compete for the conference title. But it will take a couple upsets to get there, still a decidedly unfamiliar proposition for a team that's always considered the renaissance right around the corner.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.