This is a tricky period of time for the ACC, which wonders about its place in the new order of college football after the recent announcement of a playoff format for the 2014 season. That doesn’t materially alter the postseason too much, but the dissolution of the BCS as we know could be a big blow to the ACC (and Big East), which no longer will have automatic entry to one of the big money bowls. Stay tuned for further developments.
Which is why recent word that Florida State might be receptive to a call from the Big XII has sent alarm bells ringing across the ACC, which once made a bold addition when liberating the Seminoles from independent status in 1992, and later helped disarm the Big East as a football factor over the past decade.
The threat, legitimate or not, of Florida State jumping ship shook the ACC to its core. Despite a relatively barren patch of recent form (at least by the Seminoles’ standards), FSU, along with perhaps in-state Miami, remains the flagship football program in the conference. Departures of one or both would likely signal the end of the ACC as a major football power broker.
What has also caused the fuse to be lit in Tallahassee has been reported dissatisfaction from FSU (and perhaps Miami as well) at the recently-signed ACC television deal, which involves a healthy bump in revenues for each school but the bulk of which will not be paid until late in the nine-year contract after the "elevator clauses" are triggered.
FSU has backed off the move rumors over the past month, but regional sources note that where there is smoke in such matters, there is usually fire as well. Keep an eye on those developments as we move into the fall.
In the meantime, there’s football to be played in Tallahassee this fall. And perhaps a chance for the Seminoles to make a move in the national picture after emerging as nothing more than a false alarm a year ago, when an early three-game losing streak shut down the national title talk and effectively ticketed FSU to minor bowl status by midseason.
Many ACC insiders, however, always believed that 2012 was a more-likely breakthrough year for the 'Noles than 2011, when expectations might have been raised unnaturally high after the previous season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina.
A slew of injuries and inexperience curtailed the effectiveness of the offensive line last fall and caused a regression of the running game that head coach Jimbo Fisher thought had rediscovered itself the previous year. That shortcoming made it too difficult for FSU to make a serious case for national honors and even prevented it from winning the ACC Atlantic Division, although when the smoke cleared the 'Noles had posted a representative 9-4 record and beaten old foe Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Again, it’s along the OL where FSU must improve for it to make a move into the upper-tier of the rankings. A repeat of last year’s anemic rushing game that ranked a sorry 104th in the country and gained only 3.3 ypc would most likely prevent the Seminoles from emerging as a national title contender.
Which would be too bad, because the rest of the FSU roster looks like it could finally make the old-line, Bobby Bowden-supporting 'Noles faithful come to embrace Fisher, whose ascension to his designated role as Bowden’s successor in 2010 nearly ripped apart Seminole nation, and whose support base is still lukewarm at best from the old Bowden crowd.
Spring work showcased a revamped OL that Fisher hopes will be able to open a few more holes for runners and protect QB EJ Manuel a bit better than a year ago. As many as four new starters could open in Jimbo’s new-look forward wall, including converted DE Cameron Erving, who wowed observers in spring when the staff moved him to a tackle spot, where touted juco Daniel Glauser has also arrived to hopefully plug the leaks along the OL dike.
There is already lots of excitement building in Tallahassee for ballyhooed frosh recruit RB Mario Pender, who combines power and speed in a frightening package. Along with soph scooter Devonta Freeman, who gained nearly 600 YR as a frosh, the potential is in place to at least improve upon last year’s anemic ground game. Still, the ground game hardly moved in the spring game when gaining less than 2 ypc. The jury thus remains out until September.
Any help from the infantry would certainly help jumbo-sized (6-foot-5, 238 lbs.) senior QB Manuel, now 13-4 in his career as a starter. Any upgrades along the OL would also be most welcomed by Manuel, as the 'Noles also allowed a whopping 41 sacks last season, ranking a poor 110th nationally. Manuel, whose shoulder injury caused him to miss action during the team's early-season slump, hinted at a real breakthrough last fall when passing for 2666 yards and 18 TD passes, but he needs help from his supporting cast (namely the OL) to emerge as the sort of difference-maker Fisher envisions.
Redshirt soph Clint Trickett, who filled in when Manuel had his shoulder problems in 2011 and enjoyed a solid spring, now provides some experience in the backup QB role, although some ACC sources are alerting to the presence of true frosh Jameis Winston who seems destined to be the QB of the future.
The passing game indeed flashed some real upside last season and hinted at better things to come in spring. Five of the top six pass catchers return from last season, led by explosive soph WR Rashad Greene, who caught 596 yards worth of passes and seven TDs as a frosh despite missing four games. Rangy 6-foor-6 senior Rodney Smith also caught 36 passes a year ago, but sources say the real breakthrough might come from another 6-foot-6 target, redshirt frosh Kelvin Benjamin, who opened several eyes in spring, including those of QB Manuel, who said that throwing to Benjamin was like “throwing an alley-oop to LeBron James.”
We’re speculating about improvements from the strike force because we have little concern about an FSU defense that should again be one of the best in the country. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops’ attack-minded platoon returns seven starters and adds several high-profile newcomers from a stop unit that ranked second nationally in rush “D” (82 ypg), fourth in total (275 ypg) and scoring (15 ppg) defense, and eighth in sacks.
Defense was also the highlight of a high-profile recruiting haul by Fisher that landed a slew of five-star recruits who could immediately step in and contribute to another expected lights-out “D” this fall. Included are the top-rated DE (Mario Edwards) and CB (Ronald Darby) in the country, while 315-lb., but remarkably quick-footed, DT Eddie Goldman was ranked fourth in the land at his position by Scout.com.
The DL was voracious in 2011, and Stoops’ “Sack Patrol” returns senior DE Brandon Jenkins (who resisted the temptation to declare for last April’s NFL Draft) and junior DE Bjoern Werner, who combined for 15 sacks a year ago. The addition of frosh Edwards figures to further augment the pass rush, while Goldman joins a rotation of DTs paced by 301-lb. senior run-plugger Everett Dawkins.
The back seven in Stoops’ 4-3 should again be robust, led by an experienced secondary that returns three starters, including CBs Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, the latter also one of the nation’s top return threats. Ballyhooed frosh Darby likely gets baptized in nickel formations but is expected to make a greater impact as the season progresses.
Stoops spent the spring experimenting and juggling at the LB spots, partly because of senior MLB Vince Williams’ leg injury. But the move of former SS Nick Moody to OLB went smoothly, as did the switch of super-athletic senior Christian Jones from a strong-side to a weak-side LB spot, where his playmaking bent is expected to further shine.
The Seminoles’ 2012 schedule is made for a run to the BCS, although FSU should be docked some votes for scheduling a pair of FCS foes, Murray State and Savannah State, out of the chute. Revenge games follow vs. Wake Forest and Clemson, also both at Doak Campbell, and the first road trip is only a bus ride to nearby Tampa for a September 29 date vs. South Florida, when FSU likely has half of the crowd.
The toughest tests are likely to be ACC road dates at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, especially with the annual regular season-ender vs. Florida played in Tallahassee this season.
Totals followers will note that Jimbo’s FSU, with a defense-minded theme, has resulted in a 17-8-1 'under' mark the past two seasons.
Summary: Is this the year FSU reappears as a national title contender? We’re reluctant to go that far when projecting 2012 until the leaky offensive line demonstrates significant upgrades from a year ago. Still, with the voracious defense, QB Manuel, an intriguing collection of skill-position weapons and a favorable schedule, FSU looks to be in position to at least earn its first BCS berth since the 2005 season.
Follow Bruce Marshall's college football previews throughout the summer here at Don Best Sports: Boise State ... Stanford