TALLAHASSEE (CBS4) — Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to 10 wins in his first year as head coach at the school and expects to be even better in year two at the helm. He’s not alone.
The Seminoles, who finished 10-4 last season, were an overwhelming favorite of the media covering the Atlantic Coast Conference to win their first league championship since 2005 and run their streak of winning seasons to 35.
They’ll have to do it with a new starter at quarterback, but junior EJ Manuel is hardly untested. He has a 4-2 record when he started games the past two years when Christian Ponder was sidelined with injuries.
Manuel, some believe, could be just as good or better than Ponder, who was the 12th player selected in April’s NFL draft.
“Quarterbacks are the key guy,” Fisher said. “I have an extremely amount of confidence in him and belief in him … in what he is going to do.”
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Manuel has accounted for over 2,000 yards offense and 11 touchdowns in his career and led the Seminoles to bowl victories over West Virginia and South Carolina.
“I think EJ is a little more athletic than Ponder was,” fullback Lonnie Pryor said. “When it comes to throwing the ball and reading everything, I’m pretty sure they’re on the same level.”
Manuel and his teammates get what could well be their biggest test of the season just three weeks into the season when Oklahoma comes calling with quarterback Landry Jones, who passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Sooners to an easy 47-17 win over Florida State last year.
Fisher emphasizes that his team will be prepared this time for the Sooners.
“We’ll put our heart and soul in it,” Fisher said, adding “the only test I was ever nervous about in grade school or high school was the one I didn’t study for.”
Their Sept. 17 rematch has become the most anticipated game for the Seminoles since Bob Stoops’ upstarts Sooners upset Florida State 13-2 in Miami to capture the national championship in what turned out to be former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden’s last crack at winning a third national title.
“Even if you win that game, you’ve got to go on the road the next week and play a very tough Clemson team,” Fisher said. “I think the Oklahoma game will take care of itself.”
With the likely exception of the Oklahoma game, Florida State will probably be favored in the rest of its game this season.
Florida State starts with a pair of warmup home games, Sept. 3 against Louisiana-Monroe and Sept. 10 versus lower-division Charleston-Southern. The Seminoles also host Maryland, North Carolina State, Miami and Virginia and travel to Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College and Florida.
Fisher is convinced the Seminoles’ talent is as good as anyone’s, but only the season will determine if it’s mature enough to challenge for the school’s third national title.
“Expectations and preseason rankings don’t win you trophies,” he cautioned.
The biggest question marks overall come in the offensive line where Florida State must replace one of the most decorated offensive lineman in ACC history, All American Rodney Hudson, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and center Ryan McMahon, a four-year starter. Fisher must also replace Taiwan Easterling, his most reliable possession receiver who left school early to sign a Major League Baseball contract.
Fisher is counting on juniors Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith and senior Bert Reed to lead the way for a host of eager underclassmen fighting for playing time on the receiving corps while veteran tailbacks Chris Thompson, Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas combined to rush for 1,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year.
Defensive end Brandon Jenkins, linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid lead defensive coordinator Mark Stoops’ young defense that ranked third nationally with 48 sacks last season, led by Jenkins’ 13.5 sacks.
The Seminoles also return one of the nation’s best special teams that feature field goal specialist Dustin Hopkins, punter Shawn Powell and Reid, who led the nation in punt returns in 2009.
“I wouldn’t trade those two, our punter and place-kicker for anybody in America,” Fisher said. “It’s like money in the bank.”
Hopkins made all 53 extra point tries and 22 of 28 field goal attempts to lead the ACC in scoring with 119 points. His 41 career field goals and 216 points scored have him on pace to break the ACC and school records in both categories.
Fisher’s big decision will be settling on a No. 2 quarterback. That may also be his biggest concern should with an untested newcomer in the wings is also his primary worry picking The big concern, unlike that of the past two years, surround the No. 1 quarterback
The Seminoles regained in-state bragging rights last year with impressive victories over Florida and Miami, outscoring them by a combined 72-24.
“This program is coming back,” Hopkins said when asked about challenging for a national title. “We want to be in that conversation.”
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