OVERVIEW: Florida State returns eight starters from a team that averaged 31.4 points per game last season, but there are plenty of newcomers. EJ Manuel takes over for first-round pick Christian Ponder as the Seminoles' starting quarterback. In the middle of the line, the Seminoles must replace four-year starters Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon. The Seminoles' balanced rushing attack should take some of the pressure off Manuel.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: How much will Florida State miss G Rodney Hudson and C Ryan McMahon? OL Andrew Datko, Zebrie Sanders and David Spurlock have combined for 101 career starts, but the loss of two four-year starters leave the Seminoles with two giant holes in the middle of the line. Will the Seminoles be able to run as effectively without Hudson and McMahon clearing the way?
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: First-year starting QB EJ Manuel shows the poise of a veteran and the defense goes from solid to elite in Mark Stoops' second season as coordinator. An early upset of Oklahoma catapults the Seminoles to a perfect season and an appearance in the BCS championship game.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: FSU loses that huge game with Oklahoma and suffers a hangover effect when it falls to Clemson the following week. Manuel fails to meet sky-high expectations - or worse yet, gets injured - as the Seminoles drop two more regular-season games, including the Nov. 26 finale at Florida. A season that started with so much promise ends with a disappointing 8-5 record that includes no conference or division title.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes led all cornerback tandems last season in passes defended. Rhodes and Reid combined for 26 pass breakups and seven interceptions. The only defensive back combination with more passes defended last season was Oregon CB Cliff Harris and FS John Boyett, with 37. The Seminoles' chances of contending for a national title depend on whether Reid and Rhodes can match or improve upon their 2010 performance.
BACKFIELD: While it's technically accurate to call Manuel a first-year starter, he heads into his junior season with plenty of experience. Manuel has started against Florida in the Swamp, started an ACC championship game and earned ample playing time in each of the Seminoles' past two bowls, including a start in one of them. Manuel went 65-of-93 for 861 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions last season. Manuel also is a running threat, as he rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in a win over Clemson last fall. Manuel needs to stay healthy, as the Seminoles lack depth at quarterback. The Seminoles boast three quality tailbacks in junior Chris Thompson (134 carries, 845 yards, six TDs last season), senior Ty Jones (87-527-5) and senior Jermaine Thomas (86-490-6). Junior FB Lonnie Pryor (23-112-4) is an outstanding blocker who also is effective in short-yardage situations. Pryor had three touchdown catches to go along with his four touchdown runs last season.
RECEIVERS: FSU lost some depth when Taiwan Easterling (43 catches, 551 yards, five TDs) opted to begin a pro baseball career this summer, but the Seminoles still return their top two receivers in senior Bert Reed (58-614-2) and junior Willie Haulstead (38-587-6). The Seminoles also return junior Rodney Smith (31-448-3), who showed his potential last season with a 121-yard performance against Clemson. Senior TE Beau Reliford (17-198-1) offers 15 games of starting experience. It's also worth noting that FSU's backs are good receivers. Thompson, Thomas and Pryor combined for 43 receptions and five touchdown catches last season.
LINE: FSU's biggest challenge will be replacing Hudson, a guard who was an Outland Trophy finalist last season and a two-time winner of the Jacobs Trophy as the ACC's most outstanding blocker. The Seminoles also must find someone to step in for McMahon, a four-year starter at center. The Seminoles currently plan to go with senior David Spurlock and sophomore Bryan Stork at guard while junior college transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug takes over at center. Spurlock has 28 games of starting experience, though he missed the second half of the 2010 season with a concussion and a hand injury. Stork made four starts in place of an injured Spurlock at guard last season. Fahrenkrug enrolled at Florida State in January as a four-star prospect from North Dakota State College of Science. FSU has plenty of experience at tackle, as seniors Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders have a combined 64 career starts. FSU averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, but quarterbacks also were sacked 27 times.
OVERVIEW: Perhaps no defense in the country improved last season as much as Florida State's progressed under Mark Stoops, who was in his first year as the Seminoles' coordinator. The Seminoles were 20th in scoring defense (19.64) and 42nd in total defense (353.71); one year earlier, FSU was 94th in scoring defense (30.0) and 108th in total defense (434.62). The Seminoles have no obvious weaknesses on this side of the ball.
LINE: FSU has one of the nation's best pass rushers in junior E Brandon Jenkins, who had 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Bjoern Werner is expected to replace the departed Markus White at the other end spot. The Seminoles also could get a boost from Cornellius Carradine, the No. 1 junior college prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. The Seminoles have plenty of depth in the middle. Junior Jacobbi McDaniel was a full-time starter last season, while juniors Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins each made seven starts. This group helped FSU record 48 sacks last year, tying Boise State for the most nationally.
LINEBACKERS: Although senior Nigel Bradham is the only returning starter, the Seminoles have plenty of young talent here. Those underclassmen would do well to learn from Bradham, a third-year starter who recorded a team-high 98 tackles to go along with five sacks last season. Sophomore Christian Jones is likely to start at one linebacker spot, while junior Vince Williams and sophomore Telvin Smith are competing for the other starting assignment. Jones played primarily on special teams as a true freshman last year, but the former five-star prospect was the No. 2 outside linebacker and No. 20 overall recruit in the 2010 recruiting class. Williams made 17 tackles as a reserve last season after missing 2009 with a back injury. Smith, a cousin of cornerback Greg Reid, developed a reputation as a hard hitter while playing special teams last season.
SECONDARY: FSU looks loaded here. Junior Greg Reid and sophomore Xavier Rhodes form one of the nation's top cornerback tandems. Rhodes earned second-team All-ACC honors last season and was named the ACC defensive rookie of the year. He had four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Reid was the defensive MVP of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as he forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in that game. Senior Terrance Parks made 44 tackles as the starting strong safety last season, but he has been moved free safety, where he is expected to back up junior Nick Moody. Moody was third on the team with 79 tackles last season. The projected starter at strong safety is sophomore Lamarcus Joyner, a former five-star prospect who was a backup cornerback last season.
Dustin Hopkins and Shawn Powell give Florida State a quality kicker/punter tandem. Hopkins went 22-of-28 on field-goal attempts last season and made a 55-yarder to beat Clemson. He made a 60-yarder in the spring game. Hopkins also produced touchbacks on 47.7 percent of his kickoffs. Powell averaged 44.3 yards per punt last season and helped Florida State rank 15th nationally in net punting. The Seminoles also have an outstanding return man in Reid, who led the nation in punt returns in 2009 and ranked 28th in that category last season. The Seminoles ranked just 85th nationally in kickoff returns last season, and were 53rd in punt coverage and 55th in kickoff coverage.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 10th
Buzz: FSU had a great 2011 class that was considered among the nation's best and included nine of the top 30 prospects in the Sunshine State. Leading the class were five-star in-state prospects Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. The Seminoles already have 16 commitments for 2012, including five-star DEs Mario Edwards and Dante Fowler Jr. Eleven commitments are at least four-star prospects. - CHRIS NEE
Fahrenkrug has a tough chore replacing a four-year starter at center, but he appears up to the challenge. Fahrenkrug, who played high school ball in a Minneapolis suburb, once weighed as much as 400 pounds, but he got himself in good enough shape to rank among the No. 4 junior college prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. Now listed at 6 feet 4 and 315 pounds, Fahrenkrug won raves from line coach Rick Trickett for his performance in spring practice.
Florida State opens the season with cakewalks against Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern. Then it gets much more interesting. Florida State's Sept. 17 showdown with Oklahoma at Doak Campbell Stadium will be one of the most highly anticipated games of the season. The Seminoles can't afford a letdown the following week when they head to Clemson for their ACC opener. The trip to Clemson starts a three-game road swing before FSU plays four of its next five games at home. The lone road game in that stretch is a Thursday night contest at Boston College. The Seminoles don't have to play defending ACC champion Virginia Tech. The ACC schedule also doesn't include North Carolina. As for its two in-state rivalries, FSU plays host to Miami on Nov. 12 and travels to Florida two weeks later.
Florida State has come a long way in the past year. It was only two seasons ago that the Seminoles were struggling through a 7-6 campaign that caused legendary coach Bobby Bowden to exit a year earlier than expected. Now the Seminoles believe they're ready to compete for national titles again. While that might be a tad optimistic - we still can't forget the Seminoles' 47-17 loss at Oklahoma last September - FSU certainly heads into this season as the ACC favorite. This is a team without a clear weakness. The Seminoles have a battle-tested quarterback, a potent rushing attack, experienced receivers, a talent-laden defense and a quality kicking game. FSU should give Oklahoma much more of a test this season. Although we expect the Seminoles to drop that game, we figure they will lose only once more the remainder of the season. Florida State should reach the Orange Bowl and go 12-2 this season, then become a legitimate BCS contender for many years to come.
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