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July 30, 2010
Florida State certainly has a different look. Now it's time to produce some different results.
The promotion of "coach-in-waiting" Jimbo Fisher arrived a year earlier than expected after legendary coach Bobby Bowden was forced out in the wake of a disappointing 2009 season. Picked to win the ACC Atlantic Division, Florida State instead went .500 in the regular season before sending Bowden out with a Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia.
Fisher's first order of business was to overhaul a defense that gave up 30 points per game last season. Longtime coordinator Mickey Andrews retired and was replaced by Mark Stoops, who held the same position at Arizona. The Seminoles also added linebacker coach Greg Hudson, a former East Carolina defensive coordinator who helped the Pirates win the past two Conference USA titles.
If Stoops and Hudson can rejuvenate the defense, FSU will compete for an ACC title. The Seminoles boast an exceptional offensive line and one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Christian Ponder.
THE SCHEME: Florida State runs a pro-style offense with multiple sets.
STAR POWER: The Seminoles have launched a Heisman campaign for QB Christian Ponder that includes a website (www.cp7forHeisman.com). Ponder averaged 321.8 total yards per game and was arguably the ACC's best quarterback before injuring his throwing shoulder in the ninth game of the 2009 season. He came back from shoulder surgery in time to throw for 266 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. G Rodney Hudson is a fourth-year starter who enters his senior season as one of the nation's best offensive linemen, regardless of position.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Itawamba (Miss.) Community College transfer Debrale Smiley could see playing time at fullback and tailback. FSU has plenty of talented backs, but the 5-foot-11, 237-pound Smiley has a physical running style that could make him the Seminoles' best bet in short-yardage situations.
STRONGEST AREA: FSU returns all five starters on the line. Hudson is arguably the nation's best guard, C Ryan McMahon is a fourth-year starter and T Andrew Datko allowed only two sacks last season. Florida State also has the best quarterback situation in the ACC. Ponder could contend for All-America honors if he stays healthy, and backup E.J. Manuel gained valuable experience while starting the last four games in place of Ponder last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Seminoles need more consistency from their receivers. Bert Reed and Jarmon Fortson have plenty of upside, but they must become more reliable. Fisher was critical of the receiving corps during spring practice.
THE SCHEME: New coordinator Mark Stoops arrives from Arizona and will keep the 4-3 scheme FSU has played seemingly forever.
STAR POWER: Florida State's defense doesn't have any proven stars, though LB Nigel Bradham and CB Greg Reid are former five-star prospects capable of delivering breakthrough seasons. Bradham led the Seminoles last season with 93 tackles, including 12 stops in the regular-season finale against Florida. Reid scored on a 63-yard interception return against BYU and also picked off a pass against Miami.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman CB Xavier Rhodes is a converted wide receiver who was working out with the first-team defense by the end of spring practice. Rhodes might not remain in the starting lineup by the time the Seminoles kick off their season, but he certainly will earn plenty of playing time. He clearly has caught the attention of the new defensive staff.
STRONGEST AREA: Bradham and Kendall Smith return at linebacker after ending last season as Florida State's top two tacklers. Bradham and Smith combined for 178 tackles a year ago. Mister Alexander and Nigel Carr -- assuming he's eligible after a felony arrest in late July -- give the Seminoles depth at linebacker. The linebacker corps will be even stronger if Vince Williams makes a successful comeback from a back injury and Jeff Luc lives up to expectations in his freshman season. Luc was the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 42 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Someone has to rush the passer. FSU never found an adequate replacement for second-round pick Everette Brown last season and mustered fewer than two sacks per game. The Seminoles need to pressure opposing quarterbacks to take some of the heat off their young secondary.
Dustin Hopkins returns at kicker after going 19-of-27 on field-goal attempts as a freshman. He went 8-of-14 from at least 40 yards, with a long of 52. Shawn Powell averaged 41.6 yards per punt and helped Florida State rank 53rd in the nation in net punting. Reid led the nation with an average of 18.4 yards per punt return. FSU ranked in the middle of the pack last season in punt return coverage and kick return coverage, and those areas must improve.
Florida State will learn in a hurry whether it really has turned the corner. After opening the season with a likely blowout win over FCS member Samford, the Seminoles travel to Oklahoma and play host to BYU in back-to-back weeks. Clemson and Boston College represent Florida State's two biggest competitors for the ACC Atlantic Division title, and both teams must travel to Doak Campbell Stadium. Florida State also avoids Virginia Tech and defending ACC champion Georgia Tech, though the Seminoles will play host to North Carolina and travel to Miami. Florida State ends the season with a tough four-game stretch that includes home games with North Carolina and Clemson, a trip to Maryland and a home date with Florida.
FSU has a chance to be among the nation's most improved teams. Keep in mind that the Seminoles went 9-4 two years ago before last season's implosion. The Seminoles also should benefit from playing in the weaker Atlantic Division. The Seminoles might struggle to finish third in the Coastal Division, but they're certainly good enough to win the Atlantic. Whether Florida State actually does make it to Charlotte for the ACC championship game depends on how much the defense improves. FSU ranked 108th in the nation in total defense and rushing defense and 110th in pass efficiency defense last season. While spring reports suggested the defense has improved quite a bit, the Seminoles must prove it on the field. If Ponder stays healthy all season and the defense is merely average, the Seminoles ought to take the Atlantic Division, though they probably aren't good enough to win the entire conference.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.