Now that the U.S. Open golf championship has come and gone, it’s time to get back to writing about football. Because the NFL is still squabbling behind closed doors about how to share $9 billion, football for the time being means college football.
Before being interrupted by the Open I’d started a compelling series of Question & Answer columns. To assure the right questions being asked and insightful and honest answers being given, I’ve taken the responsibility of providing both. So after dazzling you with an incredible Jags Q&A, and following it up with I would believe to be a Pulitzer Prize winning Gator snapshot, today…it’s sheer brilliance, Seminole-style.
Q. Are Seminole fans a bunch of bandwagon fans?
A. Ah, a toughie right out of the box. The quick answer is yes. Now I realize there are Noles who practically live and die with FSU football. These are the folks who’d file for divorce before missing a Miami or Florida game because of a family function such as a wedding. These are the fans who’d drive I-10 in a driving rain storm to watch the Noles spank a nobody such as Charleston Southern or beat up an ACC weakling that thinks basketball first. (Good news: FSU plays at Duke this year.)
But I gotta be honest about this. Most FSU fans spew one excuse after another in explaining why they can’t make it to home games unless the opponent is Florida or Miami. The drive is too long; you have to book two nights lodging for one game; it rains too often in Tallahassee; yada, yada, yada. Truth is FSU fans couldn’t care less about the ACC and are still angry their team isn’t in the SEC. Once it is obvious the Noles are out of the national championship picture their interest in attending games all but disappears. Interestingly, FSU has become much like Miami in that there’s more national interest – in other words, they are a good draw on TV – than there is local interest. For the record, the bandwagon is getting overloaded again because it looks like the Noles are back. More on that later.
Q. Is Jimbo Fisher the coach to lead FSU back glory?
A. I had some serious doubts about Jimbo when he was hired as the head-coach-in-waiting. He was called an offensive whiz, but I remember how poorly his offenses performed at LSU in games against Florida and Auburn. And the longer Bobby Bowden kept putting off retirement the more I doubted whether or not Fisher would even stay around. He was in a difficult spot, but to his credit he remained loyal to Bowden and, obviously, worked hard to prepare for the day when he took over. His leadership qualities became obvious when he helped keep the team – players and coaches, administrators and fans – together even as they feuded among themselves.
When his time came last year he rallied the troops, calmed the fans and finished strong, closing the regular season with a convincing victory against Florida and a bowl win against South Carolina. Meanwhile, he put together what many considered the best recruiting class in the nation. An early season blowout loss at Oklahoma could have ruined the season, but FSU rallied to finish 10-4. It doesn’t hurt Jimbo that he’s now the senior head coach among the state’s Big 3 football schools. Yeah, Jimbo is the right guy.
Q. What’s the major strengthen of the ’11 Noles?
A. Talent, talent, talent. FSU is getting close to matching the unbelievable amount of talent it had 10 years ago. The key, obviously, is recruiting, but it isn’t about just signing to best players. Even during Bowden’s final years the school always seemed get more than its share of 4-and-5-star recruits. Problem was too many couldn’t get in school and still others didn’t stay long because of . . . let’s say character flaws. Remember Fred Rouse? In the last few years FSU has signed blue-chippers who could read and write on a college level and behave themselves.
Q. Which areas are the Seminoles the strongest?
A. No school is the nation can match FSU’s secondary. There are probably six to eight defensive backs who’ll dress this season that will eventually play in the NFL. Greg Reid, Xavier Rhodes, Nick Moody are studs. Incoming freshmen Karlos Williams and Nick Waisome are too talented not to play.
The defensive line is loaded again. Brandon Jenkins is among the best DEs in the nation. DT Moses McCray returns after missing last season because of a knee injury. I can’t imagine incoming freshman Tim Jerrigan of Lake City not getting a lot of snaps. There’s depth, too.
Running back is another area of strength. Chris Thompson (845 yards), Ty Jones (527) and Jacksonville’s Jermaine Thomas (490) are proven players. Add James Wilder Jr., one of the most sought after recruits in the nation, to the mix and you have an impressive group. (I still think Wilder would help the team more at linebacker, but he has asked to play RB and so far the coaches have agreed.)
Q. You didn’t mention quarterback. Isn’t E.J. Manuel expected to replace Christian Ponder without the Noles missing a beat?
A. I don’t know about missing a beat, but Manuel should be very good. Let’s not forget that Ponder was an NFL first-round draft pick (Minnesota, No. 12 overall). Manuel did see considerable playing time because of Ponder’s injuries and he performed reasonably well. His QB rating was higher than Ponder’s and he completed 70 percent of his passes. He’s more of a natural runner, too. But Manuel had only four TD throws and an equal number of interceptions, and that means he probably needs to improve his decision making.
The biggest concern at quarterback is who gets the call if Manuel is injured? Having Manuel backup Ponder was a great security blanket. Now the backup is Clint Trickett. Let’s be honest: FSU would never have signed Trickett (6-1, 175, redshirt freshman) if his dad wasn’t an FSU assistant.
Admittedly, it’s a good sign for a team when the major problems are about backups.
Q. Any other red flags to keep an eye on?
A. I mentioned all of the talent and sometimes that can become a problem. Players want to play, period. I’ve never known a good player who was happy sitting on the bench. Most athletes handle the situation well, understanding their times will come. But there are always some players who whine and complain and that can create a cancer even if it’s done privately. Will the RBs get along? Will some of the hotshot recruits be patient? Another potential problem is players thinking about NFL gold and not staying focused on playing college ball. Coaching an ultra talented team is more difficult than coaching a mediocre team. Jimbo and his staff will have to do more than just teach blocking and tackling, pitching and catching.
Q. Are the Seminoles ready to return to elite status?
A. Most people seem to think so. Most preseason polls have the Noles in the top 10 and some have them in the top 5. The skeptics like to say that FSU doesn’t belong back in the elite until they prove it, and while 10-4 was a good season FSU were handled rather easily by the two best teams they played, Oklahoma (47-17) and Virginia Tech (44-33). FSU’s defense did vanish in its losses, which also included 37-35 to North Carolina and 28-24 to N.C. State. Top 5 teams don’t give up 40 points a game. But overall FSU made a lot of defensive improvement from ’09 to ’10 and it’s reasonable to think improvement will continue based on recruiting. Yeah, I can see a top 10, maybe top 5, finish for the Noles, in part because of their schedule.
Q. What to you like and dislike about the schedule?
A. What I dislike about it is what I dislike the most about college football. FSU has no business playing Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern in its first two games. Maybe I should say those schools don’t have any business playing FSU. Whatever, they are mismatches and we have far too many of those kinds of games throughout college football.
But I like more about the Noles schedule than I dislike. Playing Oklahoma, probably the preseason No. 1 team, in the third game in Tallahassee gives FSU a national stage to prove early in the season its belongs among the elite. If the Sooners beat FSU the Noles will have time to climb back up in the polls. The ACC schedule couldn’t be much better. The Noles don’t play Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Two conference road games are against bottom feeders in Duke and Wake Forest. A possible stumbling block is playing at Boston College on a Thursday night (Nov. 3). Playing Miami (Nov. 12) and at Florida (Nov. 26) could be emotionally draining. Overall, a favorable schedule.
Q. Okay, what’s your prediction for the season?
A. I’m going 10-2. Beating both Oklahoma and Florida will be difficult. I see at least one ACC loss, probably at BC. Then FSU wins the ACC title game and goes to the Orange Bowl. I call that a fine season although I’m sure many FSU fans will jump off the bandwagon.
Q. Not so fast, big guy. I’ve got one more question. What do you think Coach Bowden thinks about the upcoming season?
A. I’m pretty sure he’s not thinking much about it. Last time I checked Bobby and wife Ann were loving retirement and he wishes he’d retired earlier.