Photo courtesy of Florida State Athletics
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After posting 10 wins in his first season at the helm in 2010, Jimbo Fisher led his Seminoles to a 9-4 overall mark in 2011. While on the surface, the nine wins was a minor step back, three of the team's four losses came by a combined 11 points.
Expectations were high in Tallahassee last year and lopsided wins over ULM (34-0) and Charleston Southern (62-10) to open up the season did little to hamper the enthusiasm. However, the Seminoles went on to lose three straight games, falling to then top-ranked Oklahoma (23-13) and identical back-to-back 35-30 setbacks to ACC foes Clemson and Wake Forest, falling out of the top-25 in the process.
Despite the early hole in ACC play, FSU would make its run at the Atlantic Division by winning five straight games, including a 23-19 decision over rival Miami-Florida to close out the string.
Back in the top-25, Florida State then dropped a heart-breaker at home to Virginia (14-13), but once again rallied, topping the Florida Gators in the regular-season finale in Gainesville (21-7).
The team finished tied for second in the ACC's Atlantic Division and earned a spot in last year's Champs Sports Bowl, where the 'Noles knocked off Notre Dame, 18-14.
While FSU did have a successful campaign, key injuries on the offensive side of the football derailed any BCS hopes, something hopefully that is rectified in 2012.
OFFENSE: The Seminoles faced adversity on the offensive side of the football in 2011 due to numerous injuries, but with eight healthy starters returning this year, production should go up. The team still managed to average just over 30 points per game en route to nine wins, so it wasn't exactly a down year.
Most important is the return of senior quarterback EJ Manuel, who fought through his own injury-riddled season to complete an impressive 65 percent of his passes, for 2,666 yards and 18 TDs. Manuel will have the luxury of familiar faces in the receiving corps, as the top four pass catchers are back as well, headlined by sophomore Rashad Green. Despite being a freshman and missing four games, the 6-foot Green led the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (596) and TD catches (7). Senior wideout Rodney Smith (6-6, 220) is the big target on the other side and comes into 2012 off a junior year in which he hauled in 36 balls, for 561 yards and four scores.
The ground game produced a modest 121.0 yards per game last year, but top tailback Devonta Freeman (579 yards, 4.8 ypc, 8 TDs) is back, along with four starters along the offensive line and the continuity should help in that area. Sophomore guard Bobby Hart (6-5, 315) had a strong debut season last year, earning Second Team Freshman All-American honors.
DEFENSE: The FSU defense was able to make up for any offensive deficiencies due to injury last year and finished the season as one of the strongest units in the country. Foes averaged just 15.1 ppg last year, while Florida State finished second nationally against the run (82.7 ypg).
Nine starters were set to return to the defense in 2012, highlighted by a devastating pass rushing duo in Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Jenkins (6-3, 260) is a two-time First-Team All-ACC selection and is coming off 2011 in which he racked up 41 total tackles, 12.0 TFLs and a team-high 8 sacks. Werner (6-4, 275) is just scratching the surface of his enormous talent and comes in after posting 37 tackles, 11 TFLs and 7 sacks as a sophomore.
The team must replace defensive leader Nigel Bradham in the middle of the defense, but junior Christian Jones (56 tackles) and senior Vince Williams (54 tackles) return to provide stability in the linebacking corps.
The FSU secondary was star-studded with All-American talent in junior Xavier Rhodes (43 tackles, one INT) and senior Greg Reid (32 tackles, two INTs), while junior Lamarcus Joyner (54 tackles, four INTs) was a Second-Team All-ACC pick last year at strong safety.
However, Reid was dismissed from the team this summer due to violating team rules. His absence shouldn't cost the team in the secondary though, as there is young depth to be found in the form of sophomores Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter and redshirt freshman Keelin Smith.
The decision to dismiss Reid wasn't easy for Fisher.
"I love Greg to death, it was just a situation where rules are rules and it's what we have to go by and we wish Greg the best. "I don't think it's the end of his career, he can still play and reach all his goals and I wanted him in here as bad as anybody, but that's part of being a head coach [making tough decisions]."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Where the Reid dismissal will cost FSU is in the return game. Reid was one of the nation's most explosive punt returners, averaging 11.2 yards per return in 2011 with one brought back for a TD. Joyner may have to expand his role to include punt returns now.
Placekicker Dustin Hopkins more than held his own in the kicking game. The 6-2 Hopkins was 22-of-27 last year, with a long of 53 yards, en route to All-ACC First-Team honors, while being tabbed a Lou Groza Award finalist.
2012 OUTLOOK: The Seminoles have been picked to win the ACC this season and should be a serious BCS contender for much of the year. However, they have been picked to win the conference before and have come up short.
This year could be different according to Fisher.
"I think that's good. Because I think pressure brings urgency. Urgency is what you want. I think sometimes when you're young and talented you say, 'You know, I've always got next year. When you're older I think you understand the process more. That's what has got me excited about this team. I have confidence in these guys. I truly believe in them."
The team opens the 2012 campaign with four straight home games, including a pair of non-FBS programs in Murray State and Savannah State. While the stats should be inflated early on, a truer measuring stick will come in the form of Wake Forest and Clemson to close out the homestand.
The remainder of the non-ACC schedule includes a short road trip to USF and of course, the annual regular-season finale against Florida. FSU is poised to sweep its non-conference games, leaving only a manageable league slate to contend with.
The Tigers in late September should provide a stiff challenge, but again, that game takes place at Doak Campbell Stadium. Other ACC foes that travel to Tallahassee include Boston College and Duke, along with the early bout with the Demon Deacons.
The road should also only present one real challenge, coming in the form of a Thursday night affair in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech in early November.
Winnable games at NC State, Miami-Florida and Maryland should add to an impressive win total for Florida State, which not only has the overall talent on both sides of the ball to win the ACC, but to vie for the national title as well.