The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The Jimbo Fisher era in Tallahassee begins this weekend, as the 20th-ranked Florida State Seminoles open up their 2010 football season against the Samford Bulldogs.
Legendary coach Bobby Bowden's reign at FSU has come to an end and it will be up to Fisher to return the Seminoles to college football glory. The team did complete its 33rd straight winning season in 2009 and participated in its 28th straight bowl game, but a change was needed at the top to get the Seminoles back in the national title picture. With a solid nucleus returning, Fisher may just have the pieces necessary to do just that in his first season in charge.
Samford is an FCS program playing out of the Southern Conference. The team struggled in 2009 to a 5-6 overall record, including a 3-5 mark in its second season in the SoCon. The team returns 15 starters from last year and the hope is that Pat Sullivan can lead the Bulldogs to new heights in his fourth season at the helm.
This is just the second time that these two teams have ever meet. The first meeting took place 60 years ago, resulting in a 20-6 FSU win on October 14t, 1950 in Tallahassee.
Offensive consistency was certainly a problem for the Bulldogs in 2009, as the team managed just 19.7 ppg on a modest 306.6 yards of total offense. Junior QB Dustin Taliaferro is back to run the offense, after completing 59.2 percent of his passes, for 1,692 yards. However, his TD total (9) matched his interception total (9) and he will need to get better in that area if the Bulldogs are to make strides forward in 2010. Junior wideout Riley Hawkins may be the top option down the field, as the 5-10 187-pounder hauled in 34 balls last year, leading the way in receiving yards (638) and TD catches (four). The top offensive performer and the go-to-guy on this side of the football however, is senior tailback Chris Evans. The 6-0, 215-pounder led the team with 1,152 yards rushing last season, with seven TDs. He was also a valuable asset out of the backfield, pacing the team with 38 receptions and is an FCS All-American candidate.
While Samford's offensive struggled, the defense certainly held its own, limiting foes to just 17.5 ppg. A feverish pass rush was definitely a strength, with 28 QB takedowns. Senior DE John Michael Clay is the top playmaker along the line, leading the team with six sacks. Veteran leadership is found in the linebacking corps as well in senior MLB Bryce Smith (team-high 102 tackles, 11.0 TFLs, four INTs), who is clearly the defense's top performer and could garner All-American honors as well in 2010.
There wasn't much wrong with Florida State's offense in 2009, as the team averaged just over 30 points per game and did so on a balanced 421.4 yards of total offense. This year the team returns nine starters on this side of the football, including standout QB Christian Ponder. One of the top signal- callers in the nation, Ponder completed nearly 70 percent of his passes last year, for 2,717 yards, despite missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Ponder will get one more chance to return FSU to football glory.
"I came into this program having high expectations. I wanted to compete at a national level and I expected to compete at a national level. That's something that has driven me. I've been given a great opportunity to try and change that. It's my last year and I'd like to get us back to that level."
The hope was that Ponder would have a slew of talented playmakers on the outside and while he still will, junior wideout Jarmon Fortson (45 receptions, for 650 yards, four TDs) was released from the team in the summer. The cupboard is far from bare in the receiving corps however, as juniors Bert Reed (60 receptions, 710 yards) and Taiwan Easterling (35 receptions, 442 yards, two TDs) will try to assuage the loss of Fortson. The ground game should see similar success in comparison to last year (149.5 ypg), spearheaded by the rushing exploits of junior Jermaine Thomas (832 yards, 5.1 ypc, nine TDs). A real strength for FSU is along the offensive line, where all five starters return, including All-American Rodney Hudson (6-2, 282) at left guard.
Not only did Bowden call it a career, but so did longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. Mark Stoops (formerly at Arizona) takes over this side of the football and will be charged with getting back to what the FSU faithful expect from a Seminole defense. They didn't find it a year ago, as Florida State allowed 30 points per game, while getting gashed for just over 200 yards rushing per outing. Gone are standout defenders like LB Dakoda Watson and CB Patrick Robinson, but players like LB Kendall Smith (85 tackles) and DE Markus White (38 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, two sacks) provide a good base to work with. The secondary is a bit of a concern though, as only one starter returns in the form of senior CB Ochuko Jenjie (team-high four INTs).
Fisher is impressed with how far the defense has come in such a short time under Stoops.
"We have done a tremendously better job not giving up the big plays. It is hard to find big plays on these guys. You have to really stick balls in holes or someone has to break a tackle and run hard. They are being very sound in what they are doing, and that is the first thing. You have to get that foundation down first. But the way they have played with not giving up big plays and playing very disciplined has been the most impressive in a short amount of time."
The Seminoles are clearly the favorite in this one and although the Bulldogs have some talented players on both sides of the ball, FSU is loaded for an ACC title run and perhaps more. Florida State will get the Fisher era off on the right foot with a lopsided win in the opener.