In the four seasons before Jimbo Fisher took over as head coach, Florida State averaged 7.5 wins per season with an F/+ ranking of 31st. In Fisher's first two seasons, the Seminoles have averaged 9.5 wins and an F/+ ranking 11.5. In 2011, FSU navigated through a sea of injuries and inexperience on the offensive side of the ball and managed a 9-4 record despite three close losses (and a fourth loss that was closer than the 10-point final deficit suggested). They won seven of their final eight and finished the season with satisfying wins over Florida and Notre Dame. Good, right?
That this doesn't quite seem like enough tells you just how far Bobby Bowden took this program. Florida State finished in the AP top five every year from 1987 to 2000, going a combined 152-19-1 in the process. They went to what we now call a BCS bowl in 16 of 19 years from 1987 to 2005. They won two national titles in the 1990s and came close to at least six others in Bowden's tenure. That's absurd. That's taking what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama and stretching it out over two decades. (Only, even Saban has just managed two top-five finishes in five years.) When the good is compared to the great, the good suddenly seems quite lacking. A four-loss season is supposed to be a success?
After such an incredible run, Florida State has been mired in a bit of a greatness drought for a while now. They haven't finished even in the AP top 15 since 2004 and haven't finished in the top five since the streak ended in 2000. Their last conference title came almost seven years ago. They have lived up to their preseason ranking just twice in 11 seasons. They somehow managed to cede control of the ACC Atlantic Division to Boston College for a couple of years, and Clemson has now won the division in two of the last three years. It has created almost a no-win situation for Fisher in Tallahassee, one in which no four-loss season can be considered encouraging, no matter how young and banged up the offensive line and receiving corps were.
But that is not, nor should it be, Fisher's concern. Removing from the equation where you think or feel Florida State should be as a program, he has guided the 'Noles forward in each of his two years, from 25th to 15th in F/+ rankings in 2010, and from 15th to eighth last year. The FSU offense slipped last year, but the defense was the sixth-best in the country (oh, and it returns almost everybody this year), and his special teams unit was the only one that could come close to matching LSU's in terms of overall efficiency.
The wins haven't completely followed yet, but if he keeps building what he has been over the last two years, they will soon enough. There's almost no way around it.
We tend to scoff when [Random Analyst] announces that [Random Former Power] is "BACK!!!", be it Florida State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, or whoever. It's both hip and quite often correct to roll your eyes and tamp down expectations because of previous failures. And if you want to do that about Florida State again this year, no one's going to stop you.
But all I can say is that the numbers love them, and not simply because they recruit well. The hints have shown up on the field as well. The bones of this program are stronger than they've been in quite some time, and while there are certainly still question marks on the offensive side of the ball, the odds of Fisher leading FSU back to the top five get better with each year of experience, each near-miss, and each great recruiting class.
We spend a lot of time at Outsiders warning people about the ills of over-reacting to single-year spikes. It's why we told you Nebraska wasn't a national title contender last year, and it's why we're saying the same thing about Texas A&M this year. But despite their spike in 2010, despite some fumbles and YPP luck, when the college portion of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 comes out (soon! I swear!), you will see Florida State projected in the F.O. top ten. How is this possible? A number of reasons actually.
1. Recruiting has been solid. This has obviously never been a problem with FSU. In fact, the only recruiting-related problem the 'Noles have suffered has been their recent propensity for topping the "biggest underachievers as compared to their recruiting rankings" list. They pretty much owned that list for a while. But their surge last year was fortified by top ten talent, making it infinitely more sustainable.
2. The offense has been good for a while. This wasn't a situation where both the offense and the defense rose from the 60s to the teens. FSU had a top-flight offense in 2009, and they had a (slightly less) top-flight offense in 2010.
3. The surge wasn't actually much of a surge. FSU's four-year F/+ average ranks them in the Top 25; they've finished in the Top 30 in each of the last three years, and last year's "surge" only took them from 29th to 15th. The major difference was, before 2010, this was certainly a "whole less than the sum of its parts" situation. The foundation has always been rather strong.
The biggest issue for FSU in 2011 is quite simply the schedule. They will still be a rather young team in September, when they face off against a Top 5 team in Oklahoma (at home) and a Top 20 team in Clemson (on the road). If the 'Noles are 4-0 at the end of September, then they will almost certainly be 8-0 at the end of October, and things will begin to get very interesting.
Over the course of writing my 2011 previews, I ended up being both right and wrong about quite a few teams. I thought Clemson might be underrated and due a big year, and they were … only they won games while regressing on paper. I thought Texas A&M was drastically overrated and guaranteed to disappoint, and they did … while playing at a higher level than I anticipated.
Well, I also jumped full-force onto the Florida State bandwagon, and I was rewarded with a top-10 performance … and four losses. Quarterback E.J. Manuel was banged up and missed some time early on, the 'Noles couldn't quite hang with a full-strength Oklahoma team (before injuries began to take their toll on the Sooners), they couldn't contain Sammy Watkins in a five-point loss at Clemson, and they suffered two freak losses to Wake Forest (injuries galore, plus a minus-24.1 point turnover margin) and Virginia (FSU loses a fumble at the UVa 18 in the first half, and Dustin Hopkins, a great kicker, misses a field goal at the buzzer).
Over the course of a 30- or 82-game schedule, FSU probably would have come close to winning an elite number of games. But a couple of cruel losses (and injuries) can skew your season dramatically in a 12-game slate.
Really, FSU's season unfolded in three acts: an unlucky beginning, an incredible middle, and a defense-heavy end.
First Five Games: FSU 28.6 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.7 (plus-5.9)
Next Four Games: FSU 33.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 20.8 (plus-12.5)
Last Four Games: FSU 24.6 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 21.9 (plus-2.7)
The October version of Florida State was one of the three or four best teams in the country. Yes, the Seminoles were whaling away at iffy teams (Duke, Maryland, N.C. State and Boston College), but they were completely and totally dominant, making these teams look iffier than anybody else could. But the offense trailed off dramatically late, as offensive line issues became more pronounced and Manuel re-aggravated his early-season shoulder injury. So the goal for 2012 is pretty simple: pair the defense of the season's final two months with the offense of October. Easy, right?
In Bobby Bowden's final season, 2009, the Seminoles actually ranked fourth in the country in Off. F/+ behind quarterback Christian Ponder and company. In 2010, James Coley's first year as offensive coordinator (with former O.C. Fisher now in the top job), FSU ranked seventh. Meanwhile, the defense ranked 99th and 41st, respectively, in Def. F/+. In 2011, the defense surged all the way to sixth … and the offense sank to 32nd, still not bad, but not elite.
The difference: FSU had a solid offensive line in previous years. But the Seminoles fell from 18th to 71st in Adj. Line Yards last fall, and from 65th to 118th in Adj. Sack Rate. The drop-off was rather unexpected, as FSU entered the season with one of the most experienced lines in the country with 112 career starts. But left tackle Andrew Datko (36 career starts heading into 2011) played only four games before going down with injury. Guard-turned-center-turned-guard David Spurlock made it six games. Suddenly, quite a few true freshmen found themselves into the mix for playing time, and the shuffling began. By the end of the season, 10 different players had started at least one game, including three freshmen. Ten! It was particularly bad on the interior, where "eight players took meaningful snaps along the three positions."
So of course Florida State was going to struggle up front. There was no way around it. But the recovery needs to begin pretty quickly in 2012, and thanks to the unexpected experience garnered by the youngsters last year, it should. Sophomore guards Josue Matias and Tre' Jackson lead on the interior, while it appears that sophomore Cameron Erving (who actually wasn't one of the 10 players to start a game last year) and junior Bryan Stork will start as first-stringers on the outside. They will be protecting a quarterback who is, by nature, going to have a relatively high sack rate, but if they can at least get back into the top 20 to 30 in run blocking and top 75 in pass blocking, where they were in 2010, the Seminoles could thrive.
Coley has the spread in his history, but with Fisher still running the show, this is a pro-style offense. No need to get too funky from a tactical standpoint when your talent and athleticism are probably better than everybody else's, right? It certainly isn't a style that hurts recruiting, and it doesn't appear Coley is planning many significant changes for 2012. Here's what he's got going for him at the skill positions:
- Quarterback E.J. Manuel. After serving as a stand-in for an injured Christian Ponder in both 2009 and 2010, Manuel took the reins in 2011 and acquitted himself reasonably well. He is a good "your best quality is also your worst quality" player: His ability to either step up in the pocket or escape it results in him stretching quite a few plays out long enough to find someone open for a nice play. It also gets him sacked a lot. While Manuel and Ponder combined to get sacked 6.9 percent of the time in 2011 (a tolerable level as long as you're capable of occasionally pulling off some passing downs magic, and Ponder was), that went up to 9.3 percent for Manuel in 2011 (10.0 percent for backup Clint Trickett). When he gets the pass off, Manuel combines efficiency (65 percent completion rate) with decent explosiveness (13.3 yards per completion); but he must get better protection this fall, and honestly, he could do a little better job of knowing when to abandon hope and throw the ball away. Sacrificing a couple of percentage points on your completion rate for a couple of percentages on your sack rate could go a long way.
- A loaded receiving corps. If not for the offensive line, the injuries suffered by Florida State receivers would have earned more attention. In 2010, the top three receivers were Bert Reed, Taiwan Easterling and Willie Haulstead. All three were expected back in 2011, but Easterling left school in favor of pro baseball, Haulstead missed the entire season after suffering a concussion (not his first), and Reed's season was hindered drastically by a lingering ankle injury. As a result, young guys took over, and that probably wasn't a bad thing. Of course, not having a go-to guy probably wasn't a GOOD thing, either: by the end of the season, five different Seminoles had been targeted by at least 12 percent of FSU's passes. Four return in 2012 (five including Haulstead, who had a 15.9 percent target rate in 2010), including senior Rodney Smith (561 yards, 9.7 per target, 62 percent catch rate), junior Kenny Shaw (418, 8.5, 69 percent), sophomore Christian Green (450, 10.0, 58 percent) and an absolute stud in sophomore Rashad Greene (596, 11.0, 70 percent), whose own injury issues -- he missed four games with an Achilles injury -- prevented him from becoming a breakout No. 1 option. Though he missed part of the spring with a concussion, he should be the No. 1 heading into the fall. Throw in sophomore tight end Nick O'Leary (164 yards, 8.2 per target, 60 percent catch rate), and you've got all the options you need in a pro-style attack.
- A confusing situation at running back. Florida State will have all the former four-star recruits they could want back here, but that's about all we know for sure. Sophomore Devonta Freeman acquitted himself incredibly well as a freshman (579 yards, plus-9.2 Adj. POE, meaning he was about nine points better than the average running back given his carries, blocking and opponents; anything positive is strong for a freshman) but missed the spring with a back injury. Chris Thompson thrived in 2010 (846 yards, plus-11.0 Adj. POE) but struggled himself with back injuries in 2011. Sophomore James Wilder, Jr., is a former blue-chipper, as physically gifted as anybody, but he has his own issues to deal with. Freshman Mario Pender is explosive, exciting … and very much a freshman. The skill is here. But will any of these players be ready to carry the load?
While the offense struggled with youth, injuries and bouts with ineffectiveness, the defense was just really, really good. The 'Noles ranked sixth in Def. F/+ (average ranking of the previous four years: 49th), ninth in Rushing S&P+, 12th in Passing S&P+, seventh on standard downs, 15th on passing downs. A combination of fantastic recruiting and bulk created a deep, intimidating defense and should again in 2012.
FSU was not without its flaws on defense, but they were the type of flaws that wouldn't have mattered much if the offense hadn't struggled. The 'Noles ranked fourth in the first quarter, seventh in the second, and 11th in the third, but just 55th in the fourth. Since FSU won six of its 13 games by at least 25 points, fourth-quarter defense was not as big a deal to them as it could have been (and FSU's rating includes a decent amount of garbage time), but it was still an odd glitch. Meanwhile, this big, efficient unit struggled an odd amount in the red zone, ranking 88th in Red Zone S&P+. They still ranked 10th in Brian Fremeau's drive efficiency ratings, FEI (obviously your red zone defense only matters so much when you don't allow teams in the red zone very often), but it was another odd glitch.
We don't know if these issues will be rectified, but we also don't know if that really matters. FSU could stand to tighten up the pass defense a bit -- Clemson's Tajh Boyd threw for 344 yards on 39 pass attempts (including sacks) early in the season, and FSU did rank a little lower in the passing stats -- but that is picking nits. This was an excellent defense in 2011, and the returning depth is incredible. Depth could take a hit in 2013, with quite a few draft-eligible players potentially leaving, but they can worry about that later. The 2012 unit is loaded.
We start up front: all 11 linemen who recorded a tackle in 2011 return; the depth is so strong that two players -- tackle Cameron Erving (offensive tackle) and end Dan Hicks (tight end) -- moved to offense. Ends Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine (combined: 31.0 tackles for loss, 20.5 sacks, 10 passes defended) are the headliners, but the tackle position is stacked as well. Blue-chip sophomore Timmy Jernigan (6.0 tackles for loss) acquitted himself well in 2011, and Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud (combined: 8.0 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) are not exactly chopped liver. The depth up front is strong enough that it doesn't even matter that former five-star recruit Jacobbi McDaniel struggled to live up to his hype, then got hurt midway through last season. Contributions from him are just a bonus at this point. And this says nothing about incoming five-star linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman, not to mention the five other four-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen attempting (probably in vain) to work their way into the rotation.
The defense does get shakier as you back up from the line of scrimmage, but only so much. Linebacker depth took a hit with the departure of Nigel Bradham (now a Buffalo Bill) and the transfer of former blue-chipper Jeff Luc, but seniors Vince Williams (5.0 tackles for loss, four passes defended) and Nick Moody (a converted safety), combined with juniors Christian Jones (6.0 tackles for loss, two passes defended) and Telvin Smith (8.5 tackles for loss, four passes defended), sophomore Nigell Terrell and incoming freshmen Ukeme Eligwe and Reggie Northrup should create a solid unit. As good as the ends were last year, FSU ranked third in the country in Adj. Sack Rate, in part, because their top four linebackers landed 10 sacks, too. They should expect a similar level of success this fall, at least as long as they don't suffer some injury attrition.
The secondary does have to replace two big contributors, corner/nickel back Mike Harris (the secondary's leading tackler, which could be both good and bad) and strong safety Terrance Parks, but it does still boast a solid mix of steady experience and precocious youth. Junior safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks combined for five interceptions, eight passes broken up and 2.5 tackles for loss, while corners Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid combined for three picks, nine passes broken up and 2.5 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, five-star sophomore Karlos Williams, four-star sophomore Nick Waisome, sophomore Tyler Hunter (who had a big spring) and four-star freshmen Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams and Colin Blake wait their turn.
Honestly, the biggest departure for this defense may have come in the special teams unit, where fantastic punter Shawn Powell (47.0 yards per punt, 23 of 57 punts downed inside the 20) leaves a decent-sized hole. FSU was second in the country in net punting, and it probably goes without saying what kind of favor field position can do for a great defense.
The success-or-not line for Florida State is pretty easy: Wherever the Seminoles are ranked in the preseason, match or exceed it in the postseason. Considering the Seminoles will almost certainly start the year in the top 10, the goal will simply be to finish there as well, by whatever means that requires (probably a 10-2 record or better, which the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives them a 78 percent chance of attaining).
Again, it is very easy to roll your eyes at someone who tells you that this -- THIS -- is the year when [Random Former Power] puts it all together and returns to the elite level. Trust me, I know. I do it all the time.
But it is difficult to ignore the combination of on-field improvement and recruiting success Jimbo Fisher has put together in just two years on the job. The offensive line must prove it is ready to take a step forward after last year's injuries and youth, and E.J. Manuel could certainly stand to make faster decisions in the pocket. But given even reasonable health, the Seminoles should easily be the best team in the ACC in 2012. Choose not to believe it if you want, but you might not have a choice in about four months. The 'Noles will have some rebuilding to do in 2013, but 2012 could be a very, very fun year in Tallahassee.
For more Seminoles football, visit Florida State blog Tomahawk Nation.
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