TALLAHASSEE -- Coming off their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in seven years, Florida State finds itself at the line of demarcation that separates the good from the great in the world of college football.
Over the past several seasons under the guidance of coach Jimbo Fisher the Seminoles have crept ever closer to that line, reloading their coffers and clawing back toward the top of the proverbial pile year-by-year.
But as the talent level and the win totals have climbed upward in recent years, so have the expectations surrounding the program.
“We expect to be good, we want to be good,” Fisher said. “We have to coach them to be good, and we’ll adjust as we go, but we want this team to be the best it can be.”
So far under Fisher things have been very good, but with FSU practicing in a brand new, $15-million facility and fan expectations as high as ever, soon “good” may no longer be good enough for Fisher.
A school record 11 Seminoles were drafted last year — including starting quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round. The fact Fisher can recruit and develop players with the best of them is not a question. But entering 2013, whether Fisher can actually coach with the best of them is still debated by some.
Last year’s loss to Florida was understandable in the eyes of Seminole fans — excusable even. The loss on the road to unranked NC State in early October, however, was not.
More than ever, Fisher and the Seminoles can’t afford a misstep against a lesser team.
Fortunately the schedule sets up favorably. The Seminoles were nearly unbeatable at Doak Campbell Stadium last season and should be favored in all seven of their games at home this year.
The five road dates could be more bothersome. The opener at Pittsburgh has been circled since shortly after last year’s Orange Bowl win and Boston College looks to be in for a rough year. But a road date with Wake — a team that has given FSU fits on the road — a week after facing Miami, could set up to be a major trap.
The other two road games — provided the Seminoles handle their other business — will determine the fate of the 2013 season. An Oct. 19 trip to Clemson will likely decide the Atlantic Division of the ACC, and the annual tilt with Florida could carry national implications. If preseason polls are any indication, the Seminoles are unlikely to be favored in either.
To succeed this year, Fisher’s Seminoles will need to break in some new coaches and players while mastering a new defensive scheme.
In addition to losing considerable talent to the NFL, Fisher’s staff also lost seven coaches — including both coordinators. While Fisher retains play-calling duties, he must break in a new QB in addition to breaking in new staff.
So far, redshirt freshman Jameis Winston looks to have a slight edge over redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker, but Fisher has yet to announce a starter.
Unlike the past couple years when EJ Manuel provided veteran leadership as the team brought players along on the line and at the skill positions, the opposite will occur this year as Florida State’s more experienced line and skill players must support a new quarterback.
Injuries could be catastrophic, too. Aside from running back — where FSU is deep — questions at tight end, receiver and along the line persist after injuries have depleted the depth of each unit.
Fortunately, the defense will be the strength of the team. Despite losing both ends and a starting corner in the first 40 picks of April’s NFL draft, the Seminoles are loaded with players for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to deploy.
“We’ve never run anything like this or anything close to it,” junior safety Karlos Williams said of Pruitt’s new defense. “We’re falling in love with it — I’ll put it that way.”
Last year, Florida State had the top-ranked pass defense in the nation. They return almost everyone from the secondary and add several talented newcomers. Look for them to be even more involved this year under Pruitt.
“A lot of guys can play a lot of different positions and it puts us in a spot where a lot more [defensive backs] can get on the field,” Williams added. “The defense puts us in those positions where we can have a lot more speed on the field.
“It shuts a lot of stuff down, especially playing in the ACC where there’s not a lot of two-back sets or I-formations; They run a lot of spread.”
The Seminoles are going to need to shut down the ACC if they have plan on accomplishing their goals this season. Those goals are lofty and there are many questions on the way to accomplishing them.
But if Fisher can solve those questions by the end of the season, he’ll find his place cemented on the very top tier of the coaching elite.