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September 17, 2012

Column: Time to find out if FSU is real contender

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For the third straight game the Seminoles dominated the competition. With a quarter of the regular season now complete, FSU finds itself at No. 4 in both major polls, its highest ranking since 2005, ranked No. 1 in every major NCAA defensive statistic and No. 2 overall in scoring offense.

But just how good is Florida State? Are the Seminoles really "back"?

On paper the 'Noles have talent, depth, experience and coaching. And now the statistics say the Seminoles belong among the elite of college football. The problem is that Jimbo Fisher's squad has proved nothing.

Two victories against hapless FBS teams and dominating effort versus a mediocre Wake Forest team might feel good to the average fan, but the 3-0 start means very little to the bottom line. Florida State was a heavy favorite in all three contests and did what was expected.

While it's hard to draw any hard early conclusions based on the level of competition, a few trends are beginning to surface. So do these tends show that FSU a national championship contender or pretender?

Case for being a contender:

  • Defense is for real - Mark Stoops' squad has given up just three points through three games and rank No. 1 in every major defensive category. While the level of competition has been substandard at best, there's no denying that the defense has dominated all facets of the game. There is excellent depth, above average experience (five senior and five junior starters), outstanding speed and arguably the top defensive line in college football. There's a good reason why the saying "defense wins championships" is the oldest cliché in football and FSU clearly boasts an elite defense.
  • Running game shows dramatic improvement - One of the biggest question marks entering the 2012 season was whether FSU's horrific ground game could get on track. Last year, the 'Noles averaged just 112 yards a game rushing ranking them 104th nationally. So far through the first three games, that average has more than doubled at 279 yards a game ranking FSU 11th in the nation. While it's easy to conclude that the lofty rushing stats are based on weak competition, last year in its first two games FSU averaged just 131 rushing yards versus ULM and Charleston Southern.
  • Team is healthy - Last year when FSU suffered two of its biggest losses to Clemson and Wake Forest, which effectively eliminated them from getting into the ACC Championship, it was decimated by injuries. The starting quarterback, starting cornerback Greg Reid, multiple offensive linemen and two key receivers were all out of action or hampered by injuries during this two-game stretch. Starting running back Chris Thompson also went out early in the Wake Forest game with a season-ending injury. Even with All-American defensive end Brandon Jenkins out for the year, Florida State enters Saturday's all-important match-up in really good shape on both sides of the ball.
  • More mature team should make fewer mistakes - Last year, the Seminoles boasted just four senior starters that made it through the bulk of the season. As a result of the lack of experience and maturity, there were a high number of mental mistakes in three of FSU's four losses (Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia). FSU will enter Saturday's Clemson game with nine senior starters including quarterback EJ Manuel. With another year under its belt, FSU has shown a more business-like attitude and dramatically reduced mistakes (just 3.3 penalties per game) through the early part of the season.

Case that FSU is still a pretender:

  • Offensive line is still a question mark - Even with lofty rushing numbers through the first three games, FSU's young offensive line still has a long way to go to prove itself. On Saturday against the first FBS opponent, the offense produced big numbers on the ground thanks mainly to two huge Chris Thompson runs. Nevertheless, EJ Manuel faced a good deal of pressure and was sacked three times. Also, the offense failed to convert a first-and-goal from the 2 in the second quarter, leading some to wonder if FSU's short yardage woes will continue in 2012. Despite two runs from power-back James Wilder and one by fullback Lonnie Pryor, the line was unable to move Wake Forest's undersized defensive front off the ball and the 'Noles had to settle for a field goal.
  • EJ Manuel not quite an elite quarterback - There is no doubt that EJ Manuel has been efficient since taking over as FSU's full-time starting quarterback in 2011. For his career, Manuel has completed two-thirds of his passes and tossed 30 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. Last year, there were even whispers that Fisher's first prized recruit might be a dark horse Heisman candidate. However, the former Rivals100 quarterback hasn't quite lived up to the huge expectations he had coming out of Bayside High School (Virginia Beach, Va.) and may finish his college career just being an above average signal-caller.
  • Coaching staff has yet to prove itself in big games - With three straight top 10 recruiting classes under their belt, Jimbo Fisher and his staff have established themselves as elite recruiters. But outside of a couple non-BCS bowls and wins over struggling in-state rivals, the Seminole coaching staff doesn't have any significant victories to hang their hat on. Since Fisher took over in 2010, FSU has not defeated a top 10 team and is just 2-4 versus ranked opponents. One of those two wins came in 2010 against a Miami team in that finished the year unranked at 7-6. The other was a bowl win over South Carolina that same year after it lost its best player early in the game

The pendulum will swing after Saturday night. That's because the 'Noles face No. 9 ranked Clemson in an intra-conference showdown. With Virginia Tech's upset loss to Pittsburgh this past weekend, the nationally televised showdown between the Tigers and Seminoles, the only ranked ACC teams in the Coaches' Poll, will decide who the king of the ACC is.

A win would put the Seminoles in the driver's seat for the Atlantic Division and for the berth in the ACC Championship Game. On other hand, a home loss to Clemson would be disastrous. Such a setback could effectively eliminate FSU from the ACC Championship race should Clemson takes care of its business in ACC competition. Such a setback might also call into question all the progress Jimbo Fisher has made to the program since taking over as head coach.

On the whole, the positive signs appear to outnumber the red flags. While expecations were unreasonably high in 2011, there are legitimate reasons to buy into the hype this year. The building blocks are in place and the players and coaches seem supremely focused on the goal of an ACC Championship and Clemson stands in the way.

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