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August 28, 2008

Fans should be confident and concerned

Editor's note: This column is a free sneak preview from the Osceola's 2008 Season Preview Edition. The 40-page issue includes feature stories, position breakdowns, season predictions, opinion columns, color photos and more. The Season Preview is free to all Osceola print subscribers. Or it can be purchased by non-subscribers for just $7.50 (including shipping and handling). Click here to order today! This issue is shipping this week.

FSU fans should be confident and concerned

On a recent August afternoon, a group of longtime Florida State fans got together in Tallahassee for lunch and to share their predictions on the upcoming season.

It's a longtime ritual for this group, and probably others around the state. They argue about the Seminoles' strengths and weaknesses, discuss which freshmen will be able to contribute right away, and wrap things up by going on the record with their best guesses for FSU's overall record.

Back in the old days, the only question was whether the Seminoles would enter the bowl season undefeated or with one loss. Now, it's a little sketchier. A pair of 7-6 seasons will do that.

But what's interesting to me is how there is absolutely no consensus on how the 2008 Seminoles are going to fare. I've heard 10-2 from some otherwise rational folks. And I've heard 6-6 or worse.

It's not totally unusual for people to differ slightly on teams' expectations. Just look at the national preseason polls and predictions - some like Georgia, others are certain Ohio State will win it all, and Florida and USC are getting plenty of love as well.

But there likely are few teams in the country seeing the diversity of opinions that Florida State is encountering this season. For every fan/pundit/analyst that believes Jimbo Fisher, Rick Trickett and company are going to turn this thing around in short order, there is another who thinks FSU is still a year, two or three away.

And the scary thing is, they all can make valid points. While there are very compelling reasons to believe that 2008 will be a turnaround season for Florida State, there are probably just as many reasons that it won't.

That's what happens with a program in transition - the new direction hasn't quite taken hold, and it takes longer than you'd like to get past the old.

So which side will win out for Florida State in 2008? It's too early to tell for sure, but it is worth examining the merits of each side. And with this being an election year (and in the spirit of equal time), here are 10 reasons that Florida State fans should be confident about 2008, followed by 10 reasons why they should be concerned.

Ten reasons to be confident

  • Year two of the new regime - Many fans expected major improvements when Fisher was hired with an almost entirely new offensive coaching staff last season. But those coaches said repeatedly that this would not be an easy fix: The roster lacked elite talent at several positions, the program was missing discipline and toughness, and a culture of mediocrity had grown into a widespread problem. The new staff has done a very good job of improving the culture and infusing the roster with talent, and the fruits of that labor will begin emerging this fall.

  • Better quarterback play - After more than 18 months in his system, quarterbacks Drew Weatherford, Christian Ponder and D'Vontrey Richardson all have a much clearer understanding of Fisher's offense. There's a good chance that all three signal-callers will play before this season is over, and it's a safe bet that all three will perform better than Weatherford and Xavier Lee did last fall.

  • Trickett has his guys - Through graduation and attrition, offensive line coach Rick Trickett finds himself with very few holdovers from the previous coaching staff. His projected starting five - Joe Tonga, Rodney Hudson, Ryan McMahon, Will Furlong and Antwane Greenlee (or Zebrie Sanders or Andrew Datko) - will all be guys he either signed or, in McMahon's case, recruited from another position. They are supposed to be leaner, meaner and better fits for FSU's new system than the guys who are no longer with the program.

  • Roster has been purged - FSU's coaches spent far too much time last fall trying to instill character and toughness in their players. By disciplining some of those veterans and encouraging others to find new schools, the atmosphere in the Seminoles' locker room is more conducive to winning.

  • Antone Smith is healthy - After averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a freshman and sophomore, Smith fell way off in 2007. He missed a good deal of action, his production decreased, and he seemed to sometimes go down without much of a fight. But after recovering from toe and shoulder injuries, which plagued him all season, Smith is healthy once again. He has been a star in preseason scrimmages, and he is determined to be the tailback everyone expected when he signed with FSU four years ago.

  • Secondary is experienced - Cornerback Tony Carter is a four-year starter. Rover Myron Rolle is a three-year starter. Cornerback Patrick Robinson is in his second year as a starter. And free safety Darius McClure is a fifth-year senior. FSU's pass defense surrendered a ton of big plays last season, but with this much experience in the seconday, the Seminoles have to expect marked improvement.

  • Loaded at receiver - The Seminoles already returned a solid receiving corps, with Greg Carr, Preston Parker, Richard Goodman, Rod Owens, Bert Reed, Taiwan Easterling and others returning this fall. But the addition of junior college star Corey Surrency and talented freshman Jarmon Fortson gives FSU one of the nation's deepest receiving corps.

  • Improved pass rush - In his first season as a starter, Everette Brown established himself as one of the ACC's best pass-rushers. This year, he believes he will be far more productive. And junior college transfer Markus White has shown in camp why he was named the nation's juco player of the year last season. Those two, combined with part-time starters Neefy Moffett and Kevin McNeil, could allow the Seminoles to create pressure on quarterbacks without blitzing.

  • Favorable Schedule - With the academic suspensions looming, FSU's athletics department did the right thing in scheduling two smaller schools for the opening games of the season. There was no reason to play on Labor Day, and certainly no reason to start the year with a Clemson or Miami. If the Seminoles can get past Wake Forest, the schedule sets up nicely for a strong run through the first eight games.

  • Silver lining to suspensions - Very little good can come out of playing three games without 10 or your best players. But if there is one positive, it's the fact that so many young players will get an early taste of live college action, and they will give FSU greater depth as the season marches on.

    Ten reasons to be concerned

  • Uncertainty at kicker - Graham Gano was trying to accomplish the rare feat of being Florida State's punter and place-kicker this season, but those plans hit a snag when he went down with a knee injury last week. Gano is expected to return early in the season, but until then, FSU will be unproven at both positions. Even when he returns, he will have to be more consistent with field goals than he was in preseason.

  • Trickett's guys are young - While Rick Trickett seems to like his new crop of linemen, there's no getting around the fact that this group is very young. Two freshmen are expected to start on the right side of the line, and even "veterans" Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon are only sophomores.

  • So many suspensions - It's not uncommon for a team to lose a player or two for disciplinary reasons early in the season. But double-digit suspensions is almost unheard of. And with Wake Forest coming to town in week three, the short-handed Seminoles will be in for a fight.

  • More talent needed - The 2008 signing class could go down as one of the best signed by FSU in years. From the looks of things in preseason camp, there were very few "misses" in terms of talent evaluation. But still, the Seminoles will need another class or two just like that to get where they need to be.

  • Senior leaders haven't won - One of the greatest challenges in building (or rebuilding) a program is in transforming the mental outlook of the people involved. It's difficult for players to expect success when they haven't tasted success. It's tough for coaches to coax the best out of their players when those athletes don't really believe in themselves and the program. The seniors on this Florida State football team have won 22 games and lost 17. They are an even 12-12 in conference play the last three years. It will be a challenge for the Seminoles' older players to break out of that pattern of mediocrity.

  • Pass defense - The good news is that FSU returns three starters in the secondary. The bad news is those same players gave up a ton of passing yards last season.

  • NCAA sanctions - Florida State is scheduled to appear before the NCAA in October to resolve the pending academic scandal. While that is an off-the-field issue, the intense media coverage could lead to distractions within the team.

  • Chemistry - FSU's coaches have been very pleased with the chemistry and camaraderie on this year's team. They say they have seen leaders emerge at every position. But this still is a program in transition - there are older players brought in by a former coaching staff competing against newcomers who were signed by these coaches. The coaches and team leaders will have to monitor this to limit any possible frustration.

  • Brutal second-half schedule - It might not go down with the likes of Octoberfest, but Florida State's final six games this season will be a beast. Home games against Virginia Tech, Clemson, Boston College and Florida will make for nice crowds at Doak Campbell Stadium, but the Seminoles likely will only be favored in one or two of them. And road trips to Georgia Tech and Maryland are never smooth sailing.

  • Coping with adversity - In recent years, Florida State has shown an ability to come back strong when the critics least expect it. The Seminoles have found ways to knock off Boston College last season, UCLA in the Emerald Bowl, Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game, and so on and so on. But there could be ample doses of adversity this fall, between the suspensions, a possible quarterback controversy, and an unforgiving schedule. How the Seminoles handle those situations could go a long way in determining the successes and failures of this season.

    What's intriguing to me about the above lists is that many of the same areas can be perceived as positives and negatives. Trickett has his guys, but they are incredibly young. The young players will get a great deal of experience in the first three games, but it could come at the expense of a loss to Wake Forest. The secondary is experienced, but it hasn't been consistently strong.

    Good and bad. Positive and negative.

    Is it any wonder Florida State fans are confused?

    Ira Schoffel is the Osceola's general manager.

    Click here to order the 2008 Osceola Season Preview.


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