Plenty of reasons for FSU to contend in '09
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Most ACC fans know about the troubles Florida State has had at wide receiver, and talk of the NCAA's sanctions has grown old, but it's not all doom and gloom in Tallahassee. Despite the offseason distractions surrounding the Noles, this team is still good enough to A) contend for the Atlantic Division title, B) linger among the top 25 for a significant portion of the season, and C) score like the baseball team (well, OK, that might be pushing it, but they can still put up enough points to win).
Recruiting: Forget what the Noles don't have at wide receiver for a minute, and look at who's coming to help. The staff is hoping receivers Rodney Smith (6-6) and Willie Haulstead (6-4) can contribute immediately. Haulstead, a speedy athlete who is ranked the No. 32 wide receiver at his position by ESPN.com's Scouts Inc., caught 45 passes for 648 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior at Titusville. He's the kind of player who can rack up the "yards after catch" stat. And Smith, straight out of Miami, was rated the No. 20 receiver by ESPN.com. As a bonus, his GPA was well over a 3.0 at Archbishop Carroll high school. There should be a Jarmon Fortson-type player in this class who can help (Fortson, as some of you might remember, caught a 42-yard pass against the Gators. Not bad for a freshman.)
Coaching: Mickey Andrews and Jimbo Fisher are two well-respected, demanding coordinators who know how to get the most out of what they have. Andrews' defense lost six starters, but over the past five seasons, FSU's defense has been amongst the best in the nation in total defense. Last year, FSU ranked No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss and sixth in pass defense. Now that Fisher is entering his third season, the players should be accustomed to his expectations and philosophy. During his tenure, FSU's running game improved from 103rd in 2006 to 33rd in 2008. Odds are it will be the backbone of the offense again. If this staff can come together for what might be Bobby Bowden's final season, and keep the players focused and disciplined, it will go a long way in determining how they finish November.
Competition: Florida State happens to be in the weaker of the two divisions, as Maryland, Boston College and Clemson are in somewhat of a rebuilding phase and welcomed a few new coordinators. And Wake Forest had a mass exodus of the best defenders the program has ever seen. Now, that doesn't mean the Noles get an automatic W against those programs, but they are intangibles that work in FSU's favor, at least on paper.
Quarterback: If there's one thing that can't be underestimated in college, it's the value an experienced quarterback brings, and Christian Ponder now has 13 starts to learn from. For those who have been quick to criticize Ponder, don't forget it was only his first season starting, and he led FSU to a nine-win season for the first time since 2004. Ponder had ample opportunity to improve this spring, as he took just about every rep there was to take because E.J. Manuel was injured.
Running game: The player to watch here is Jermaine Thomas, who had a breakout season as a true freshman. He averaged seven yards per carry on 69 attempts. He was able to make something happen almost every time he touched the ball, losing only 10 yards rushing all season. And he'll be in good company with Ty Jones, who made a name for himself in the Champs Sports Bowl. Jones rushed four times for 55 yards and a touchdown. His average of almost 14 yards per carry was more than six times better than any other FSU running back in that game.
Offensive line: Let's just go ahead and get this out of the way, shall we? FSU should have the best offensive line in the ACC, and much of that credit goes to Andrew Datko, Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon. For the first time since 2004, all five starters return. They should only build upon last year's success, and despite starting three true freshmen (which is one reason why they were ranked last a year ago, ahem, the Noles had their best year running football since 2000. Because this unit should be so good, tight ends coach James Coley can help his players make the transition from extra linemen to offensive answers this fall.
Extra points: None of this guarantees FSU anything -- the Noles are going to have to earn every win this fall, and no team in the ACC is going to make that easy for them. But there are plenty of reasons for Florida State to succeed. It's just that in light of everything else that has happened this offseason, nobody is really talking about them.