CFN: 2009 Florida State preview

Even after delivering its most wins and first bowl victory since 2004, off-field issues continued to generate the most headlines at Florida State.

Head coach: Bobby Bowden
34th year: 309-91-4
44th year overall: 382-123-4
Ten Best FSU Players
1. LG Rodney Hudson, Jr.
2. LB Dekoda Watson, Sr.
3. CB Patrick Robinson, Sr.
4. QB Christian Ponder, Jr.
5. C Ryan McMahon, Jr.
6. LT Andrew Datko, Soph.
7. LB Nigel Bradham, Soph.
8. DE Markus White, Sr.
9. RB Jermaine Thomas, Soph.
10. LB Kendall Smith, Jr.

2009 Schedule
CFN Prediction: COMING
2009 Record: 0-0

9/7 Miami
9/12 Jacksonville State
9/19 at BYU
9/26 South Florida
10/3 at Boston College
10/10 Georgia Tech
10/17 OPEN DATE 
10/22 at North Carolina
10/31 NC State
11/7 at Clemson
11/14 at Wake Forest
11/21 Maryland
11/28 at Florida

2008 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 7-5
2008 Record: 9-4

9/6 Western Carolina W 69-0
9/13 UT Chattanooga W 46-7
9/20 Wake Forest L 12-3
9/27 Colorado (Jax) W 39-21
10/4 at Miami W 41-39
10/11  OPEN DATE
10/16 at NC State W 26-17
10/25  Virginia Tech W 30-20
11/1 at Georgia Tech L 31-28
11/8 Clemson W 41-27
11/15 Boston College L 27-17
11/22 at Maryland W 37-3
11/29 Florida L 45-15

Champs Sports Bowl
Dec. 27 Wisconsin W 42-13

Even after delivering its most wins and first bowl victory since 2004, off-field issues continued to generate the most headlines at Florida State.

As if trying to rekindle the past isn’t hard enough, the ‘Noles spent too much time trying to navigate questions about Bobby Bowden’s future, dealing with arrests and suspensions, and absorbing an NCAA blow for the 2008 academic scandal. For players and coaches alike, the start of another season can’t come soon enough.

On the field, Florida State is no different than most schools this time of year; there are some positive signs and some areas of concern that’ll need to be addressed in August. Offensively, for instance, the running game and offensive line are strengths, but the passing attack and wide receivers are rather ordinary. All eyes will be on the continued development of junior QB Christian Ponder, the poster boy for the glass-is-half-full offense. While he needs work as a passer, at least there’ll be no quarterback controversy for the first time in almost a decade.

On defense, it’s the same story in Tallahassee as the offense. The talent and speed are terrific, but holes on the first and last lines of defense need to be plugged before Miami visits on Sept. 7. While it’s a good unit overall, balanced opponents are going to find the soft spots on the interior of the line and the secondary. And both sides of the ball are going to miss versatile special teamer Graham Gano, last year’s recipient of the Lou Groza Award.

So where is Florida State on its Return to Glory Tour? It’s certainly headed in the right direction, but still a few legs short of its final destination. With the balance of ACC power in the Coastal Division there’s no reason why the ‘Noles can’t take the Atlantic for the first time since 2005, laying the foundation for much higher expectations in 2010. Anything less will be the equivalent of spending another season in neutral.

What to look for offense
: The continued development of the young offensive line. This group, a liability before the start of the season, wound up becoming a revelation in 2008. And the best is yet to come. Despite leaning on underclassmen and way too many true freshmen, Florida State survived, and even thrived, in the trenches. Now that the kids, like LT Andrew Datko, RT Zebrie Sanders, and RG David Spurlock, are a year older, and veterans Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon are the anchors, this group could be ready to dominate.  

What to look for on defense: The emergence of new pass rushers. It has to happen or else, Florida State will reenact 2007, when it was carved up through the air. Gone are Everette Brown and Neefy Moffett, who produced 32.5 tackles, 19 sacks, and countless breaks for the pass defense. In their place step a couple of seniors, Markus White and Kevin McNeil, who are itching for an opportunity to get a bigger spotlight. McNeil has been an enigma, failing up to this point to reach lofty expectations. White could be ready to bust out after completing his apprenticeship in his first year out of junior college.   

The team will be much better if ... the passing attack starts catching up with the ground game. The numbers from last season don’t lie. Florida State was second in the ACC running the ball, but eighth passing it. And that’s No. 8 in one of the worst leagues for quarterbacks in the country. Now that we’re getting into Jimbo Fisher’s third year as the offensive coordinator, it’s time for the Seminoles to achieve a level of balance that keeps opposing defenses from stacking the box to contain QB Christian Ponder and RB Jermaine Thomas.

The Schedule : The Seminoles get a layup against Jacksonville State, but that's more than forgivable considering the non-conference road trips to BYU and Florida. Oh yeah, and if they weren't enough, there's a little matter of a battle against a South Florida program looking to make a bigger splash in the Sunshine State pecking order. It doesn't get tougher than Miami, Georgia Tech, and at North Carolina in the Coastal portion of the schedule, but there's a week off between the showdowns against the Yellow Jackets and the Tar Heels. That October 17th open date will be vital with four road games in the final six weeks with trips to Chapel Hill, Clemson, and Gainesville in the mix. If that wasn't enough, FSU has to go to Boston College. At least the opening day game against Miami is in Tallahassee.

Best Offensive Player : Junior LG Rodney Hudson. Oddly enough, it’s not even close. Halfway to becoming one of the most decorated offensive linemen to ever play in Tallahassee, Hudson is already a two-time All-ACC performer, with an eye on All-America recognition. While not very big at just 6-2 and 285 pounds, he uses his hands extremely well, has great footwork, and almost never makes mistakes. You just can’t beat him on the pass rush and he moves the pile as well as anyone on this line. The leading man on a rapidly improving unit, he’s a gem up front for the Seminoles.

Best Defensive Player: Senior LB Dekoda Watson. It’s really a toss-up with senior CB Patrick Robinson, who’s had a great offseason and will also have a chance to parlay his final season into an NFL contract. Watson is one of the most explosive athletes on this roster, combining blazing speed with the power to separate players from the ball. A genuine playmaker on this side of the ball, he’s able to impose his will as a run defender, pass rusher, and pass defender.   

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Christian Ponder. You’d have to go back to the beginning of the decade and Chris Weinke to find stability and consistent productivity at the quarterback position. That’s just not right. Ponder is next in line to try and change the recent trend. As passers go, he was a pretty nifty runner, which is half of what the Seminoles need from him. In his second season as the starter, he’s got to blossom into the type of dual-threat that can keep defenses from focusing on the running game. 

The season will be a success if ...  the ‘Noles win the Atlantic Division. In yet another sign of cracks in the Florida State foundation, it’s been four long years since the team even played in an ACC championship game. Even with question marks on both sides of the ball, there’s absolutely no reason this program can’t cop a division that has no powerhouse programs or Top 25 members entering the season.   

Key game: Sept. 7 vs. Miami. What better way to hit the ground running than with a primetime visit from the rival Hurricanes? All of the questions about the passing game, defensive line, and secondary better be answered in August because Miami is growing up before our eyes after, like Florida State, using a slew of young kids last year. While a divisional title won’t be won on the opening weekend, there’s no overstating the importance of a fast start, especially with BYU and South Florida looming later in the month.

2008 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Florida State 102 for 937 yards - Opponents 76 for 593 yards
- Third down conversions: Florida State 79-of-172 (46%) - Opponents 43-of-167 (26%)
- Second quarter scoring: Florida State 146 - Opponents 58 Top Stories