But after mauling Miami, reeling off five straight wins for the first time in five years, and starting 4-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2004...all of a sudden eight or nine wins seems too low a number to satiate Seminole nation. They want more, and they want it now. Some are even starting to expect a win over Florida and an ACC Championship this year, but there's another six weeks before we have to worry about that.
Instead of looking ahead, let's look back at the first half of the season. It's time for FSU's midseason report card. Granted the ‘Noles are seven games into a 12 game regular season, but counting a bowl (which is a given since FSU is already bowl eligible) and counting a berth in the ACC Championship game (which is a pretty good probability at this point), this is truly the halfway point: seven games in the books and seven more to go.
Christian Ponder set the bar high with his stellar junior campaign, but given FSU's struggles to get the ball downfield in the passing game, Ponder's play doesn't justify a higher mark. He's throwing for right at 170 yards per game, down significantly from a season ago. There have been some questionable decisions (most notably against Boston College) and some questionable throws (against Oklahoma in particular), but Ponder is still the best quarterback FSU has had since Chris Weinke. He is a solid leader, is well-liked and respected by his teammates, has great running ability which often saves FSU when a play breaks down, and is smart enough to get FSU out of bad plays and into good ones based on the defense. He's been a bit battered given the triceps contusion he suffered against the Sooners and now the bursa sac injury sustained against BC, yet he's led FSU to a 6-1 start and a huge victory over Miami.
C is for average, and that's what FSU's receivers have been so far this year: average. There have been dropped passes, missed blocks, and incorrect routes run on a regular basis—and those are the big reasons why FSU's passing game is not as explosive as it was a year ago and Christian Ponder is not putting up the Heisman-like numbers FSU fans hoped for. The loss of Jarmon Fortson before the season has hurt this group more than most expected at the time of his dismissal. Without Fortson, FSU has lacked the big, physical presence at receiver that would have drawn the attention of opponents' top cornerbacks every week. Instead it has been Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling who have been the leading pass-catchers. They are both solid, but are nothing special. Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith each have tremendous potential and have begun to emerge in recent weeks, and Jimbo Fisher has indicated that the true freshmen—Greg Dent, Kenny Shaw, and Jared Haggins—are going to become bigger factors as the season wears on. Tight end Beau Reliford has also started to show up more regularly in the passing game, which bodes well for the second half of the season. In fact, provided Ponder's elbow injury is not a hindrance it is very conceivable that the passing game could improve drastically over the next several games.
Offensive Line (B)
This grade may come as a surprise given all the veterans up front for FSU and the ‘Noles highly successful ground game, but the reality is that as good as this group has been at run-blocking, they have been equally disappointing when it comes to pass-blocking, a point that would be magnified if not for Christian Ponder's fleet feet and ability to escape pressure. FSU was without starting left tackle Andrew Datko for three games and now will be without guard David Spurlock for the foreseeable future, but regardless of who is on the field for FSU the pass protection must improve in the second half of the season for the ‘Noles to continue their success. The run blocking has been excellent by this group.
Running Backs (A)
FSU's three-headed tailback has been a smashing success this season. The trio of Jermaine Thomas, Chris Thompson, and Ty Jones has combined for 12 touchdowns and are averaging nearly seven yards per carry collectively. They are converting the short yardage runs, and hitting the big plays: Thompson has a 90 yard run to his credit, Thomas has gone 70 for a touchdown, and Jones owns a 57 yard TD run. They have each done a very good job of finding the holes, hitting them, and making it to the second line of defense, especially compared to previous years. And they have not lost a fumble this year among them. The unsung hero in this group is fullback Lonnie Pryor, who is cut from the same cloth as former FSU fullback Edgar Bennett. Pryor is good enough to be an every down back, but has unselfishly taken on the role of blocking back and paved the way for the aforementioned trio. Without a doubt, the running backs deserve the best grade among any offensive unit.
Defensive Line (A+)
There's no other grade to give to this unit, which was gone from much-maligned to oft-praised. FSU's front four has dominated the line of scrimmage most of this season, and as a result the ‘Noles lead the country in sacks with 30. The emerging star is Brandon Jenkins, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. But it's not like he's the only stud in the bunch, as the other three defensive ends have combined for 7.5 sacks themselves. On the interior the defensive tackles have combined for 4.5 sacks, but more importantly have clogged the middle against the run. As a result, FSU ranks 18th nationally against the run, allowing just over 100 yards per game on the ground.
FSU's linebackers have played very solid football this season, and each week Jimbo Fisher singles out one of the backers for his stellar play. Lately it has been Nigel Bradham receiving the praise, but Kendall Smith and Mister Alexander have also gotten their due this year from FSU's head coach. Currently Smith leads the team in tackles with 37, with Bradham ranking second. Alexander has just 12 tackles on the season, but is a 6'4" contributor that has a future on Sundays. The only knock on this group is that they have not come up with a turnover this season: none of the linebackers have picked off a pass or recovered a fumble.
Defensive Backs (A-)
A year ago, FSU's defensive backs couldn't cover a dead man, or so it seemed at times. Opposing receivers ran free, and when they didn't passes were still completed with relative ease, which explains why FSU ranked among the worst in the country in pass defense a year ago. Like the rest of the defense, this unit has shown great improvement this year. The entire secondary is incredibly physical. Safety Nick Moody hits like a linebacker and fellow safety Terrence Parks has been playing as well as anyone on defense of late. At the cornerback position, Xavier Rhodes is a future first round draft pick with his size and skills. But don't be fooled by the more diminutive Greg Reid, Lamarcus Joyner, and Mike Harris. They can all hit, tackle, cover—and they all have good ball skills. And they are all young. This FSU secondary has a chance to become one of the best units ever to play at FSU by the time they're through. If not for the Oklahoma game, this group would probably deserve an A+. They have combined for four interceptions, and more importantly have been on the same page as busted assignments can be counted on one hand, unlike last year.
Despite the low passing numbers, FSU's offense has been incredibly efficient. The ‘Noles are converting third downs at right around a 50 percent clip, and in the red zone FSU has scored on 91 percent of its trips inside the opponent's 20 yard line (including a current streak of 18 straight scores in the red zone). FSU is also having its best rushing year since 1995, when a guy named Warrick Dunn toted the football for the Seminoles. The ‘Noles may lack the quick-strike capability through the air, but the physical pounding their ground game dishes out is impressive. And by the way, they're 36th nationally in total offense and 22nd in scoring offense. This is a solid B, and if the passing game improves in the season's second half, this grade will as well.
This unit has gone from laughingstock to juggernaut in one year. They have jumped nearly 100 spots in the national rankings since a season ago, and currently rank 22nd nationally. They are first in sacks, and fourth in tackles for loss. And as they showed last week against Boston College, they can win football games for FSU when the offense struggles. If there is a knock, it's that they need to force more turnovers. But given where they came from a year ago, that's splitting hairs at this point. And talk about upsides— there are only four seniors on the defensive side of the ball, and one of them, Mister Alexander, may get a sixth year of eligibility and return next year. This unit could and should rank in the top 15 in the nation next year.
Special Teams (A)
Dustin Hopkins is a lethal weapon, ranking second nationally in touchbacks. He's also 9-11 on field goals and perfect on extra points. Punter Shawn Powell has put nine punts inside the 20, booted 10 punts of over 50 yards, and is averaging 44.8 yards per punt, which is just a yard off the school record for a season (Rohn Stark averaged 46.0 yards per punt in 1981). FSU's coverage teams have been excellent, and as for the return teams...well Reid is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. The fact that FSU ranks last in the ACC in kickoff returns is misleading because opponents are pooch-kicking to keep the ball out of Reid's hands.