Prior to the start of last season, Florida State got a lot of attention around the country as a possible national-title contender, despite the fact that the roster may have been a year away -- there were few senior contributors on either side of the ball.
But perhaps more importantly, the 2011 schedule featured a couple of potential road blocks before the Seminoles so much as gathered for spring workouts. Having to play at Clemson seven days after a the-world-will-be-watching tilt at home with No. 1 Oklahoma presented the opportunity for a big letdown, plus a Thursday night contest at Boston College just five days following a Parent's Weekend affair with North Carolina State looked tricky.
As it turned out, FSU was indeed not yet ready for prime time, as coach Jimbo Fisher and Co. finished off a 9-4 campaign with a comeback 18-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. The 'Noles fought hard but ultimately dropped their state-of-the-program test to Oklahoma. A week later, still battered and bruised from the nationally-televised slugfest with the Sooners, they lost a shootout with Clemson at a defeaning Memorial Stadium that immediately put them behind the eight ball in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. And then, much more unforgivable, they did not take Wake Forest seriously enough in Winston-Salem and made it three defeats in a row. Luckily, the quick turnaround from NC State to Boston College ended up being no big deal, as they shut out a reeling Wolfpack team 34-0 and throttled a hapless Eagles squad 38-7.
Now it's 2012, and not only are those freshmen, sophomores and juniors that made up the bulk of the depth chart set to be sophomores, juniors and seniors, respectively, but Florida State's schedule is all the more negotiable from start to finish.
It certainly helps that West Virginia decided to back out of its proposed Sept. 8 road trip to Tallahassee, citing its desire to jump from the Big East to the Big 12 as soon as possible. The athletic department for the Seminoles did everything it could to replace the Mountaineers with another FBS opponent at least capable of putting up a battle, and although those efforts ultimately failed and resulted in an eye roller with MEAC doormat Savannah State, now FSU doesn't have to defend probable Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith -- the rising senior quarterback and his cohorts put up 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl just last month.
Presumably, the 'Noles will have three warm-up matches before their first major tilt of the season Sept. 22 against the aforementioned Clemson, which beat the garnet and gold a year ago, went on to capture the Atlantic Division and crushed Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game to earn that Orange Bowl invite. Two FCS pushovers, Murray State (Sept. 1) and Savannah State (Sept. 8), will travel to Doak Campbell Stadium ahead of Wake Forest (Sept. 15), and then the Tigers are on their way to Capital City -- that's four straight home games to open the slate, by the way, a first in school history. A trip down I-75 to Tampa on the 29th for a matchup with USF closes out a busy month of September for Florida State.
The Seminoles only have to leave the Sunshine State three times in 12 games, and not once until Oct. 6 at NC State.
As far as its two in-state rivalry death matches are concerned, FSU appears to be in very good shape. The 'Noles head to Miami on Oct. 20 to face a Hurricanes club that all indications suggest should be firmly in rebuilding mode, and then Florida has to make its way from Gainesville on Nov. 24 with its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons on staff.
For now, the circle-your-calendar date seems to be Nov. 8, when Florida State must go to Blacksburg and line up with Virginia Tech under the bright lights of Thursday Night Football. Fortunately, the Seminoles have Duke on Oct. 27 for Homecoming and then a long-awaited bye, which means they'll get a week and a half to prepare for the Hokies and are then rewarded with another mini bye before leaving for Maryland on Nov. 17. Fisher has said on record time and time again he isn't a fan of playing on Thursday night, but not having to suit up the previous Saturday makes the TV-friendly event palatable.
True, FSU is forced to play nine straight games to start the season before its bye week finally arrives, but overall the schedule sets up about as well as it could have.
It's up to the 'Noles to go out and do it on the field, as opposed to threatening annually to be "back" but disappointing more often than not. Even if voters are tired of being burned, Florida State's talent alone warrants another preseason top-10 ranking in both polls.
On the offensive side of the football, while E.J. Manuel has Heisman-caliber ability and an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, the blocking up front simply has to be light-years better in 2012 than it was in 2011. But defensively, this unit was flat-out suffocating for prolonged stretches this past season, and it could be even nastier since just three seniors departed from the two-deep -- weak-side linebacker Nigel Bradham is likely the only one anybody truly misses. From a special-teams perspective, the Seminoles have a handful of dangerous return men, waves of speedy coverage tacklers and a senior kicker in Dustin Hopkins with an All-American leg.
And if FSU doesn't end up winning its first national championship in 13 years, or at least get back to a BCS bowl game, it won't be the schedule's fault.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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