1. Manuel will be good, but not great
Quarterback E.J. Manuel is now a fifth-year senior with three bowl wins under his belt already, and from a name-grade-and-serial-number perspective alone he has a chance to develop into a first-round pick at the NFL level. However, while the 6-5, 238-pounder completes passes at a high percentage and can also help move the chains with his legs, coach Jimbo Fisher's offense puts a lot of responsibility on his shoulders both pre- and post-snap -- perhaps too much. Former starter and current Minnesota Viking Christian Ponder was truly special when it came to the decision-making process, which is something Manuel must improve upon at this point.
2. Reid to be missed more on defense
Yes, the recently-dismissed Greg Reid was one of the best return men in Florida State history and could have broken the school record set by Deion Sanders for career punt-return yardage, but quality returners are far from impossible to find on such a talented roster. Look for receiver Rashad Greene, incoming freshman Marvin Bracy and maybe even safety Karlos Williams to be pretty productive in that role. While Reid was a hit-and-miss cornerback due to his small stature (5-8, 188 pounds) and tendency to give up big plays, his attitude was infectious and there is nobody even remotely proven behind him on the depth chart.
3. Offensive line can only get better
Unquestionably, the offensive line deserved the majority of the blame for the Seminoles struggling throughout a four-loss campaign in 2011, as warrior Andrew Datko had to finally fall on his sword, fellow senior Zebrie Sanders wasn't nearly as effective as his first-team All-ACC nod would suggest and a handful of true freshmen were forced into early action. Three of those freshmen are now expected to start as sophomores in left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron and right guard Tre' Jackson, with Matias and Jackson in particular having twice the upside of a David Spurlock. If converted defensive lineman Cameron Erving can hold down the left tackle spot, FSU's ground game and pass protection will greatly improve.
4. Casher, not Edwards, a freshman to watch
2012 signee Mario Edwards was arguably the No. 1 player in the country as a high schooler this past year, based in large part on him being a physical mismatch as a 6-4, 295-pound defensive end -- his dad was a 6-foot, 195-pound corner for FSU. However, the 'Noles are set at the left end position with soon-to-be pros Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, plus there doesn't appear to be any room to slide him inside to tackle because the three-deep is loaded as it is. First-year phenom Chris Casher, on the other hand, likely only needs to beat out Giorgio Newberry in order to be the primary reserve behind All-American candidate Brandon Jenkins at right end, where the 6-4, 251-pounder's explosiveness off the snap can best be utilized.
5. No tailback appears ready to emerge
2011's leading rusher, Devonta Freeman, spent all of spring workouts nursing a herniated disc in his back, and then 2010's top ground gainer, Chris Thompson, isn't out of the woods yet with back troubles of his own.
There hasn't been a 1,000-yard rusher in Garnet and Gold since Warrick Dunn back in 1996, and don't expect that dubious trend to be reversed in 2012. Last year's leading rusher, Devonta Freeman, spent all of spring workouts nursing a herniated disc in his back, and then the previous season's top ground gainer, Chris Thompson, isn't out of the woods yet with back troubles of his own. James Wilder missed precious practice time due to some legal problems, five-star signee Mario Pender looked a bit lost in the annual spring game, Lonnie Pryor can't be the lead blocker for himself -- Fisher will once again go with the hot hand from game to game and change his mind as often as he says "knowwhatImean?"
6. Brooks might be an instant star
Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops needs playmakers at the safety positions because he uses so much more zone coverage than Mickey Andrews, and now he has a pair of them with Terrence Brooks lining up across from returning starter Lamarcus Joyner, who has All-American potential. A year ago, Joyner was forced to make the majority of the big plays from sideline to sideline because then-senior Terrance Parks didn't have the kind of pure athleticism Brooks brings to the table. Still slighted by the recruiting services only calling him a three-star prospect back in high school, Brooks has a corner's speed in a safety's body and should be able to generate more turnovers than Parks ever did -- provided he doesn't shift to corner in lieu of Reid's exit.
7. Greene makes Biletnikoff watch list
Not only does Greene have the escapability to step right in as a punt returner and make some of the plays that Reid used to, but he's without a doubt the most gifted pass catcher on the squad and poised for a monster year if he can only stay healthy. Had it not been for the injury he sustained in the Wake Forest game this past season, he would have been neck and neck with Clemson's Sammy Watkins as the best freshman receiver in the country -- he caught 12 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown vs. the Demon Deacons but was unavailable for the next four weeks. Florida State is stacked at wideout and it will be tough to get the ball to everyone, but the offense only gets better when Greene has his hands on the pigskin.
8. Bradham's absence will be felt
It's difficult to imagine the first Seminole to lead this team in tackles three straight years since the legendary Marvin Jones could be underappreciated, but that could be the case considering how well Nigel Bradham played the second half of the 2011 campaign. The uber-athletic Christian Jones has been shifted from strong-side linebacker over to the weak side to take Bradham's place and make better use of his freakish tools, and while he has flashed serious ability in the past, he can't afford to be inconsistent at a position like WILL. Vince Williams and Telvin Smith can handle the middle and Nick Moody will be on the field just half the time or so on the strong side, but a great front seven becomes elite only if Jones becomes the new "beast mode" 'backer.
9. Powell the hardest graduate to replace
Even if 2012 signee Cason Beatty puts together a solid freshman season, he's not going to make anybody at Doak Campbell Stadium forget just how flat-out brilliant All-American punter Shawn Powell was last year. An incredible weapon, both in terms of pure power and delicate touch, Powell was a difference maker on special teams -- remember he also served as the holder for record-breaking kicker Dustin Hopkins -- and should have a job in the NFL for the next decade. Fortunately, Beatty has the advantage of being aided by a wave of speedy coverage men making it difficult for enemy returners to steal those precious hidden yards.
10. Not quite ready for prime time
FSU has a lot of the characteristics that prognosticators look for when on the hunt for possible national-championship contenders: a fifth-year senior at quarterback, depth on defense and a manageable schedule chief among them. That being said, even if right now the 'Noles seem to be the clear favorite in all 12 games currently on the slate, a Thursday night in Blacksburg is always a nasty assignment and Atlantic Division foes Clemson and NC State promise to be tough. 76 of the 82 media members at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro picked Fisher and Co. to at least make the conference title game, so anything short of that is a colossal failure considering all the four- and five-star types making their way to Tallahassee the last several years.
While I like Florida State for 12 victories and a trip to South Florida in January, it will for the Orange Bowl on the 1st, not the BCS Championship Game on the 7th.
John Crist is a columnist for FOX Sports NEXT, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of both the Professional Football Writers of America and Football Writers Association of America.
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