First, Florida State's light practice marked the end of the preseason camp. Of course, that means it also marked the start of hopefully something big for the Florida State Seminoles in 2003.
"I like what I see," Pope said.
"From the whole defense, everybody is more hungry. I think the biggest thing is we have 10 starters back from last year. We have that experience. Everybody knows what you have to do and get the job done. Right now we are focusing on fine-tuning things. Correcting mistakes. But we are ready. The last two scrimmages I thought the defense did very well. We also scored twice. So, we are on the right track. Now it's time to really focus on North Carolina and getting back to where we belong."
Indeed. Being bumped from the list of perennial Top 10 teams has left a bad taste in the Seminoles' mouth.
FSU has won 10 of 11 Atlantic Coast Conference crowns since joining the league in 1992, but everyone says the dominance appears to be ending. North Carolina State, Maryland and Virginia are expected to challenge FSU for the league championship this season.
No. 13 in the Associated Press preseason poll, the Seminoles are the highest ranked ACC team with Maryland at No. 15, NC State at No. 16 and Virginia at No. 18.
"I'd like to believe the rest of the league has caught up to (Florida State)," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, whose Terrapins won the ACC title in 2001.
"There are three or four teams with a legitimate shot at winning the conference this season. I think in the past, there's been one or two teams with a legitimate chance to win and Florida State has always been one of those teams."
FSU's inconsistency the last two seasons has come on defense and from the quarterback position, two areas where the Seminoles excelled during their unprecedented run of excellence.
By all accounts, FSU appears to have made improvements in both areas, especially on defense. The unit dominated he first three preseason scrimmages, relying on its athletic ability and playmaking skills. Pope and his fellow linebackers have excelled under first-year coach Kevin Steele, whose aggressive, blitz-happy approach has brought smiles from everyone.
"Man, we feel so uncomfortable. …it's just so exciting," Pope said. "But no matter what defense is called, we need to play smart and make sure we execute it." Steele, on the other hand, says without blinking that FSU's linebackers are "athletically, I think it's the best group around, and that includes every year I've coached. Every year."
Of course, this is a new year with new hopes for the Seminoles. A double-digit favorite against UNC, Pope planned to spend his weekend watching video of Tar Heels quarterback Darian Durant.
UNC ended its practice Saturday with the Seminoles' fight song blaring over Kenan Stadium speakers. "It was just a little something for them to remember when they're taking the next day and half off," UNC coach John Bunting told the Raliegh News and Observer.
"Durant reminds me a lot of Curry (Ronald, former UNC starting quarterback), though he might not be as fast," Pope said. "He has some of the same abilities since he can run and he can also pass. He's they type of athlete who can change a game around at anytime. We just need to stay disciplined and continue to play with a focus. I can't wait. I am ready to play right now."