Jan. 3, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.
Those are the first four words of this column and they need to be the first four words that Florida State football coaches and players think about when they wake up every day this off-season. The flag that the Seminoles drove into the conference turf so many years ago has since been knocked down by Virginia Tech and now Clemson is making a strong push to stake its paw print atop the ACC.
FSU can't let that happen next year and needs to be focused on recapturing its league supremacy that made the program the toast of the ACC for so long.
Winning state, conference and national championships are expected yearly in Tallahassee because of the continued dominance directed by former coach Bobby Bowden. Under Jimbo Fisher's guidance, the 'Noles have reclaimed their spot as the top team in the state of Florida and have an ultimate goal of earning a third national championship in school history.
But to get to that point, winning the ACC is the next goal.
This isn't the Southeastern Conference. Florida State won't be playing in any national championship game with one conference loss like Alabama is doing this year. If FSU wants to compete for a national title once again, it has to run through the ACC schedule unscathed, win the league championship game and get back to the Orange Bowl.
Whether or not that will be enough to get the Seminoles into a national championship game isn't what's important. What's important is that FSU must control what it can control and that means winning the games it's supposed to win -- a task that went unfulfilled in 2011.
Losses to Oklahoma and Clemson were expected. FSU was an underdog to both teams -- the Sooners were No. 1 in the nation and the Tigers had the added luxury of being the home team against a 'Noles squad that was without its starter at quarterback -- but was favored in the losses to Wake Forest and Virginia.
FSU obviously can't lose those types of ACC games anymore if it wants to play for a conference crown and be taken seriously on a national level. Clemson will continue to be a tough out and Virginia Tech is on the team's schedule next year. Up-and-coming Virginia is not on the regular-season schedule but could be an opponent in Charlotte with the ACC trophy on the line.
With a fourth consecutive bowl victory in the bag, 19 wins in the first two years of the Fisher regime to its credit (a two-year win total that is the most since 2003-04) and likely another loaded recruiting class to join the fold next month, Florida State is in position to make its move back up the ACC ladder in 2012.
But the foundation for that return to conference glory starts now for the Seminoles.
After getting healthy to start the 2012 calendar year (FSU ended its 2011 campaign beat up across the entire roster), FSU will get closer to the spring practice period with a better understanding of who's gone, who's staying, and who's being added to next year's team.
I'll address recruiting next month after the ink has dried on prospect signings. For now, Jan. 15 is a date that FSU fans should circle in the calendars. That's the deadline for underclassmen to officially declare for the 2012 NFL Draft and the 'Noles could potentially lose some important pieces.
The immediate futures of underclassmen Brandon Jenkins, Xavier Rhodes, Greg Reid and several others will be determined by that date. Many of FSU's third-year players have submitted paperwork to the NFL Draft Advisory Committee as a way of gauging the professional interest in their skills; and depending on what they have or will learn from that documentation and their respective decisions because of it, FSU's spring prospectus could change greatly.
The potential of losing Jenkins means Cornellius Carradine would be thrust into a starting role come practice time. A loss of Rhodes and Reid or even just one of them creates even more question marks in the defensive secondary where starters Terrance Parks and Mike Harris have already been lost to graduation.
As for the other seniors that exhausted their eligibility in the Champs Sports Bowl victory over Notre Dame, FSU faces the daunting task of introducing a new student-athlete into the ever-important left tackle position his off-season.
Junior-college signee Daniel Glauser seems like an ideal candidate to take over for Zebrie Sanders protecting quarterback EJ Manuel's blind side but until he puts on the gold helmet for the first time at practice there will be no way of knowing if Glauser is ready for that difficult job.
Gone are tailbacks Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones so this will be a huge off-season for soon-to-be sophomores Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. while rising senior Chris Thompson continues to go through the rehabilitation process after fracturing two vertebras in his back in the loss at Wake Forest.
Bert Reed is the only other offensive player that cannot return next year but his loss should be made easier by the fact that the 'Noles built some terrific depth at wide receiver this season and should get back the services of Willie Haulstead, who missed the entire season with an injury.
Plus, this will be Rashad Greene's first offseason as a college football player.
Think about that for a second. FSU's leading receiver this year -- a true freshman that missed four games due to injury but still posted team-bests in yards (596) and touchdowns (seven) -- hasn't even gone through a full off-season in Vic Viloria's weight room or had the chance to sit in the film room in the spring months studying the college game.
If you're not on the Greene bandwagon yet, you better hurry because seats are quickly filling up.
Defensively, FSU loses Nigel Bradham at outside linebacker and I expect back-up middle 'backer Telvin Smith to get a serious chance at replacing him. With Parks gone, Terrence Brooks will likely battle with Nick Moody for the starting safety spot alongside Lamarcus Joyner.
It could be argued that the loss of Harris stings the most. A quiet contributor the last two years, his sound tackling and coverage skills were vastly underrated. Without his steady contribution, the next several months will be huge for the development of Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter. Both played in reserve roles as freshmen but will now be asked to, at the minimum, play meaningful minutes at the nickel position in the secondary -- or perhaps more depending on upcoming NFL-related decisions by Rhodes and Reid.
Despite these senior losses, Florida State's depth -- particularly on defense -- and its win to cap off the season, as well as the anticipated addition of another highly-regarded recruiting class will put the Seminoles at or near the top of everyone's short-list for ACC title contenders moving into next season.
And to start the season that's right where the 'Noles should be in the ACC. Now, it's time for them to finish that way, too, if Florida State wants to compete for national championships once again.