Since 2006, the 'Noles have dropped at least two games to unranked opponents in six consecutive seasons, and failed to win the ACC championship they once took for granted in any of them. In five of those six years, they've landed outside of the final top 20 themselves; the exception was a No. 17 finish in 2010. For pundits and prognosticators, Florida State is the team that cried "wolf."
And yet, as if bound to some masochistic summer ritual, the experts keep coming back for more abuse. This year, the garnet and gold banner is already being carried by the most expert of them all, Phil Steele, whose colossal, indispensable preseason magazine hits newsstands this week with FSU occupying the top position in his national rankings like Rasputin returning to take the throne. All nine sets of Steele's venerable power rankings call for a perfect 12-0 season, presumably followed by a win in the ACC Championship Game and a date in the BCS Championship Game (against Oklahoma, if Phil's calculations are on the mark). As for last year's four losses, including flubs against Wake Forest and Virginia? He "understand(s) the circumstances" behind all four.
Steele is driving the FSU bandwagon, but of course he isn't alone. The other major magazines on the racks to date, Athlon and Lindy's, are slightly warier after projecting the 'Noles to finish in the top five last year, limiting their optimism to the top ten. (FSU is No. 9 according to Athlon, No. 8 per Lindy's.) If they're right, it will be Florida State's first top-10 finishsince playing for the BCS title in 2000, when every member of the current roster was still in elementary school. Everyone forecasts the end of the conference title drought. In short, the Seminoles are back.
I get it. I do. I don't even have a good complaint about the depth chart, which looks, as always, too stacked to fail. It's impossible notto see what the prognostiscenti sees in this team. There's the senior quarterback, E.J. Manuel, surrounded by a familiar corps of veteran skill players (88 percent of last year's total offense returns) and a mostly intact offensive line. There are ten returning starters from the best overall defense in the conference, four of them on a nasty-looking defensive line, where a handful of five-star backups threaten to hijack the rotation, anyway. The incoming recruiting class is typically loaded.
The schedule, featuring not just one but two FCS patsies out of the gate and both Clemson and Florida in Tallahassee, is as friendly as ever. There are no insurmountable obstacles in the regular season or potentially waiting in the conference title game. The stench of decay that marred the end of the Bobby Bowden era has been replaced by an air of energy and momentum under Bowden's successor, Jimbo Fisher. And after all, as Steele points out, three of FSU's four losses last year didcome with Manuel either on the bench or severely limited by a shoulder injury.
That's how easy it is. It is so easy, it almost qualifies as boilerplate: Almost everyone in the business has been writing essentially the exact same thingfor ten years, replacing the names as necessary. We've yet to be right. (Personally, I was convinced that last year, Fisher's second, would be the leap. Wrong again.) But at some point, we think, it's going to happen. It has to. If you keep throwing enough darts at the board for long enough, eventually one of them is going to hit its target. And who wants to be the bitter cynic who sat that round out?
For the record, it is possible to resist the 2012 Reconquista without sounding like a a bottom-feeding sports radio host who relishes the word "fraud." Even with a healthy quarterback and a nightmarish D, the offensive line is a work in progress; last year, it was so inconsistent and besieged by injuries by the end of the year that it was forced to conscript four true freshmen into the starting lineup for the bowl game. The offense as a whole was kind of a wreck down the stretch. The all-important left tackle spot was won in the spring – at least temporarily – by a fresh convert from the defensive line, sophomore Cameron Erving. There's still no outstanding playmaker on offense, and hasn't been for years: FSU hasn't produced a 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin in 2002, or a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996.
But there is a distinct aura of "fool me twice, shame on me" about a team that has yet to find a way to avoid the kind of random losses (see: Wake Forest and Virginia last year, N.C. State in North Carolina in 2010, South Florida and Boston College in 2009, Boston College and Georgia Tech in 2008, etc., etc.) that turn a potentially great year into a missed opportunity. If this is the team that finally turns the corner, it won't be because of infrastructure, talent or pedigree – there's never been a shortage of any of the above – but because of a much more elusive virtue, consistency, of which there's been virtually none for more than a decade. As always, Florida State is a blue-chip stock with plenty of early buyers waiting to cash in. And as always, the best advice is caveat emptor.