|Jimbo Fisher on his revamped O-line: 'They are giving our defensive line all they can handle.' (Getty Images)|
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For the second consecutive year, Florida State is ranked in the Top 10 of the preseason polls. The reasons are clear:
• Florida State, without question, has a Top 10 defense with nine starters returning from a unit that finished No. 4 nationally in 2011 (yielding 275 ypg).
• Led by end Brandon Jenkins, the entire defensive front returns intact. Only six schools in the country had more than Florida State's 40 sacks. Only Alabama (at 72.15 ypg) gave up fewer yards rushing per game than FSU's 82.69.
• The Seminoles have a senior quarterback in EJ Manuel who, if he can stay healthy, is poised to have a season that could move him all the way to No. 3 on the school's list of all-time total offensive leaders.
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• The nonconference schedule, which included West Virginia until the Mountaineers bailed out when they became members of the Big 12, is now Murray State, Savannah State, South Florida, plus the annual rivalry game with Florida (in Tallahassee this season).
"We're going to embrace the expectations around here," said coach Jimbo Fisher, set for this third full season of replacing legendary Bobby Bowden. "We would rather people think highly of us than not think highly of us."
In every conversation about Florida State and whether 2012 marks the return to prominence for the once-dominant Seminoles, there is a big ol' "but," and it goes like this: "All that other stuff is true, but unless the offensive line grows up this team is not going to win its first ACC championship since 2005."
"Yeah, we hear it all the time," center Austin Barron said. "Some people look at us as the weak link on this football team. We don't think that's true."
A year ago it was absolutely true. In 2011 Florida State was No. 6 in the AP preseason poll. Privately, Fisher had his doubts because he knew the offensive line would be so young after losing the great Rodney Hudson. Fisher's doubts became real in a 23-13 home loss to No. 1 Oklahoma on Sept. 17. Florida State was held to only 27 yards rushing and Manuel was knocked out in the third quarter because of a shoulder injury.
"It was bad," Barron said.
Florida State would lose its next two games to Clemson (35-30) and Wake Forest (35-30) as the injuries began to kick in. Before the season was over Florida State had started seven different combinations on the offensive line -- one of which included four true freshmen in the Champs Sports Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Only five teams in FBS allowed more sacks than Florida State's 41. The Seminoles were No. 104 nationally in rushing and averaged only 3.34 yards per attempt. They led the nation in holding penalties with 25. When you look all the injuries, it is pretty amazing the Seminoles won nine games.
"We were young and we just couldn't overcome all the injuries," Fisher said. "A lot of young guys had to play before they were ready. It wasn't fun going through it then, but we believe it's going to pay off now."
In fact the addition of a couple of junior college All-Americans (Daniel Glauser and Menelik Watson) at right tackle, plus the decision to move a quality defensive tackle (Cameron Erving) to left tackle, makes Florida State believe that this season the offensive line will go from a liability to an asset.
"Oh, I feel really good about where this group is because I know who they are blocking in practice," Fisher said. "We are very good on the defensive line and our guys are blocking them. And I'm not talking just some of the time. They are giving our defensive line all they can handle."
Center Bryan Stork agreed: "Oh, we’re holding our own against those guys. I think it surprised them a little bit."
The key move was convincing Erving (6-foot-5, 315 pounds, with a huge wingspan) that his long-term future was on the offensive side of the ball. He performed well in a backup role on defense last season after redshirting as a freshman in 2010.
"We brought it up to Cameron a year ago but he wanted to play defense," Fisher said. "I think he could be a second-round draft pick as a D-tackle. He's that good. But with his body and his athletic skill, Cameron could be a high first-round pick at left tackle and play up there [the NFL] for a lot of years."
Erving, from Moultrie, Ga., said he wanted the challenge of protecting Manuel's blind side.
"I was worried about learning a new position and sort of starting over," Erving said. "But it's an important position for our team. It's my job to protect our quarterback."
Now there is depth at every position. The two junior college transfers will compete at right tackle with sophomore Bobby Hart, who started nine games last season, in the mix. The guards, sophomores Josue Matias and Tre Jackson, both started in the Champs Bowl. Stork can play center, guard, and tackle. Florida State's nine top offensive linemen average 311 pounds. It wasn't that long ago the Seminoles did not have a single player who tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.
The first four games are at home. After scrimmages against Murray State (on Saturday) and Savannah State, Wake Forest comes to Doak Campbell on Sept. 15. Wake Forest has beaten Florida State in four of the past six seasons. Then comes what will be a nationally-televised ACC Atlantic showdown with Clemson, the defending conference champion.
"I like this team because now the older guys have learned our system and understand what the expectations are," Fisher said. "They are passing it along to the younger guys. We got beat up at times last year but we got through it. Our guys are anxious for the season to get here."
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.