It all started with a podcast. One silly, innocent, little podcast.
It was April, and at at the time, I was trying my best to find writers across the country to come on the show, and discuss the biggest spring storylines across college football. And while it wasn’t originally my intention to bring on a Florida State writer, eventually I had no choice. By the end of spring, the Seminoles had become the “it” team in college football, the proverbial program ready to make a jump into our national consciousness.
Of course at the time, I wasn’t buying it. I wasn’t buying a resurgence of a program that seemed indestructible in my youth, but had become all too ordinary in recent years. I wasn’t buying Jimbo Fisher as a savior, and I wasn’t even necessarily buying the Seminoles as the best team in the ACC. Not after one 10 win season in 2010, and certainly not after a total of one ACC Championship since the conference expanded to 12 teams. Even that year Florida State back-doored their way into the ACC title game, and finished the season at a very “meh,” 8-5.
Then the podcast happened.
Reflecting back, the one word I’d use to describe it was “confident.” The writer that I interviewed, Coley Harvey of the Orlando Sentinel was confident in what he’d seen with his own two eyes all spring. And Coley’s opinion was a direct reflection of Jimbo Fisher’s confidence, after being surrounded by his team every day at practice.
Confidence. You could hear it oozing out of Coley’s mouth, and even after I hung up with him that day, I couldn’t but shake that feeling. Above all, I couldn’t shake the idea that Jimbo Fisher really, really liked his team. Which, in the spring, in college football, is about as oxymoronic as it gets.
Understand I’ve been following college football a long time, and no coach ever likes their team in the spring. It just doesn’t happen. Coaches fret over minor details and miniscule holes on the depth chart and the possibility that something could go wrong even if it hasn’t yet already. Maybe a player loses their focus. Or get arrested. Or breaks up with his girlfriend. Or gets a girlfriend. Fear seeps from the pores of college football coaches like alcohol at the Jersey Shore.
But confidence? Please! You’re more likely to see Charlie Weis with a 34-inch waistline and as the new spokesman for the Subway diet than you are to hear a coach gush about his team in the spring. Except that seemed to be Jimbo Fisher in April. Confident. Not arrogant or boastful. Just confident, that he had a really good football team.
All these months later, I still can’t shake the feeling I had that April day. And after months of preparation, months of reading every newspaper clipping, preview magazine and police blotter, I too am confident. That’s why I’m picking the Florida State Seminoles as my 2011 BCS National Champions.
First, let’s get to all the surface level stuff. Most of it has become repetitive at this point for those of you who are regular readers of the site, but I still think it’s worth repeating.
Let’s start with the schedule, which, as most of you know, is the very first thing I look at when picking a title team. Yes you need plenty talent and good coaching to win a title. But over the years, we’ve seen a good schedule vault a team into the title discussion that might not have otherwise been (think Auburn last year) and conversely torpedo a season before it even begins (think Georgia in 2008). Schedule's need to be looked at closely whenever discussing a college football championship contender.
In a word, Florida State’s schedule is manageable. It’s by no means easy, but could certainly be a lot tougher. To that extent, manageable is the best way to describe it.
In the ACC in particular, Florida State got a lot of breaks. They don’t have to play Virginia Tech, UNC or a pesky- if not overly talented- Georgia Tech team out of the Coastal Division. In the Atlantic, they get their two toughest games, North Carolina State and Maryland at home. Under a stroke of sheer luck, they’ll also get Miami (who will be at full-strength by then) and Florida, both under first year head coaches. Understand that the college football wars in Florida are never won without a fight. But this year more than ever, their rivals will be bringing less to the fight than the Seminoles.
Meaning, that everything for Florida State will boil down to a two week stretch in late September. It’ll come when Florida State plays Oklahoma on September 17 and Clemson a week later.
Personally, I’m more concerned with Clemson. Forget the fact that the Seminoles haven’t won in Death Valley in a decade. My bigger problem is that if they do beat Oklahoma, it’s hard to see Florida State not having a letdown when they play the Tigers. How could they not? Still, Florida State is the more talented, experienced and better coached team. A close win wouldn’t surprise me. But they will get a win none the less.
Speaking of Oklahoma, I know a lot can happen between now and September 17, but until then I’m riding with the Seminoles. To all of you pointing at last year’s 47-17 beat down in Norman as a reason why Florida State can’t win this game, it’s the reason I think they will win it. If you don’t think that Florida State has had this game marked on the calendar since last January, well, you’re sadly mistaken. At the same time, do you think it has nearly as much meaning for the Sooners? I doubt it.
Then there’s the talent, and really, Jimbo Fisher has been stockpiling it like a housewife collecting canned goods before a big storm. Only, instead of grabbing cans of tuna, packets of kool-aid and bushels of bottled water off the shelves of a supermarket, Fisher has instead loaded up on physical defensive ends, corners that can run all day, and skill-position wonder kids. Go ahead and look at the names up and down this roster: Greg Reid; Jeff Luc; Nigel Bradham; Christian Jones; LaMarcus Joyner; Bjoern Werner. You may remember them from all those goofy ESPNU Signing Day specials with Lowell Galindo and Tom Luginbill. This year you’ll get to know them as guys that could play for any defense in the country. They allowed just 19 points per game last year, down from 30 a year before. And in 2011, just about every player of consequence returns for Mark Stoops, meaning there’s a pretty good chance that another precipitous jump up the national rankings could happen again.
On offense, many point to E.J. Manuel at quarterback as a reason why the Seminoles can’t win a title. All I’ll say is that if you’re worried, don’t be. Jimbo Fisher certainly isn’t. Besides, who were Matt Flynn and Greg McElroy before they held up the crystal ball?
Not to mention that Manuel is now a fourth year junior and by now knows this program like a married man of a decade knows his wife. And despite never being a regular starter until this spring, there isn’t a quarterback anywhere in the country who is more beloved by his teammates. Go ahead and try to find someone say bad about Manuel. It’s literally impossible. In that way, he’s a lot like Tim Tebow in that sense. Manuel is an impressive leader, who has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates.
And while we’re here, for the love of God, people stop calling Manuel “inexperienced.” Just stop it.
Granted, I know that Manuel was never officially atop the depth chart until now, but that doesn’t mean he lacks big-game chops. As I mentioned in my article on Monday, this is a guy who has started a bowl game (the 2010 Gator), an ACC Championship Game (last year), and a rivalry game on the road at Florida when the Gators were the No. 1 team in the country. Understand that I’m not saying that Manuel has more experience than some of the better quarterbacks in the country; it’s just not as little as you think. And oh by the way, how much experience is Alabama’s quarterback going to have headed into the year? It hasn’t stopped anyone from picking them as a title contender, right?
Then finally, there’s Jimbo Fisher himself.
It’s his second season as the head man in Tallahassee, and in the modern history of college football, the second year is when almost all the really good coaches figure it out. A good coach doesn’t need a five-year plan, or to bring in a whole bunch of their own recruits. Give him about 18 months on the job, and by the start of their second September, they usually have their team primed to make a big run. As a matter of fact, let’s go ahead and create a goofy nickname for this premise. I’ll call it the “Second Year Coaching Corollary.”
Think about it for a second. Just in the BCS era alone, here is a list of the guys who’ve won National Championships in their second year: Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Gene Chizik. All pretty solid coaches, right? Not to mention that Chip Kelly took Oregon to a title game in his second year, Nick Saban had Alabama undefeated heading into the SEC Championship Game, and Pete Carroll took USC from six wins to 11, and an Orange Bowl victory. The second year isn’t when every elite coach makes the jump. But it is when most do.
Clearly there’s something special about that second year, and I think I’ve figured it out. By the time a coach’s second year rolls around, they’ve had time to install their system, bring in their own assistants and do things their way, to the point that everyone in and around the program is comfortable with it. At the same time, they’re still new enough where the players respond and listen, and the fans aren’t totally sick of them yet either.
In a lot of ways, it’s like dating. That first year for a head coach is a lot like the first few months you meet your girlfriend. Everything is fresh and new, and you’re still totally figuring things out. You’re deciding if the person is as good as they seem, or if there’s something you’re missing. Just the same way a group of football players is sizing up the new guy. In essence, they’re figuring out if they should trust what he’s doing and the direction he’s leading them.
On the flip side, by the fifth, sixth and seventh year of a coach’s regime, is a lot like the post-one year mark of a relationship. In coaching, pretty much everybody is sick of the guy. The players have heard all his motivational speeches in the locker room, and the fans have gotten an ear full on the booster circuit. Like dating, everything is on the table. Those little things that you once tolerated without much issues now drive you nuts.
But that second year? It’s a lot like the middle period of a relationship, when you know your partner just well enough to trust them, without them totally driving you bonkers. Everything is still new enough, but at the same time, not overly played out.
And as I mentioned, we are now in year two of the Jimbo Fisher era.
Look, I’m not saying Fisher is perfect by any means. I’m not claiming he's the game tactician that Chip Kelly is, the sheer force of nature personality that Saban is, or even owns half the luck of Les Miles. But he is still an upper-echelon coach in my opinion. He proved that as a high-level assistant under Saban and Bobby Bowden for a decade, and proved it again last year in taking the Seminoles to their first 10-win season since 2003.
This fall and winter, he’ll prove it once and for all. Fisher is going to get Florida State to New Orleans, and get his former boss Saban and Alabama with the title on the line (Originally I thought Alabama might be a two loss team and Oklahoma would play Florida State for a title. But with everything that’s happened at LSU and the injury to Knile Davis at Arkansas, I just don’t see how Alabama loses more than a game). It’ll be pupil vs. mentor, with the pupil coming out on top.
Florida State will be your 2011 BCS National Champion.
And the Second Year Coaching Corollary will strike again.
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