by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Several schools have been at the epicenter of the rampant conference jumping that has taken place over the past few years. Most leagues have undergone transformations, with schools such as Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, Missouri, Texas A&M, and several others switching affiliations.

Standing in the background, yet very much the subject of much conjecture, have been Texas and Notre Dame, with the mere threat of their wandering eyes causing sports journalists across the country to jump and the hearts of conference executives to flutter. If and when either the Longhorns or Fighting Irish make a move, so the thought goes, it would mark perhaps the ultimate chapter of the conference switch phase.

But now, however, it looks as if another college football “conference switch” barometer has emerged. Indeed, recent word that Florida State might be receptive to a call from the Big XII has sent alarm bells ringing across the Atlantic Coast Conference, which once made a bold addition when liberating the Seminoles from independent status in the calmer days of 1992, and later helped disarm the Big East as a football factor over the past decade.

The threat, legitimate or not, of Florida State jumping ship, shook the ACC to its core. Despite a relatively barren patch of recent form (at least by the Seminoles’ standards), FSU, along with perhaps in-state Miami, remains the flagship football program in the conference. Departures of one or both would likely signal the end of the ACC as a major football power broker.

More concerning to ACC watchers, however, is the inexorable move to super-league football, of which the ACC could be left behind as the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, and now, apparently, the recently-wobbling Big XII make moves to corner the big-money market. The day of four super conferences with sixteen teams each, making their own rules and perhaps even breaking away from the NCAA for their gridiron festivities, appears to be on the horizon.

And where does Florida State fit into the equation? Regional sources acknowledge that if college football indeed continues to move in the direction of the super leagues, and the ACC isn’t among them, the Seminoles won’t wait around for the ACC to be read its last rites. And those insiders are sure that the Seminoles would make a pre-emptive move out of the ACC if those developments appear to be materializing.

What has also caused the fuse to be lit in Tallahasse has been reported dissatisfaction from FSU (and perhaps Miami as well) at the recently-signed ACC television deal, which involves a healthy bump in revenues for each school but the bulk of which will not be paid until late in the nine-year contract after the "elevator clauses" are triggered.

And if the Seminoles and Hurricanes are indeed going to be "in play" as some insiders believe, we suggest that a bidding war could ensue for the Florida schools. Which means that, besides the Big XII, it would be no surprise if the Big Ten or even the Pac-12 decide to inquire if the Noles and Canes might be interested in their leagues, too.

For what it’s worth, Miami has recently announced that it has no intention of leaving the ACC, but that “non-denial denial” drill is as time-worn as college football itself. Much of whatever happens regarding the Seminoles, Hurricanes, and the ACC as we now know it also rests largely with what might or might not transpire with a college football playoff, and what could become of the BCS, which is reportedly on life support. For all of the BCS warts, the ACC’s inclusion in the current postseaon setup has given the league some long-sought football legitimacy and buoyancy. Removal of the BCS, and automatic entry for an ACC rep into one (or two) of the big-money bowl games, would hit the league hard.

Recent developments regarding the playoff might be giving the ACC a temporary stay of execution, however, as the roadblock between the Big Ten and SEC regarding the composition of the four qualifiers for the so-called playoff might scotch the idea until further notice. Now, it looks as if the once-discussed “Plus One” model could be back on the table, which might also include the BCS retaining its present form for a few more years. Although the recent announcement of a Rose Bowl-like bowl game involving the SEC and Big XII winners threatens to leave the ACC further out in the cold.

Some ACC watchers believe the league is quickly being reduced to firing its last Hail Mary, which would mean aggressive recruitment of more big names to get the membership to sixteen schools...and help keep marquee Florida State in the fold. Those expansion targets first mentioned are those of, you guessed it, Texas and Notre Dame, which sources say would each be able to keep their own current television deals (something the Big Ten and SEC would never agree to) if they would align with the ACC.

Where the ACC lands, nobody knows, but the fact is that Florida State could easily be looking for a new home base if it becomes apparent that the ACC isn’t going to be one of the major players in the new order of college football. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, there’s football to be played in Tallahassee this fall. And perhaps a chance for the Seminoles to really make a move in the national picture after emerging as nothing more than a BCS false alarm a year ago, when an early three-game losing streak shut down the national title talk at Doak Campbell Stadium and effectively ticketed the Noles to minor bowl status by midseason.

In retrospect, however, many ACC observers believe that 2012 was always a more-likely breakthrough year for HC Jimbo Fisher's Noles than 2011, when expectations might have been raised unnaturally high after the previous season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina. At least 15 starters appear to be back in the fold for the Noles this fall.

But a slew of injuries and inexperience curtailed the effectiveness of the offensive line last fall and caused a regression of the running game that Jimbo thought had rediscovered itself the previous year. That deficiency made it too difficult for FSU to make a serious case for national honors and even prevented it from winning the ACC Atlantic Division, although when the smoke cleared the Noles had posted a representative 9-4 record and beaten old foil Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.

Once again, however, it’s along the OL where FSU must improve for it to make a move into the upper-tier of the rankings. A repeat of last year’s anemic rushing game that ranked a sorry 104th in the country and gained only 3.3 ypc would again likely prevent the Noles from emerging as a stealth national title contender.

Which would be too bad, because the rest of the FSU roster looks like it could finally make the old-line, Bobby Bowden-supporting Nole faithful come to embrace Fisher, whose ascension to his designated role as Bowden’s successor in 2010 nearly ripped apart Seminole nation, and whose support base is still lukewarm at best from the old Bowden crowd.

But spring work showcased a revamped OL that Fisher hopes will be able to open a few more holes for runners and protect QB EJ Manuel a bit better than a year ago. As many as four new starters could open in Jimbo’s new-look forward wall, including converted DE Cameron Ewing, who wowed observers in spring when the staff moved him to a tackle spot, where touted juco Daniel Glauser has also arrived to hopefully plug the leaks along the Noles’ OL dike. And there is already lots of excitement building in Tallahassee for ballyhooed frosh recruit RB Mario Pender, who combines power and speed in a frightening package. Along with soph scooter Devonta Freeman (above right), who gained nearly 600 YR as a frosh, the potential is in place to at least improve upon last year’s anemic ground game.

Although it’s worth noting that Freeman, along with TB Chris Thompson, the top rusher in 2010, missed spring work due to injuries, and the ground game hardly moved in the spring game when gaining less than 2 ypc. The jury thus remains out until September, when the addition of star frosh Pender might change the equation.

Any help from the infantry would certainly help jumbo-sized (6'5, 238 lbs.) sr. QB Manuel (left), the Virginia Beach, VA product now 13-4 in his career as a starter. Upgrades along the OL would be most welcomed by Manuel, as the Noles also allowed a whopping 41 sacks last season, ranking a poor 110th nationally. Manuel, whose shoulder injury caused him to miss action during the Noles’ early-season slump, hinted at a real breakthrough last fall when passing for 2666 yards and 18 TD passes, but he needs help from his supporting cast (namely the OL) to emerge as the sort of difference-maker Fisher envisions. RS soph Clint Trickett, who filled in when Manuel had his shoulder problems in 2011 and enjoyed a solid spring, now provides some experience in the backup QB role, although some ACC sources are alerting to the presence of true frosh James Winston, a Texas product who seems destined to be the QB of the future.

The passing game indeed flashed some real upside last season and hinted at better things to come in spring. Five of the top six pass catchers return from 2011, led by explosive soph WR Rashad Greene (right), who caught 596 yards worth of passes and 7 TDs as a frosh despite missing four games due to injury. Rangy 6'6 sr. wideout Rodney Smith also caught 36 passes a year ago, but sources say the real breakthtough might come from another 6'6 target, RS frosh Kelvin Benjamin, who opened several eyes in spring. Including those of QB Manuel, who said that passing to Benjamin was like “throwing an alley-oop to LeBron James.”

(Might FSU hoops coach Leonard Hamilton be snooping around the football practice fields this fall?)

We’re spending time speculating about improvements from the strike force because we have little doubt that FSU’s defense will again be one of the best in the country. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops’ attack-minded platoon returns seven starters and adds several high-profile newcomers from a stop unit that ranked 2nd nationally in rush “D” (82 ypg), 4th in total (275 ypg) and scoring (15 ppg) defense, and 8th in sacks. What a shame it was for that sort of performance to be mostly wasted a year ago thanks to lesser contributions on the other side of the ball!

Defense was also the highlight of a high-profile recruiting haul by Fisher that landed a slew of five-star recruits who could immediately step in and contribute to another expected lights-out “D” this fall. Included are the top-rated DE (Mario Edwards) and CB (Ronald Darby) in the country, while 315-lb., but remarkably quick-footed, DT Eddie Goldman was ranked fourth in the land at his position by Scout.com.

The Noles’ DL was voracious in 2011, and Stoops’ “Sack Patrol” returns sr. DE Brandon Jenkins (above left, who resisted the temptation to declare for last April’s NFL Draft) and jr. DE Bjoern Werner, who combined for 15 sacks a year ago. The addition of frosh Edwards figures to further augment the pass rush, while Goldman joins a rotation of DTs paced by 301-lb. sr. run-plugger Everett Dawkins.

The back seven in Stoops’ 4-3 should again be robust, led by an experienced secondary that returns three starters, including CBs Xavier Rhodes (right) and Greg Reid, the latter also one of the nation’s top return threats. Ballyhooed frosh Darby likely gets baptized in nickel formations but is expected to make a greater impact as the season progresses. There’s plenty of speed in the LB corps, although the departure of Buffalo Bills draftee Nigel Bradham at an OLB spot has created a hole that needs to be filled. Stoops spent the spring experimenting and juggling at the LB spots, partly because of sr. Vince Williams’ leg injury. But the move of former SS Vince Moody to LB went smoothly, as did the switch of super-athletic sr. Christian Jones from a strong-side to a weak-side LB spot, where his playmaking bent is expected to further shine.

As for the kicking game, the pressure will be on true frosh punter Cason Beatty to replace the graduated Shawn Powell, who led the nation’s punters in 2011 with a whopping 47.04 average per kick and will be spending this summer along with LB Bradham and another 2011 Seminole, OT Zebrie Sanders, in the Buffalo Bills camp.

The Noles’ schedule is made for a run to the BCS, although FSU should be docked some votes for scheduling a pair of FCS foes, Murray State and Savannah State, out of the chute. Revenge games follow vs. Wake Forest and Clemson, also both at Doak Campbell, and the Noles’ first road trip is only a bus ride to nearby Tampa for a September 29 date vs. South Florida, when FSU likely has half of the crowd. The toughest tests are likely to be ACC road dates at NC State and Virginia Tech, especially with the annual regular season-ender vs. Florida played in Tallahassee this season.

Pointspread-wise, note that Jimbo’s FSU has been prone to streaks the past two seasons, with four separate four-game streaks, split between wins and losses. The defense-minded theme has also resulted in a 17-8-1 “under” mark the past two years.

Summary...If the Noles could rediscover some of their long-ago offensive prowess, we’d say for sure that this was a potential national title contender in Tallahassee. But we can’t go that far when projecting 2012 until the leaky offensive line demonstrates significant upgrades from a year ago. Nonetheless, with that defense, QB Manuel, an intriguing collection of skill-position weapons, and a favorable schedule, FSU looks to be in position to at least earn its first BCS berth since the 2005 campaign. We suspect more interesting developments will be occurring throughout the fall and into the winter months, when those rumors regarding a possible Seminole bolt from the ACC come further into focus.


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