Team: Florida State Seminoles
W-L: 12-2 (7-1)
Postseason: 31-10 Discover Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois
Top Offensive Performer: EJ Manuel, QB
Top Defensive Performer: Bjoern Werner, DE
Florida State had a checklist prior to this season. The ‘Noles were determined to win 10 games (check, and then some), the ACC Championship Game (check) and the Orange Bowl (check). So why do most accounts of this season seem to view it as a bit of a failure? It might just be a product of Jimbo Fisher succeeding in bringing FSU back to prominence.
Expectations were high for Florida State’s defense, but it was the offense that really needed to deliver if the Seminoles hoped to climb all the way back to the top. With some help of a manageable schedule (just one opponent ended the year ranked), they’d do just that, to the tune of 39.3 points per game (10th in the FBS). FSU outscored their opponents by an average of over 24 points per game, and managed to rank top-40 in both passing and rushing yards per game. For stretches during the season, it seemed as if the offense — led by senior passer EJ Manuel — was absolutely unstoppable, scoring more than 40 points seven different times. In prior years, what alluded. Manuel was consistency, but that was not the case in 2012. His completions, accuracy, yards, touchdowns and passer rating all went up in comparison to last year, as he showed a newfound poise and leadership whether in the pocket or on the run. Despite his own proficiency running the football (he amassed 310 yards and four scores this year), he was still largely helped by efficient play from his running backs. The Seminoles’ 40 rushing touchdowns ranked ninth in the country, made even more impressive by the distribution of the seven scorers, respectively. Devonta Freeman, James Wilder and Lonnie Pryor each scored eight or more times, while Manuel, leading rusher Chris Thompson and Debrale Smiley each had between three and five. The constant change kept defenses off-balance and provided Manuel with the balanced attack he needed to run this group at optimum efficiency.
Even with all the attention Manuel saw at the beginning of the year (even entering the Heisman race for several weeks between late September and early October), he was still no match for this defense. After losing star DE Brandon Jenkins for the season during the first game, FSU still beat its first three opponents by a combined score of 176-3. Their ravenous D-line would end up with 36 sacks on the year (tied for 14th in the FBS), to go along with 22 forced turnovers. In Jenkins’s absence, junior Bjoern Werner and senior Cornelius “Tank” Carradine stepped up in a major way, tallying 24 total sacks in a combined 25 games (Carradine missed three games). But the pass-rush numbers don’t really do this team’s defensive effort true justice, either. Just four opponents managed to score 20 or more points, and seven times, they scored 15 points or less (two shutouts). They were sixth in scoring defense (14.7 points allowed per game), first in passing D (161.9 yards allowed per game) and third in rushing yards allowed per game (91.93). FCS opponents or not (and they did have two of them on the schedule this year), it’s tough to argue with numbers like that.
Building off the program’s 2012 effort will be difficult, however. Facing a financial shortfall, FSU can’t exactly pay its assistants top-dollar and it cost them dearly this offseason. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops — the architect of this extremely strong group — went off to be the head coach at Kentucky, while offensive coordinator James Coley just recently left for the same job at archrival Miami. With a ton of departing seniors as well, suddenly, it’s a bit of an upward climb for FSU once again. If we’ve learned anything about Florida State under Jimbo Fisher, though, it’s that they’re building something special once again. It may have its hiccups on occasion (hello, NC State game), but they are “back,” for all intents and purposes, and that’s good for the ACC.