The sixth-ranked Florida State Seminoles lift the lid on the 2011 season this Saturday, as they entertain the ULM Warhawks at Doak S. Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.
ULM comes into this new season hoping for more success than it enjoyed in 2010 when first-year head coach Todd Berry led the Warhawks to a 5-7 record. The team logged a 4-4 mark in Sun Belt Conference play, but against three SEC foes (Arkansas, Auburn and LSU) the Warhawks were outscored by a whopping 134-10 margin. ULM, which is just 5-12 in season openers since moving to Division I-A in 1994, went just 1-6 on the road last year, but has won six of its last seven games in the state of Florida, with the lone loss coming in double- overtime at FIU last season.
After logging 10 wins and capturing the ACC Atlantic Division crown, Florida State enjoyed a revival of sorts last season, as new head coach Jimbo Fisher did a fine job in getting the Seminoles back on the national stage after something of a down period. FSU's 10-4 record ranked as the third-best in ACC history under a first-year coach, and the 'Noles earned a bid to the Chick- fil-A-Bowl where they upended SEC East Division champion South Carolina, 26-17. It was the 34th straight winning season and 29th straight bowl appearance for Florida State.
This clash marks the first-ever meeting ULM and FSU on the gridiron. The Warhawks are 0-1 all-time against the ACC, while the Seminoles are 8-1 against current members of the Sun Belt.
With few options, coach Berry decided to pin his team's hopes on a freshman quarterback in Kolton Browning last year, and the rookie delivered. Browning, who accounted for 244.8 total ypg to rank third among all freshmen in the country, threw for 2,552 yards and 18 TDs with 12 INTs. Also a threat to take off and run if the situation warrants it, Browning is the team's leading returning rusher after amassing 385 yards and four TDs in 2010.
Browning figures to be relatively safe in the pocket, as four starters return along the offensive line. A good thing indeed, as that should give him plenty of time to throw the ball to speedy WR Luther Ambrose. Last season, Ambrose was credited with 65 receptions for 752 yards and six TDs. In all, the top four receivers from 2010 are back for another go, making the ULM passing attack one of the form formidable in the Sun Belt.
"It is the best group of receivers I have been around in a long time," says coach Berry. "There is certainly some talent there and some guys that create some explosion plays. The chemistry with the quarterback is what I am really excited about."
With Browning's exploits in the passing game expected to carry the ULM offense for the most part, there are questions about the run. Sophomores Jyruss Edwards and Centarius Donald have talent, but neither has done much to this point after combining for 478 yards and five TDs as rookies last year.
Turning an eye to the defensive side of the ball, a total of six starters are back for the Warhawks, who were tops in the Sun Belt against the run a year ago (159.1 ypg) and second in total defense (378.3 ypg). They employ a 3-3-5 scheme, giving opponents a look they don't see all that often, and they are fortunate to have the top three tacklers from 2010 back in place.
It all starts up front where seniors Ken Dorsey and Troy Evans are big-time performers at the defensive end position. Last season, Dorsey earned All-Sun Belt honors and figures to be even better against both the run and the pass with the return of Evans, who was held out of action last season with an injury.
Veteran linebackers Cameron Blakes and Jason Edwards have performed well in the past, and Edwards is the leading returning tackler (75 stops), while Blakes notched six sacks a year ago. Three of the five starters are back in the secondary, including a pair of sophomores who learned on the job as rookies last year. The lone senior among that trio is senior Darius Perlow, an All-Sun Belt selection who picked off a pair of passes last season.
The Florida State offense featured a solid ground attack (171.4 ypg), and a stabilizing presence under center. Quarterback Christian Ponder battled through injury, managing to play in 12 games and he completed better than 60 percent of his passes. Ponder has moved on to the NFL, leaving junior EJ Manuel to take over after serving as the former star's understudy the last two seasons. Helping Manuel get comfortable in his new role will be a receiving corps that should be more steady than spectacular this fall with the return of guys like Bert Reed (58 receptions, 614 yards, two TDs) and Rodney Smith (31 receptions, 448 yards, three TDs).
Junior RB Chris Thompson appeared in just six games last season, but showed off his big-play ability, amassing 845 yards and six TDs in averaging a gaudy 6.3 ypc. If healthy, he could be the best back in the ACC. Ty Jones (527 yards, five TDs) and Jermaine Thomas (490 yards, six TDs) will be factors as well. Three starters are back along the offensive line, led by All-America candidate Andrew Datko (6-6,311) at left tackle, and that will help in all aspects of the offensive game plan.
Florida State returns eight starters on defense and there are serious playmakers at every level. Up front, junior DE Brandon Jenkins will vie for All-America honors. In his first season as a starter in 2010, Jenkins produced 63 total tackles, which included 13.5 TFL and eight sacks.
Regarding the hype surrounding him and the Seminoles this season, Jenkins appears to have a handle on things.
"When you go out on the field, you have to put that aside. Everybody is equal, every team you play. So I think hard work and dedication, and we're going to try to put those (expectations) aside when we play football."
Senior Nigel Bradham is the unquestioned star in the middle of the defense, as the 6-2, 240-pound veteran led the team in tackles last season with 98. Another linebacker who will be counted on is athletic sophomore Christian Jones.
All four starters are back in the FSU secondary, highlighted by junior CB Greg Reid. The 5-8, 185-pound junior plays much bigger than his size would indicate, and in addition to his ability as a cover corner, he is also one of the nation's premier return men.