The seventh-ranked Florida State Seminoles kick off their 2012 season this weekend, as they welcome the Murray State Racers to Tallahassee for a showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles are the favorite to win the ACC this year and with good reason. Florida State is loaded on both sides of the football and are coming off a second straight strong season, posting a 9-4 record, after winning 10 games in 2010,
The Seminoles dropped three straight games at one point last year, but righted the ship with five consecutive wins after that, finishing in a tie for second- place in the ACC's Atlantic Division. The team earned a spot in last year's Champs Sports Bowl, posting an 18-14 win over Notre Dame.
Murray State begins its 88th year of football and was recently picked to finish third in the FCS's Ohio Valley Conference this year. The Racers went 7-4 in Chris Hatcher's second season at the helm and he is just the fourth coach in MSU history to begin his career with back-to-back winning seasons.
"We're very excited about the 2012 campaign. I always say that if your not optimistic about your team this time of year, you never will be," said Hatcher.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two schools on the gridiron and Murray State's first trip to the state of Florida since 1986.
The Racers will go as far as quarterback Casey Brockman will take them. Now a senior, Brockman is once again on the Walter Payton Award watchlist, given to the FCS's top offensive player. Last year, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder finished 11th in the voting, throwing for 3,276 yards and 25 TDs. Brockman, who is the Preseason OVC Player of the Year and a Preseason All-American, has a chance to top the school's all-time list in most passing categories this season.
Brockman led a prolific offensive attack that netted a hefty 460.9 yards per game in 2011, with just over 300 of that coming through the air.
Hatcher knows what he has in Brockman.
"First of all, he's been a tremendous competitor for us the two seasons that I've been the coach at Murray State. He set a lot of records, but more importantly, he's just a good fit for our offensive scheme. No doubt about it, how Casey Brockman performs will be how our offensive unit performs this season."
Brockman will have some familiar faces to throw too this year, as both senior Ja-Vonta Trotter (48 receptions, 523 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Walter Powell (45 receptions, 584 yards, 5 TDs) return on the outside.
The team did benefit last year from offensive balance delivered by tailback Mike Harris (101.8 ypg), but Harris is gone after a terrific 2011 (1,018 yards, 13 TDs), leaving Duane Brady as the top returning rusher. As a backup the last two seasons, Brady has rushed for 571 yards and 8 TDs.
The Racers have had their problems stopping the run the last few seasons (193.6 yards per game in 2011), but the hope is that experience and depth up front will help in 2012. Senior defensive end Kevin Robinson headlines the group after posting 36 tackles, 10.5 TFLs and an OVC-best 7 sacks last year.
The strength of the Murray State defense is the linebacking corps. The unit is led by junior Qua Huzzie. A Second-Team All-OVC selection last season, Huzzie posted 80 tackles, with 3 sacks and an OVC-best 14 TFLs. Huzzie will be joined by junior middle linebacker Blake Salter (33 tackles) and South Carolina transfer Corey Addison.
Junior safety Brandon Wicks headlines the secondary, after racking up 89 tackles, seven PBUs and two blocked kicks in 2011.
Injuries derailed Florida State last year, but the offense still managed just over 30 points per game. With senior quarterback EJ Manuel back, that scoring average could go up. Manuel completed an impressive 65 percent of his passes, for 2,666 yards and 18 TDs in 2011 despite fighting through his own injuries.
He will have the team's top four pass catchers are back, led by sophomore Rashad Green. Despite being a freshman and missing four games, the 6-foot Green led the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (596) and TD catches (7). Senior wideout Rodney Smith (6-6, 220) is the big target on the other side and comes into 2012 off a junior year in which he hauled in 36 balls, for 561 yards and four scores.
Sophomore tailback Devonta Freeman and senior Chris Thompson will provide the bulk of the production on the ground. Freeman had a strong freshman debut (579 yards, 4.8 ypc, 8 TDs). Thompson suffered through an injury-plagued 2011, but has averaged just over 5.6 yards per carry for his career in Tallahassee.
The FSU defense was one of the strongest units in the country last year, giving up just 15.1 ppg last year, while finishing second nationally against the run (82.7 ypg).
Eight starters are back on the defensive side of the ball, highlighted by the duo of rush ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Jenkins (6-3, 260) is a two-time First-Team All-ACC selection and is coming off 2011 in which he racked up 41 total tackles, 12.0 TFLs and a team-high 8 sacks. Werner (6-4, 275) is just scratching the surface of his enormous talent and comes in after posting 37 tackles, 11 TFLs and 7 sacks as a sophomore.
Gone is defensive leader Nigel Bradham in the linebacking corps, but junior Christian Jones (56 tackles) and senior Vince Williams (54 tackles) will provide stability.
The FSU secondary took a hit with senior Greg Reid's dismissal, but All- American candidate Xavier Rhodes (43 tackles, one INT) returns at cornerback, while Lamarcus Joyner (54 tackles, four INTs) comes back after being tabbed a Second-Team All-ACC pick last year at strong safety.
The decision to dismiss the talented Reid wasn't easy for Fisher.
"I love Greg to death, it was just a situation where rules are rules and it's what we have to go by and we wish Greg the best. "I don't think it's the end of his career, he can still play and reach all his goals and I wanted him in here as bad as anybody, but that's part of being a head coach [making tough decisions]."