The 11th-ranked Florida State Seminoles take aim at another ACC title, as they begin defense of their conference crown in the season opener against the newly added Pittsburgh Panthers.
Jumbo Fisher's three seasons in Tallahassee have seen the Seminoles rise to the top of the ACC once again. In 2012, FSU finished the year at 12-2, knocking off Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game (21-15) and disposing of BCS-buster Northern Illinois (31-10) in the Orange Bowl.
Paul Chryst has been charged with ushering in Pittsburgh's ACC era. He was tabbed the new head coach a year ago, the Panthers' last in the Big East. Chryst led his team to a 6-7 record in a season littered by close losses. The team finished the regular season at 6-6, but fell to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
The Panthers actually hold a 5-3 series advantage over the Seminoles and have won the last three meetings. However, these two teams haven't met on the football field since 1983.
A solid season under center for EJ Manuel propelled him into the NFL, as a first-round selection of the Buffalo Bills. Despite the loss of one of the ACC's top signal-callers, Florida State remains optimistic on offense, thanks to all the hype surrounding redshirt freshman Jameis Winston (6-4, 220).
It was expected, but Fisher didn't name Winston the starter until last week, as the youngster was in a heated battle for the spot with Jacob Coker.
"Just a little more consistency ...for a longer period of time," Fisher said, when asked why Winston won the job. "Like I said, Jake is ready to play, too. Jameis, I thought -- as we ranked and talked about it as a staff -- did some different things. Both of them really started to take command of things as camp wore on. I thought Jameis did a little better job in the beginning. You're being close; you're splitting hairs when you really get down to it. That's not 'coach talk' or anything else. That's the truth."
The quarterback's ability to thrive early on is enhanced by one of the top offensive lines in the country, highlighted by four returning starters in center Bryan Stork (6-4, 312), guards Tre Jackson (6-4, 327) and Josue Matias (6-6, 326) and tackle Cameron Erving (6-6, 310), all of which have All- America potential.
There is talent at the rest of the skill positions as well. The backfield is led by the one-two punch of tailbacks Devonta Freeman (660 yards, eight TDs) and James Wilder Jr. (635 yards, 11 TDs). The receiving corps also returns a couple of reliable contributors, highlighted by junior Rashad Greene (6-0, 175), who earned Second-Team All-ACC last year with 57 receptions, for 741 yards and six TDs. Junior tight end Nick O'Leary (6-3, 240) could see his role expand with a new signal-caller under center.
Strong defense was the driving force behind Florida State's resurgence last season, and that success was enough to land Mark Stoops the head coaching job at Kentucky. Now with only four starters returning on that side of the football in 2013, unproven talent must step up and deliver. The biggest hit area on defense is up front, where standout ends Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine and Brandon Jenkins have all moved on to the NFL. Werner and Carradine combined for 24 sacks in 2012 and finding that kind of production won't be easy. Sophomore Mario Edwards Jr. could be vital in that regard, as the 6-3, 282-pound sophomore showed flashes of strong play as a true freshman in 2012.
The Seminoles must replace playmakers in the back seven as well, with the most glaring loss being standout cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Lamarcus Joyner (51 tackles, one interception) will anchor the play in the secondary, while fellow senior Christian Jones (team-high 95 tackles) headlines the linebacking corps.
Heading into the ACC, the hope is that Chryst can build off a strong offensive season, especially passing the football. That will be easier said than done however, as quarterback Tino Sunseri has moved on. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage (6-5, 230) gets the nod under center to start the year, but redshirt freshman Chad Voytik (6-1, 205) could see playing time as well.
Regardless of who is throwing the football, they will be looking for veteran wideout Devin Street down the field. Street (6-4, 190) is a game-changer on the outside and is coming off a season in which he hauled in 73 passes, for 975 yards and five touchdowns.
Chryst is very happy to have a player of Street's caliber to lean on.
"It's great to have him back. Obviously Devin is a very good player. He did a lot of really good things, but I'm excited because I still believe he can continue to get better. He realizes what he's got in the value of Coach (Bobby) Engram coaching him day in and day out. Certainly Devin is going to be one of those guys we need to play at a high level and lead at a high level. It's a tremendous feeling having Devin here."
The Panthers could also look to 6-2 freshman Tyler Boyd in the passing game. A smooth receiver with a great feel for the game, Boyd comes to Pittsburgh following an impressive high school career, where he amassed 5,755 yards and 117 touchdowns.
To achieve balance however, Chryst must find someone to step into the void left by Ray Graham's departure, after he put up 1,042 yards and 11 TDs last season, en route to All-Big East First-Team honors. Junior Isaac Bennett (4.9 ypc) played sparingly last season and will get the first crack at earning the lion's share of the carries.
The defensive side of the football will see less atrophy, with the return of nine starters. The unit as a whole, was extremely stingy in 2012, giving up just 330.5 yards of total offense.
A veteran-laden defensive front is led by senior tackle Aaron Donald (6-0, 275), who posted 64 tackles last season, with 11 TFL and 5.5 sacks. He will be flanked by fellow senior tackle Tyrone Ezell (6-4, 300), who had 39 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year.
A strength of the unit last year was the secondary, which returns three of its four starters, highlighted by Second-Team All-Big East safety Jason Hendricks, who had a huge season, posting 90 total tackles and six interceptions. Senior cornerback K'Waun Williams (5-10, 195) is another ball hawk, finishing last year with 47 tackles and four picks.