TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Vince Williams knew he had to offer a qualifier. "I hate to reference the old days..." the Florida State linebacker said with the edge of someone who came of age in a world dominated by snark and cynicism. Then Williams referenced the old days anyway, harkening back to a dial-up era he barely remembers when the Seminoles were the baddest men in the college football universe.
"You'd have guys who are tremendous athletes," said Williams, who grew up in a family of Florida State fans and who appreciates the Seminoles' history as much as anyone on the current roster. "They'd disappear when they first get here, then they'd just re-emerge as juniors and you'd be like, 'Oh my God, this guy's amazing.' But really, he's been amazing the whole time. It's just that the guy ahead of him was that good."
Williams said this because he goes to practice every day and watches freshman Mario Edwards Jr., whose father, Mario Sr., played cornerback for Bobby Bowden in those days Williams referenced. Young Mario's physical gifts apparently were not exaggerated by the folks at Rivals.com and Scout.com, who ranked him as one of the best defensive end prospects in the class of 2012. Yet, barring injury to his elders, young Mario will begin his Florida State career as a role player because starters Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner are that good. "We don't have to break [the freshmen] down," Williams said. "Practice does that. You come out here and think you're going to ball out, and then you see Brandon Jenkins go to work."
By this point, you have probably made some sort of dismissive motion in the general direction of your computer, tablet or smart phone screen. Maybe a wave of the hand. Maybe a shake of the head.
You've heard all of this before. You heard it last year. You heard it the year before that. That's why Williams knew he had to offer a qualifier, and it's why you have every right to take every preceding and succeeding sentence with a grain of salt the size of one of FSU defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan's massive thighs.
Seemingly every year, we tell you Florida State is back. Seemingly every year, the Seminoles fail to win the ACC and finish the season a few hours from home in one of those upper-middle class bowls. You don't have to believe any of this, because lord knows we pundits have conspired with the Seminoles to burn you before. But before you give up and go back to playing with the "Why is [insert state here] so [insert horrible trait here] map," consider a few facts:
• Florida State returns the bulk of a team that went 9-4 last year.
• Florida State lost to Oklahoma and Clemson -- which is understandable -- and to Wake Forest and Virginia -- which is inexcusable. The latter two losses came by a total of six points, but since they were to Wake Forest and Virginia, they remain inexcusable given the talent gap between Florida State and those two programs.
• The following Seminoles offensive linemen missed at least five games due to injury last year: tackle Andrew Datko (shoulder), guard Henry Orelus (head), David Spurlock (knee). Meanwhile, center Bryan Stork missed time with an infected finger that Fisher said almost had to be amputated, and guard Garrett Faircloth missed time with a hip injury. Most good teams go seven to eight deep on the offensive line before things start getting really dicey. At times, the Seminoles were dipping down into nine and 10 territory. In the Champs Sports Bowl win against Notre Dame, Florida State started senior tackle Zebrie Sanders alongside four freshmen (tackle Bobby Hart, center Austin Barron and guards Josue Matias and Tre' Jackson).
• Florida State lost its best tailback, Chris Thompson (back), in October. Fellow senior Jermaine Thomas, who missed most of camp because of a concussion suffered in a car crash, ran for just 279 yards. Then-freshman Devonta Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing with 579 yards.
• The receiver coach Jimbo Fisher thought would be his best (Willie Haulstead) suffered a concussion in camp and never played a down. A freshman (Rashad Greene) led the Seminoles in receiving despite missing four games because of an Achilles tendon injury.
Florida State's offense, especially the line, confirmed Murphy's Law time and again in 2011. "I'm not making excuses, but that's a lot on one side of the ball," Fisher said. "Still, legitimately, we should have won 10. Could have won 11." He's correct. In the spring, I wrote about how a few different bounces might have made Texas a 10-3 team instead of an 8-5 team in 2011. Florida State faced a similar situation. If the Seminoles were coming off an 11-2 season instead of a 9-4 one, these expectations would seem far more justified.
For most of last season, Florida State's defense kept the Seminoles competitive. The meat of that defense is back, led by the Jenkins-Werner tandem that combined for 15 sacks and a secondary that would have been one of the nation's most experienced had its oldest player not gotten himself thrown off the team. Fisher had no choice but to boot cornerback Greg Reid -- which cost the Seminoles an adequate-to-good cover man, an electrifying punt returner and a vocal leader -- but with cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks roaming the back end, the Seminoles should fare well against the pass even if they have to play a freshman (Ronald Darby) in Reid's old spot. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Florida State returns much of a front seven that helped the Seminoles rank second in the nation against the run last year.
Meanwhile, basic probability suggests the Seminoles' offense won't have as much rotten luck as it did last season. If quarterback EJ Manuel, who also missed some time with injuries last year, can stay upright behind a now-healthy line and hit those now-healthy receivers while occasionally handing off to more experienced backs, Florida State could have a special season. After all, some of the Seminoles' key contributors already went through their growing pains as injury fill-ins last year. "They have a lot of depth," Werner said of the offensive line. "You see a lot of people competing right now. When we had a lot of injuries, people have to play. Now, everybody's healthy. ... On my side, I'm seeing three different tackles." Said Fisher: "What was our weakness [last year], I think, will help us this year."
Among the teams that will start the season in the top 15, Florida State probably has the easiest schedule. After West Virginia had to bail on the teams' game to fit into its new Big 12 schedule -- FSU replaced WVU with Savannah State, which, unfortunately, is not coached by Paula Deen -- the Seminoles wound up with a slate that should find them favored in every game except possibly the Nov. 8 date at Virginia Tech. The matchup with 2011 ACC champ Clemson on Sept. 22 in Tallahassee should determine pole position in the Atlantic Division, and the only major trap is the trip to Tampa to play South Florida the following week. USF, which beat Florida State in Tallahassee in 2009, will treat the visit from the Seminoles as a measuring-stick game for the program. Meanwhile, Florida State will be digesting whatever happened to the rival Gators the previous week. Florida is a bit of a mystery, but if the Seminoles do wind up as good as Fisher believes they can be, they'll want the Gators to come to Doak Campbell Stadium with the best record possible to allow Florida State to earn some much-needed out-of-conference cred.
Fisher said he welcomes the high expectations for his team, even though he realizes it hasn't been mature enough to live up to similar expectations in the past. "I'm not scared of expectations," Fisher said. "Expectations are great to have, because they're the first ingredient to being successful. What are expectations based on? Talent. Well, if you're going to win, you'd better have talent." Of course, Fisher understands talent alone doesn't equal titles -- even if it is starting to look like the '90s again on the Florida State practice field. "It doesn't win you a game," Fisher said. "I think we learned that last year."