GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Where did the last year go? It seems like we were just here at the Grandover Resort, convening for the summer 2012 version of the ACC Kickoff.
Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was sitting inside a lower-level hotel ballroom, holding court for more than an hour with writers from newspapers and websites from across the ACC's Southeastern footprint?
By the way, writing the word "footprint" reminds me: a year ago, the word was a novelty in these parts.
Now, it's a point of pride; a far-reaching, wide-ranging badge of honor.
Those attending Sunday afternoon's forum with ACC commissioner John Swofford are sure to hear him utter the word "footprint" multiple times as he brags once again -- deservedly so, I might add -- about how his conference has expanded its competitive and geographic reach.
Phase No. 1 of the ACC's latest expansion efforts went into effect June 30 when Pittsburgh and Syracuse officially became the conference's newest members. Next summer, Louisville becomes another full-time member and Notre Dame enters on a partial member basis. Maryland, one of the first schools to call the ACC home, will be leaving for the Big Ten.
In other posts the next two days, we probably will be getting into the ACC's realignment efforts a little more expansively. For now, let's focus fully on FSU.
The last time Fisher's squad was in the Tar Heel State, there was much for his players, like now-former linebacker Vince Williams (pictured above), to smile about. With a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Seminoles had won the ACC championship. It was their first conference title in seven seasons. It was one subtle sign that the corner toward national relevance that many have been anticipating for so long, was finally being turned once again.
In some respects, you could say that was the easy part. Now that the Seminoles have won another ACC title and Fisher has firmly placed his stamp on the program, the difficulty shifts. Can FSU repeat? Can it maintain its stance atop the changing ACC?
Most might say the Seminoles have no choice but repeat if they truly want to be valued on the national landscape. Hauling in four consecutive recruiting classes that rank in the top 10 their respective years will do that.
As FSU prepares for its 66th season of football, let's take a quick look at five things (in no particular order) they'll have to do in order to be placed back atop the ACC pedestal this fall:
1. Make meanness their defensive calling card. For the last two seasons in particular, the Seminoles had one of the nation's best defenses. Led by defensive coordinator Mark Stoops' rather conservative 4-3 base scheme, they took on a purely no-break mentality. There certainly wasn't much bend last season from the unit that barely gave up 90 yards on the ground (92.29 yards, to be exact) and allowed teams to score just two touchdowns a game (opponents averaged 14.71 points per game against FSU's defense). The only real problem with the second-ranked defense was that a lack of aggressiveness for much of the season caused it problems creating turnovers.
Under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the Seminoles will be much more aggressive. Their linebackers will be hounding quarterbacks nonstop, and their defensive linemen will become more permanent backfield fixtures. As a result of the aggressiveness, the Seminoles ought to play meaner than they have in recent seasons. One of the meanest-looking games they had under the last defensive coaching regime was in last year's Orange Bowl. Clearly bothered by pre-bowl comments from Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, FSU's defenders wanted to make sure he knew they were truly elite players. Williams was among those constantly hovering around Lynch, delivering bone-rattling hits. If the Seminoles play mean like that on D for 13 (or 14) games this season, they will repeat as ACC champions.
2. Beat Clemson. This is probably stating the obvious, but in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Of course, until someone else pushes them over and snatches their trophy from them, the Seminoles still are technically the best in the ACC. They even have the rings to prove it (even if it took a little longer for former offensive lineman Menelik Watson to receive his).
But this preseason, the hype machine has left North Florida for the rolling hills of Upstate South Carolina. Many college football insiders, bloggers and experts believe that because of potential Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd, Clemson enters the year as the best the ACC has to offer. The fact that the Tigers host the Seminoles this year helps their case for being deemed the preseason Atlantic Division favorite, as well. The fact that the home team has won the last six meetings between the Seminoles and Tigers bodes well for Clemson, as well.
If FSU wants to repeat as conference champion, it obviously will need to win more conference games than every other team in its division -- then, of course, also win the title game. But it also will have to win the tough ones. When it comes to the Seminoles' ACC schedule, fewer games get as tough as the Oct. 19 showdown at "Death Valley."
3. Give Jameis Winston time to grow. Fisher understands this more than anyone. From the moment he sat down with reporters after his redshirt freshman quarterback went 12-for-15 passing in a 205-yard, two-touchdown effort during the Seminoles' spring game in April, the coach has been adamant in letting anyone know who will listen that his quarterback race is still wide open. Yes, Winston, the strong-armed dual-threat quarterback who some FSU fans consider the second coming of Charlie Ward, is good. He'll probably be great as a quarterback at FSU, too. But the simple fact of the matter is that there are two other quarterbacks competing for the job, and Fisher wants to make sure his young star knows he'll have to compete day in and day out to keep the starter's role.
Part of Fisher's message this offseason also has been to caution some of us in the media from waxing too poetically when discussing Winston and his potential. As he probably will say often during the Kickoff, Fisher has been adamant in letting the world know that he doesn't want Winston to be set up for failure. He wants the expectations around him to be measured. It's a stance he says he has taken, and hopes his rookie will listen to.
All of this is to say that by not interfering with Winston's development, and by not rushing him to become the heart-and-soul team leader that EJ Manuel was too quickly, the Seminoles will be in a far better position for success. While the season opener at Pitt will be a challenge, Winston should have another couple of weeks to get fully into his starting role before the stakes raise against Clemson.
4. Lean on teamwide leadership. In the same vein of trying to give Winston space and time to grow, the Seminoles will have to lean on their veterans for much of this season. Defensively, that means resting on the shoulders of seniors like cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones. Offensively, that may mean turning to steady vets like center Bryan Stork and tackle Cameron Erving. Junior runnings James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman and Rashad Greene also figure to be the types of both vocal and lead-by-example types the Seminoles will want to follow.
Part of what made the 2012 season such a success was a spirit of unselfishness that swept across the team. Senior players talked about it at the beginning of the season, saying that since they had been at FSU, the locker room had never felt as collegial and supportive as it had last August. The fact that there weren't just one or two leaders in key position groups helped the Seminoles in that regard. Now, with many of those players gone after having been drafted, the remaining Seminoles will have to emulate the example their elder teammates left in order to have the type of cohesion needed for this team to succeed.
Who will those leaders be this season? That will be up to the players to figure that out as early as possible in the offseason.
5. Get rid of the "clutter." As much as it pains me, a hard-working media professional, to write this, I have to admit: in order for FSU to be successful again this season, the Seminoles will need to clear as much "clutter" as possible. "Clutter" is Fisher's word for anything that can be an outside distraction, whether it's friends and family, social media or news reports. Anything that has the potential to take away from focus is "clutter." It pains me to say this because the "clutter" is, after all, a big part of my job.
Last season, in an effort to get rid of the background noise -- and to avoid a deeper public relations disaster from earlier in the summer -- Fisher banned his players from getting on Twitter. The rules on the ban loosened a bit by the end of the season, as players started trickling back on by the time the ACC Championship game was being played. Still, it seemed to have a positive effect on the team. Most veterans said that over time after the ban went into effect, they began having less and less of a desire to check their various social media accounts. At the time, the season was the focus. A year after many were berated by fans upset after seemingly unforgiveable road loss, the Twitter absence was a bit of relief. When the going got tough in 2012, it didn't seem to hit quite as hard nor last quite as long.
As cliche as the phrase "getting rid of clutter" may sound, it's precisely what the Seminoles will have to do if they plan on getting back to the pinnacle of the ACC this December. After all, the tactic must have worked last fall. They won, didn't they?
If it ain't broke ...