Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel has completed 67.3 percent of his career passes for 1,678 yards with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Manuel isn't the typical first-year starter
Most college programs would be in trouble on the offensive side of the football after losing a three-year starter at quarterback to graduation and the first round of the NFL Draft, but it's possible Florida State doesn't lose much with E.J. Manuel taking over under center. While 2011 will be his first season as the Seminoles' full-time starter, the 6-5, 234-pounder has started games in the past when Christian Ponder was banged up and had more successes than failures. As a matter of fact, Manuel has already led the 'Noles to a pair of wins in bowl games, defeating West Virginia in the Gator Bowl to send legendary coach Bobby Bowden into retirement a winner when Ponder was out with a shoulder injury, and then topping South Carolina a year later in the Chick-fil-A Bowl when Ponder was forced to the sideline after an ineffective first quarter.
Not only should coach Jimbo Fisher not have to change the offense very much since Manuel does have experience and brings a similar skill set to the table that Ponder did, but Fisher told reporters at Media Days that the questions Manuel is asking lately give him confidence that the playbook is becoming second nature.
DBs the reason Jenkins can still succeed
While defensive end Brandon Jenkins didn't do much statistically as a freshman, totaling only 12 tackles in 12 games with no sacks, he burst onto the scene as a sophomore by leading the team in both tackles for loss (21.5) and sacks (13.5). Now he's on the watch lists for both the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, and that's in addition to him being a preseason All-American candidate in just about every publication you can find. The 6-3, 258-pounder is going to attract a ton of attention from enemy offensive coordinators this year, meaning he better get used to double teams and getting chipped regularly, so he'll have to evolve and dig deeper into his bag of tricks.
But at the Football Kickoff, Jenkins felt confident about his prospects for 2011 in part because of the potential for special play behind him in the defensive backfield, as talented cornerbacks Greg Reid, Xavier Rhodes and Mike Harris -- not to mention the "hit stick," safety Nick Moody -- should lock down receivers and give him a chance to get to the passer.
Backups QBs remain unknown for Fisher
When Ponder couldn't play at points during the 2009 and 2010 seasons because of various injuries, Fisher simply inserted Manuel into the lineup and didn't give it a second thought. However, if something should happen to Manuel, Fisher all but admitted that his backup-quarterback situation is an unknown at best right now because none of them has been in the huddle when it truly mattered. As a matter of fact, when asked about second and third stringers Clint Trickett and Will Secord, Fisher made sure to bring up incoming freshman Jacob Coker, seemingly suggesting that the 6-5, 210-pounder has a chance to leapfrog both Trickett and Secord on the depth chart if he shows a bit of promise in practice.
If the unimaginable happens and Manuel gets banged up enough to require an exit from the game, Fisher may be forced to dial back the playbook and try to win by running the ball and playing defense.
Special teams might win a game in 2011
Kicker Dustin Hopkins made 22 of 28 field-goal attempts and all 53 of his extra-point tries last year, plus he booted five field goals in the annual spring game this past April -- including one from an incredible 60 yards. Punter Shawn Powell averaged 44.3 yards on his 50 attempts, dropping 16 inside the opponent's 20-yard line and only six resulting in touchbacks. Reid may have only averaged 23.9 yards returning kickoffs and 10.1 yards returning punts, but he did take one punt to the house and is simply one of those players capable of scoring every time he gets his mitts on the pigskin.
Combine the aforementioned with the speed necessary to be dynamite on the coverage units, and an argument can be made that Fisher has the best special teams not only in the conference, but maybe the entire country.
High expectations in the ACC community
In Pinehurst, members of the media were given an opportunity to predict winners for both the Atlantic and Coastal divisions in the ACC, as well as who would win the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 3 in Charlotte. Most every ballot had Florida State atop the Atlantic, with the Seminoles also expected to topple Coastal favorite Virginia Tech in the conference title game and, therefore, earn an invitation to a BCS bowl. It is the first time since 2005, believe it or not, that the Seminoles appear to be the school to beat, at least in the eyes of the print, radio and television people on hand for the Football Kickoff.
It's only Year 2 for Fisher and Co., but they've already turned the rest of the conference into believers and now must deal with the inevitable expectations that come along with being the favorite. The bull's eye is on Fisher's back for the first time, but presumably the first of many in Tallahassee.
John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.