GC: Obviously the running joke, at least among ACC fans, was that for the last several years, Florida State was back. Forgive me for being among that contingent again this season, but I don't think you can fault me too much given the history of those lofty pre-season rankings. What is the difference between those years and this one?
TN: I think that even Florida State fans join in on that joke, at least many of those who post at TN. 2012 was billed as and has been the crescendo of Jimbo Fisher’s program building. FSU is a talented, experienced team that has reaped the benefits of a stable coaching staff for several years now. The defense has become comfortable under Mark Stoops, and the ‘Noles are seeing the rewards with a top-level unit. There’s a lot of quality depth on this year’s squad, and it is probably the best Florida State team since 2003. I know that as an opposing fan it seems like someone in the national media is making these claims every year about FSU, but they have simply been unfounded in many cases. Despite the cliché, Florida State wasn’t recruiting among the best in the nation from ’05-’08. It had a coaching regime that dragged the program down and stifled any attempts at a rebuilding until it was ousted. Since Fisher has taken over, the ‘Noles have won 27 games and have a great chance to win 30+ in three years. 2012 has been the target year since his ascendancy to the head coaching position. The national media was misguided in their hailing Florida State as a national title darkhorse last season, even before the ‘Noles suffered ridiculous injuries in 2011 starting 10 different players on the offensive line. The talent that Fisher began to bring in has now matured, and while the NC State loss erased any chances of a national championship this season, winning the conference and heading to the BCS for the first time since 2005 is important and well within reach.
GC: Before the season amid all the conference expansion hoopla, we heard many a rumor about the Seminoles potentially leaving for another conference. What do you think the school's interest in such a move was, no matter what was said? How would it feel as a fan if they left a conference they have so much history with that was pretty much the Seminoles' for the taking (in football at least) prior to expansion?
TN: Well, there are conflicting reports and disagreements within the fanbase on how close this was to happening. Though some will downplay any notion that it was possible, we at TN certainly believe that there was significant interest in exploring the option of and even actually leaving for the Big 12. So strong were the rumors that President Barron came out and issued a statement to pledge loyalty to the ACC. Personally, I think it’s all about the money. The modern game cannot be played at an elite level consistently without being within shouting distance to the best programs monetarily. It takes facilities, coaches, and institutional support in today’s college football to compete. So, it depends on what exactly the Big 12 or any other conference offers. While it would be a shame to leave some of the matchups in the ACC, it could be a necessity if another conference was offering a chance to compete on a level playing field with the top programs monetarily and the ACC was lagging behind. Depending on the numbers, and the disparity would have to be significant, I could see myself supporting a move to the Big 12. I think almost all ‘Noles fans would drop everything and run to the SEC if an offer came, but this is quite unlikely. The ACC’s officiating, with which Tech has become all too familiar as well this season, and the conference’s basketball-first mindset in Greensboro doesn’t sit well with FSU fans. Hopefully the quasi-addition of Notre Dame helps to stabilize the league.
GC: The 'Noles though delivered a shocker (and not in a good way) earlier in the year at N.C. State, losing 17-16. What happened in that game to cause the loss, and how much do you think that game will haunt the memories of FSU fans when looking back on this season?
TN: We’re still puzzling over that quite a bit, honestly. The Seminoles were moving the ball at will in the first half and the Pack were absolutely unable to do anything on offense. It was 16-0 at halftime and with the ypp stats it wasn’t even that close. Some FSU fans will tell you they knew at halftime that the ‘Noles would lose because of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns early in the game, but I tend to think they’re full of crap. It was hard not to feel quite comfortable before the third quarter began. But then it did. All of a sudden, we saw Jimbo Fisher send the offense into a conservative shell. The defense, which was not to blame for this loss as they were great for most of the night, allowed receivers to get off the line and Mike Glennon had the half of his life. He was deadly accurate and the Wolfpack began to move the ball, particularly on crossing routes, the scourge of the earth (not really). FSU had every opportunity to put the game away. Manuel throws a bad interception, takes a terrible sack, and NC State converts on several fourth downs, including the winning play on a perfect pick to free up the inside arrow route. While it was shocking, it was also a script that ‘Noles fans had seen before. Jimbo struggles disproportionately against teams over which he is a 10-17 pt. favorite, especially on the road. The conservative second half has been seen and has worked before, but it has also failed to put opponents away in previous instances. The loss showed a real lack of growth within the program in several respects, and that was really the most disappointing part of it. Florida State needs to beat the teams over which it is significantly favored. I definitely think the loss will haunt the memories of Seminoles fans and will temper optimism towards Jimbo Fisher until he can prove that he can win these sorts of games regularly.
GC: E.J. Manuel is putting together a phenomenal senior season. What is it that makes him so great in your mind?
TN: EJ takes a lot of flak from the fanbase, us at TN included. Sometimes we forget that while we don’t consider him to be a great quarterback, he’s certainly very good. Manuel is an athletic freak at 6’5" 240 with a big arm and is an excellent runner. He has a great feel on the option, something you’ll see on Thursday night, though not on the zone read for reasons we will never understand. He can make a lot of the throws, including a pretty deep ball like the one he hit Rashad Greene on against Duke on the first drive. He also reaped the benefits of starting as a fourth-year junior after sitting behind Christian Ponder for three years, occasionally being called on after injuries to Ponder or in mop-up duty. He’s put up some gaudy statistics this season and is recognized as one of the nation’s best senior quarterbacks.
However, we at Tomahawk Nation are going to beat to death his shortcomings, naturally. EJ struggles to read the middle of the field. He’s best throwing deep and/or to the outside of the defense, particularly on timing. Manuel doesn’t make the best decisions when the bullets are flying in real time. We’re spoiled because of how good Christian Ponder was in the pre-snap, and he was a wizard. EJ Manuel doesn’t read these situations as well, and there are a lot of beliefs that Jimbo Fisher has simplified the offense for him. He’s a smart kid, a great kid, and deserves the unending respect of Florida State fans. But he does struggle making decisions and throws in real time relative to our expectations, which are admittedly lofty. He’s a very good quarterback capable of taking FSU to great heights, for all of our griping about him.
GC: The Seminoles lost their leading rusher, Chris Thompson, for the season (and his career) against the Hurricanes Oct. 20. How big of an issue is that for the Florida State offense, and how do you see it affecting them going forward?
TN: That was such a shame. Thompson had come back from breaking multiple vertebrae against Wake Forest last season and was running better than he had at any other time in his career. It was just heartbreaking to see him go down against the ‘Canes. FSU has now lost its best offensive, defensive, and special teams player from the 2012 team for the season in Thompson, Brandon Jenkins, and Greg Reid who was dismissed.
The loss of Thompson is a big deal any way you slice it. While yes, the ‘Noles have capable and talented rushers in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. to fill the void, Thompson was playing at a level far above these two players. It also thins the depth chart. True freshman Mario Pender was lost for the season before the year started because he decided going to rehab wasn’t an important thing for him to do, and the Seminoles are effectively down to two true tailbacks. Lonnie Pryor is much better as a fullback than a running back, though he can play in a pinch. Florida State will have to rely on Freeman in particular to step up. He was last year’s leading rusher for FSU and I’m uncomfortable expecting the true sophomore Wilder to shoulder much of an increased load, as he didn’t play much a year ago. Freeman will need to make plays on the ground and in the passing game and, importantly, not make mistakes in pass protection leading to EJ getting killed. Wilder will spell him, and is a powerful and talented runner, but a lot is going to be put on Devonta going forward. I think he can handle a good bit of it, but I also think Florida State may have to resort to running Manuel more and airing it out more than usual as well. These things are possible and don’t present a big deviation from the previous offense, but they’re things to keep an eye on.
GC: The Hokies last hosted Florida State in 2007, winning 40-21. Any thoughts about that game?
TN: The birth of Christian Ponder! Not literally, but, you know. That was a really important game, now that I think about it. We first saw the unheralded kid from Texas in Blacksburg in relief, and he showed a lot of moxie in a tough environment against a tough team. He was also playing on a bad team. One of our favorite decisions Jimbo has ever made as a coach could be seen as a product of this game, in part, when Fisher decided to start Sophomore Ponder over senior Weatherford in 2008. He morphed Christian into an elite quarterback in 2009 and a first round draft pick. So, my first thoughts after reading that question are actually positive ones.
I don’t think it plays much of a role in talking about Thursday night. I think that Florida State has a great appreciation for Lane Stadium’s aura, especially on a Thursday night. I hope that the FSU players understand what Jimbo and his staff seem to, that the Hokies are a better team than their record indicates. A lot of Tech’s issues are fixable in terms of mistakes and adjusted personnel, and I expect the Hokies to play one of their best games of the year at home against the ‘Noles.
GC: What players should Virginia Tech fans and players be watching out for? Particularly under the radar ones?
TN: I’ll give you three:
1. Larmarcus Joyner (SS/KR) – Joyner is possibly the best player on defense, though he takes a back seat to the freaks on the defensive line in terms of hype. He’s rangy, has great ball skills, and hits like a ton of bricks. He also returns kicks and gets a lot of opportunities to, because teams like to keep kickoffs away from…
2. Karlos Williams (KR/DB) – Williams is a true sophomore and heralded recruit. At 6’2" 230 he’s one of the fastest players on the roster. It’s kind of terrifying to see him run at full speed at his size. But for us it’s like that giddy kind of terror. Hard to explain. Anyway, he’s the better of the two return men on kickoffs and Tech will want to keep the ball away from him. It’s sort of pick your poison there, though. He’ll also get some reps at safety, his eventual defensive position once he figures out what he’s doing.
3. Nick O’Leary (TE) – did you know he’s Jack Nicklaus’s grandson? You will by the end of the night if you’re watching this game on television. Commentators love this fact. Nick was a highly recruited tight end a couple of years ago, and has seen an increased role in the offense as a true sophomore. He’s not really an in-line tight end as he’s a bit undersized, but is an excellent receiving threat and has improved his blocking. I personally think the ‘Noles will look to get him the ball early and often against the Hokies.
GC: Is there a particular Virginia Tech player you fear? If so why?
TN: I sort of want to talk about the boom/bust potential of Logan Thomas and why that’s frightening, but I’ll talk about J.C. Coleman instead. Most of our staff thinks he’s Tech’s best back and is a little ball of deadly wrath back there. He presents the same concerns I have about Thomas when looking at the VT offense – FSU defense matchup. The ‘Noles are going to play this game the way that they played USF. Lots of cover-3, a little spy action, not worried about pressing wideouts, and make VT drive the field consistently against a very good defense. What you fear in this sort of situation is what this gameplan is designed to take away, namely the big play. The whole point is to make an overmatched unit consistently out-perform a superior one. This goes by the wayside if Coleman breaks a 60-yard touchdown run or Thomas throws a long touchdown off of play-action. As the best of VT’s backs, Coleman scares me from this perspective.
GC: Obviously the Seminoles are big-time favorites in this one. But let's say hypothetically that without watching the game, the Hokies win. What would be your best guess for the reason it happened?
TN: I think it would have to mean that the ‘Noles failed to match Tech’s intensity early and came out of the gate at a lackluster pace. An early Hokie lead makes the crowd a huge factor. I think the Seminoles would have failed to protect the ball and turned it over 4-5 times, I think that Logan Thomas would have played a great game, especially with his arm, and I think that Florida State’s special teams would have suffered at least one significant breakdown. The ‘Noles have had problems catching punts and protecting against blocks, so that’d be a target of my focus. I don’t think any of these things are as far-fetched as they might sound, really.
GC: Another hypothetical; if the Hokies SHOULD beat the Seminoles and somehow back their way into the ACC Championship Game, would you be more or less happy than seeing, say a Miami there? Why?
TN: If the Hokies beat the ‘Noles, we’d need Clemson to lose another conference game to play for the title. However, that doesn’t change the substance of the question in selecting a representative for the Coastal Division in Charlotte. Obviously we hate Miami, but there have been arguments made even within the FSU fanbase that Miami is the best representative for the Coastal for reasons of perception, as Duke is Duke and Tech has lost to Pitt, Cincinnati, etc. I think there’s a decent chance Miami turns down the invite, though. They need to if they want to self-impose the post-season ban this year to curry favor with the NCAA before the sanctions Armageddon comes down. There really isn’t a good option here, is there? I’d personally be more happy seeing VT in Charlotte than anybody else, except for the fact that it would mean that the Hokies beat the Seminoles on Thursday and that the ‘Noles probably aren’t playing in the game and Clemson is. So, if you follow my obviously coherent train of thought here, I select Miami. What a giant cluster.