Team: Florida State Seminoles
W-L: 9-4 (5-3)
Top Offensive Performer: EJ Manuel, QB
Top Defensive Performer: Nigel Bradham, LB
Starting the year out as a top-five team, it appeared that the sky was the limit for the ‘Noles, back in the saddle as a national power. Unfortunately for them (and the ACC), the good times wouldn’t last very long. After a tough, close loss to then-top-ranked Oklahoma, Florida State began their league slate with consecutive 35-30 defeats to upstarts Clemson and Wake Forest. Somehow, the team would win seven of their final eight contests to right the ship, but the rally failed to change perception. After an extended period of national success under Bobby Bowden from the late 80s through the early 00s, the Seminoles of the last eight or nine years have continually disappointed, despite its collection of highly-talented athletes.
On offense, the team was led by junior EJ Manuel, who finished fourth in total offense in the conference while throwing 18 touchdown passes. Manuel would also run for four scores on the year, occasionally showing prowess on the ground — most notably in a 41-16 rout of Duke in which he passed for two scores and ran for two more in the game. Beyond Manuel, the offense was efficient, for lack of a better term. Though they were 33rd in the FBS in passing yards per game (257), and 39th in points (30.6), they lacked standout playmakers and ranked among the worst in the country running the ball. No back or receiver on the team accumulated more than 600 yards on the season; a stunning statistic through 13 games and that many points scored. But of course, it all came down to the defense.
While the Seminoles lacked the type of standouts many other ACC schools had on the defensive side of the ball (FSU did not place a single defensive player on the All-ACC first-team), they still ended up as one of the country’s most dominant units. Ranked fourth overall, allowing just 15.1 points per contest, Florida State proved itself an agile and debilitating force capable of stopping any offense. Just three teams managed over 20 points on the FSU defense, and no team scored more than 20 after October 8. In their final eight games, opponents were held to 14 points or less five times (including a 34-0 shutout of NC State). From an efficiency standpoint, the ‘Noles allowed just over 3,500 yards of offense on the entire season, topping the charts for the ACC in nearly every category.
While injuries surely factored in to Florida State failing to live up to expectations in 2011, there were also far too many reasons why they should have been so much more as well. Oklahoma was not nearly as impressive as advertised and their ACC schedule proved incredibly light — avoiding most of the other conference heavyweights. The display they put on in the second half of the season was just as much about the ineptitude of their opponents as it was about their defensive skill. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to build on from their strong finish. If Florida State can replicate the defensive effort from this season, it’ll be a long year for their conference rivals, and possibly, put them in line to contend for a national title.