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Our Midweek Conversation with Tomahawk Nation

The guys over at Tomahawk Nation were nice enough to answer a few questions to help us preview this weekend's matchup with the Seminoles. We encourage you to head over there and read one of the most informed blogs on the SBN network, and certainly the most active community. We answered a few of TN's questions and they should be available there tomorrow.

With Ponder likely out, what changes will Fisher make in his playcalls? What did you see in the bowl game last year that was different from when you faced us with a healthy Ponder?

TN: I expect Fisher to go to a more conservative gameplan with less freedom at the line than he affords Christian.  Manuel is a good option/read QB and I would expect probably 5 or 6 more read/ option style plays than Fisher usually calls with Ponder.  Manuel is more likely to go deep than Ponder is, though I am not sure if that is a
good thing.   

Highlights of Bowl game

EJ looked average against Samford but had shown some bright spots as well, including against Wake Forest.  At 6'4" 233 he is difficult to bring down and I would not be surprised to see him run quite a bit.

Despite the point total in FSU’s last two contests, this defense is much improved from a year ago. Can you comment on the discipline of this defense compared to last year, what it will take to get this
defense to a "championship" level, and how long you expect this transformation to take?

The discipline overall is night and day.  The defensive line does not wildly pursue everything that moves as it did last season.  The backers actually have keys! and follow them, unlike last season.  And the defensive backs, for the most part, have been more disciplined. There have been breakdowns of discipline in individual series, but on the whole the discipline is vastly improved.  It is most evident in the defensive ends and linebackers.

Last year's defense was 58th of the 66 BCS conference defenses.  This year we set a goal of being in the 24-42 range.  Right now FSU is right around the 40 mark (I'll know the exact rating Thursday).  I figure this unit will finish in the top 38 of 66, which is a 20-spot jump.  Another jump like that next year would have FSU with a top-20 defense.  I think that is doable.

Florida State plays 20 guys on defense. 

Starters:  Sr, So, So, So, Jr, Sr, Sr, Fr, So, Jr, So.  Backups:  Fr, Fr, So, Fr, Fr, So, Fr, Fr, Jr. 

That's 3 seniors, 3 juniors, 7 sophomores, and 7 freshmen.  These are young, talented defensive players who are maturing physically and learning a new scheme.  For many, it is the first quality defensive instruction they have received in college.  FSU should lose 2-4 guys off the 20 (Nigel Bradham could go pro early, but Mister Alexander
might get a 6th year), but returning 17 of the 20 defensive contributors is a great nucleus, and 14 of the 20 are current freshmen or sophomores!

I do think this unit takes another big step forward in 2011.  Mark Stoops and Greg Hudson are proven defensive coaches and FSU is giving them a lot of talent with which they can work their magic.  Building quality depth along the defensive line and not having to play an excessive number of underclassmen up front will key the improvement.
I would be disappointed if FSU did not field one of the best 20 defenses in the country in both 2011 and 2012 (unless there is a major injury season, ala NC State 2009).

Clemson’s defense has struggled at the linebacker position all season and has been fortunate to date to overcome this with good DL play. How do you expect FSU will try to mitigate the threat that Clemson’s defensive line brings to the table? How do you expect FSU to go after Clemson’s linebackers?

Florida State does have two 3-year starters at offensive tackle and I think they will present Clemson's defensive line with its biggest challenge to date.  That said, I would expect FSU to move the pocket a lot with some floods, and also use a lot of play-action to slow down Clemson's defensive line and put pressure on the linebackers.
Unfortunately, FSU's tight end Beau Reliford looks like he will always be a basketball player.  He's very average and won't threaten Clemson's backers.  This is weakness v. weakness.

With the run game, however, I expect FSU to work the zone run game and hit the cutback lanes if Clemson's linebackers overpursue, or take it to the outside if they are dogging the stretch.

After an impressive win at Miami, FSU has struggled over the past three games, losing the past two contests in heartbreaking fashion. What does FSU have to do to get back to form? Do you think this team will rebound after the past few weeks?

I'm not so sure FSU had regressed that much in the past three games as much as it has faced a stepup in competition and hasn't completely out-coached that competition, as it did with Miami.  That probably speaks to the level of team FSU is this year.

But to the question, FSU needs to get back to not allowing the big play on defense.  Yes, good offenses will be able to gash the Noles underneath, but FSU might have bit off more than it could chew against North Carolina over the weekend.  A "back to basics" approach, emphasizing the need to prevent big plays (which has been the mantra
all year) needs to happen now.  On offense, the receivers need to step up and run better routes and catch the ball.  And FSU's kicker needs to make his field goals or get himself off the Groza list.  A greater level of focus is needed in all facets, but my opinion of this team wouldn't really change much had it hit the open man against NC State and not fumbled or made the field goals against UNC.

I think FSU will come out fired up for a night game in Doak-- the first of the season.  But I am not sure how the focus will be, and that scares me a bit.

Florida State has had issues with their receivers holding onto the football. How big of an effect has been on overall offensive performance? Do you see any hope that this issue can be corrected immediately?

Of the 10 incompletions there were three drops by Bert Reed, two drops by Willie Haulstead, three bad balls by Ponder, one tipped pass on a missed cut, and one beautiful deep ball that Bert Reed could not haul in while tapping his feet.  FSU dropped 5 balls against NC State. While poor routes and a lack of focus had plagued the 'Noles for much of the year, drops had not.

Reed needs to get his act together.  I can tolerate 2 drops from Haulstead because he also caught 10 balls for 154 yards and a touchdown.  I expect the drops to curtail a bit but not to the amount that would please me.

E.J. Manuel comes in with a very different style of play than Christian Ponder. What does Clemson absolutely have to do to stop Manuel if he is forced into action Saturday?

Clemson needs to key the run.  I have little doubt that Fisher will be conservative with the gameplan.  Taking away the run could make Manuel nervous and he has never had to win a game with his arm only.  I would probably play more coverage than bring heat against EJ because I doubt he has the rapport with these wideouts to be in sync and exploit the zones.  Perhaps some delayed blitzes would work.  I'd also hit himearly.  We don't know how he will react to being rocked.

What are your overall impressions of Fisher’s first season as head man in Tallahassee? What is your timetable in terms of championship expectations for this staff?

Overall I would give him a B+ to date.  He has done a great job laying the groundwork for a successful run, brought in quality coaches, and has taken the recruiting to another level.  The team is better than it was last season and is much more competent overall.  On the downside, he has had his first-year head coaching moments and has had some notable blunders dealing with the media (he said Jarmon Fortson was unavailable when in fact he had been kicked off the team, and we are quickly starting to learn the "code"-- when a player is "banged up" he is probably suspended for the game).  The former stuff obviously out-weighs the latter.  I should note that my grade here would NOT change if FSU were 8-1 instead of 6-3.

I firmly believe that championships involve a large luck component, but that getting the opportunity to play for championships do not. Fisher has a 5-year contract, but he won't be around for the final year if he doesn't first make some things happen in his first four years.  I have some 4-year goals in mind and crafted them based on the
improvement FSU needs to show compared to its last 4 years.

FSU was 27-21 from 2006-2009 in its regular-season games.  From 2010-2013 I expect Fisher to go 36-12 or better in his first 48 regular-season games  FSU is currently 6-3, so that means 30-9 or better in the next 39 regular-season games.  Anything less than 36-12 over 4 regular seasons would be cause for some serious review as to

FSU was 16-16 from 2006-2009 in regular-season ACC Play.  I expect FSU to be 24-8 or better in regular-season ACC play from 2010-2013.  FSU is currently 4-2 in ACC play, so that means 20-6 or better in the next 26 ACC games.

As for championships and bowl games, if FSU achieves or exceeds the records set out above, it should take care of itself.  I expect Fisher to play for the ACC Championship at least twice in his first four years.  It would be really difficult for FSU to go 20-6 or better in its next 26 ACC regular-season games and not play for the ACC
Championship at least twice.

I think it is quite pointless to demand a record of X-X in the ACC Championship game and bowl games because there is no way of knowing who FSU will play.  If Fisher meets the marks I set out above, the team will consistently compete for conference championships and play in BCS bowls.  With some luck, perhaps FSU can play for the national championship in his in the first 4 years. After that, FSU will re-evaluate where it is going as a program and
perhaps the goals should be set higher.  Much of that will depend on the available resources  With some more luck FSU might win that game.

I don't think it is too much to ask for Fisher to return FSU to the best program in the ACC and to eliminate embarrassing losses to teams with losing records and other nonsense.  With proven, motivated coaches and excellent recruiting I think the future is bright in Tallahassee.