Is Florida State a Top 5 team?
That's what the Seminoles want to prove as they enter the 2011 season with expectations -- and fevered anticipation -- reminiscent of past glory years.
"If you're going to be good, you have to expect to be good, you have to understand to be good, and you have to embrace it," second-year coach Jimbo Fisher said.
"We understand that expectations aren't going to win championships. We've got to go out and live in the now and prepare for those championships hopefully coming up in the future."
On paper and in the polls, FSU certainly looks good.
The Seminoles return 17 starters, including one of the top kicking tandems in the country. They also welcome back their the top three rushers, 10 of the top 11 receivers, all four starters in the secondary and the nation's third-best sack leader from 2010.
Even redshirt junior E.J. Manuel is about as seasoned as a quarterback can be entering his first season as a full-time starter. Manuel is 4-2 as a starter and has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,678 yards and six touchdowns in 17 games.
Preseason polls have only added to fans' excitement.
FSU opens the regular season Sept. 3 at home against Louisiana-Monroe ranked No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches poll and No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll. That is the program's best preseason positioning since 2002, when it was fourth in the coaches' poll.
If that's not enough preseason love, the media that covers the Atlantic Coast Conference also picked FSU to win the Atlantic Division and beat Virginia Tech for its first ACC title in seven seasons.
Last season, the first under Fisher after legendary coach Bobby Bowden's retirement, helped ignite the Seminoles' ascent. FSU went 10-4 with wins over in-state rivals Miami and Florida and a bowl victory over South Carolina. Florida State finished 16th in both polls, then went out and landed one of the nation's top recruiting classes.
Manuel, offering a voice of reason, says it's important that FSU proves its worth and not live on press clippings, especially for a program mired in mediocrity for most of the past decade.
"People are going to say how they feel and give their own opinions, but it's all going to be settled when we actually go out there and play," said Manuel, who is replacing Christian Ponder, the first ACC player selected in last spring's NFL Draft.
"I am not going to go out there and say 'We're back,' because that would disrespect the schools who were where Florida State is now. That's something we're working toward, and hopefully we can get to that point and just continue to win games."
After opening games against unheralded Louisiana-Monroe and FCS opponent Charleston Southern, FSU's national title aspirations will be severely tested by September's end.
Top-ranked Oklahoma, which pummeled the Seminoles 47-17 last season in Norman, Okla., visits Doak Campbell Stadium on Sept. 17. Win or lose, FSU must regroup for its ACC opener and first road game the following week at Clemson, where the Seminoles haven't won since 2001.
Senior linebacker Nigel Bradham understands each step of the journey is necessary to reach the final goal.
"We can't get caught in the hype," Bradham said. "At the end of the day it's nothing.
"You can go out there and lose a game and then all of the hype is gone and you've let everyone down. We just have to go out there and control what we can."
The Seminoles have been challenged by injuries on offense in preseason practices. Leading returning rusher Chris Thompson has missed time with back soreness and the offensive line, decimated by injuries in spring practice, has yet to return to full strength.
The defense -- the team's most improved unit in 2010 -- is anchored by junior end Brandon Jenkins, whose 13.5 quarterback sacks helped FSU lead the nation with 48.
"We are one of top five teams in the country -- that's a big thing," Jenkins said. "I was a little surprised. There are a lot of big expectations for us this year. We are going to try to live up to them.
"The rankings could hurt you or they could make you better. We are trying not to get into all that preseason hype -- we are just trying to out and play football."
5 keys to season for FSU
1. Keep EJ Manuel healthy
The redshirt junior has played in 17 career games; his backup, redshirt freshman Clint Trickett, son of offensive line coach Rick Trickett, has played in zero. Manuel, despite his athleticism, must avoid unnecessary scrambling.
Even though they are only four days apart, we're not talking about games against North Carolina State and Boston College to end October and start November. FSU will know exactly what it's made of with games against No. 1 Oklahoma at home Sept. 17 and Clemson the road Sept. 24.
3. Big plays
The receiving corps lost Taiwan Easterling's toughness to Major League Baseball. But returnees Bert Reed (58 receptions, 614 yards, two TDs), Willie Haulstead (38-587-6) and Rodney Smith (31-448-3) should provide plenty of targets downfield.
4. ACC hardware
Once thought unfathomable, especially after winning nine consecutive ACC championships after joining the league in 1991, the Seminoles have not won the conference title since 2005. The drought must end if FSU wants to a part of national title conversations.
5. Kick this
PK Dustin Hopkins and P Shawn Powell are a dynamic duo. And let's not forget return specialist Greg Reid, either. Hopkins converted 22-of-28 FG attempts last season with a long of 55 yards. Powell averaged 44.3 yards per punt and placed 16 inside the opponents' 20. Reid is a threat to return both punts and kickoffs the distance.