TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When Florida State’s players returned to campus in January for their winter conditioning drills, the message from strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria was clear.
“Coach Vic and all the strength coaches told us there are high expectations, so they’re not going to accept us to sit down and take a day off,” said running back Chris Thompson. “We’ve been working hard ever since January.”
Since then, not one player has missed an offseason strength and conditioning workout.
While it might seem like a trivial accomplishment to those outside the program, it exemplifies the very essence of coach Jimbo Fisher’s plan to win a national title through discipline, hard work and recruiting elite athletes capable of both. Fisher won’t talk much about the goal of winning a national championship, or how close the program might actually be to it. He could write a thesis, though, on the process of getting there.
In only his second season as a head coach anywhere, Fisher has the Seminoles well on their way. After sweeping in-state rivals Florida and Miami, winning the Atlantic Division title, playing in the ACC championship game and beating SEC East champ South Carolina in Fisher’s first season, it’s only logical to think the program is capable of more in 2011. The Seminoles return 18 starters -- more than any other team in the ACC.
“The expectations are through the roof,” said quarterback EJ Manuel, “and that’s how it should be.”
Whether Florida State is regarded as a true national title contender this season depends heavily on three things: How quickly and successfully Manuel adjusts to the role as full-time starter, how seamlessly the offensive line replaces two veterans and whether the Seminoles can beat Oklahoma on Sept. 17.
The Sooners helped define Florida State’s season last year, and will do the same again.
A year ago, Florida State was trounced by Oklahoma 47-17. The defense, in only its second game under coordinator Mark Stoops, was dazed and confused. Former quarterback Christian Ponder saw his Heisman hopes dashed in a matter of four quarters. And the final score was a reminder of the gap still lingering between Florida State and the nation’s elite.
Those within the program say Florida State has since closed that gap. By how much remains to be seen.
“I think we’ve grown a bunch,” Fisher said. “I think it put things in perspective, that saying you’re good and being good is two different things. There’s a level out there that people expect you to play at. As our kids sit back and look at last year’s season, we won some tight ones, but even the ones we lost, except for the Oklahoma game, we could’ve won all those games very easily. I think they finally realized how close they were and how close they can be if we do things right, if we really work hard. I think it’s driven us in the offseason. I think it has. I think it’s one of the reasons we’re focused now, they realize if they do have attention to detail and do have great work ethic and keep their attitude well, whether we win it or not, we can be a pretty good football team.”
Florida State’s fans, though, have been waiting patiently for a great football team.
“People always automatically expect Florida State to be one of the top tier programs in the country no matter what, just because they see this symbol on TV,” Manuel said, tugging at the Seminole logo on his sweatshirt. “Everyone already knows what it is. You don’t even have to put Florida State right here. It speaks for itself. That’s another reason why I wanted to come here. To play at a high level.”
The players aren’t the only ones Fisher is holding to a higher standard.
The staff has already broken down film of the first four opponents of the season. The coaches have scouted the entire 2011 schedule and made a list of everything their opponents do that has caused Florida State problems in the past.
“If we’re going to live up to these expectations, we have to do the little things right,” Fisher said. “We have to keep developing our identity, have great work ethic every day, great toughness, great effort, great discipline, great attitude and understand that the secret to this whole deal is, there isn’t a secret. It’s just doing the work.”