Fisher, players keep fans enthralled

As the buzz builds momentum in early summer, the questions begin for Sam Childers.

Having played four seasons for Florida State from 1978 through 1981, he's viewed as something between a historian and soothsayer around Tallahassee when the subject turns to Seminoles football, which, of course, it often does.

Fans need insight, and Childers is their cleric.

"When you've played there, a lot of people ask what you think," he said. "Well, I think we've got the right people in place."

It's candy for a title-starved populace, consumed voraciously and without skepticism. Legions of FSU fans once again dream of recaptured glory, of conference titles and national championships.

This year will be different. This is the year all of the pieces are in place. This is when Jimbo Fisher and his band of Seminoles stand alongside Bobby Bowden's dynasties rather than in their shadows.

"Honestly," season-ticket holder Valerie Gavin said, "we think that every year."

Summer in Tallahassee, after all, is little more than a mix of humidity and optimism.

The recruiting class arrives amid much hype -- sometimes ranked No. 1 in the nation. The national polls trickle out and the enthusiasm builds. Reports out of camp offer encouragement, and the chorus reaches its crescendo by early fall before -- poof! -- it's all gone.

A year ago, the top-five ranking was erased by consecutive losses to Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest beginning in mid-September.

In 2010, a thrashing at the hands of the Sooners in Week 2 dimmed the excitement.

In 2009, the energy had barely begun to simmer before the Seminoles were 0-3 in ACC play.

But 2012 is different. This really is the year. Right?

"I think last year could be easily categorized as cautious optimism, and this year can be categorized as cautious expectation," said Keith Jones, a three-year starter under Bowden who has been an analyst during FSU games since 1988. "I think the fan base, players and coaches believe they can play at the next level, and this is the year to do it."

Unlike so many years before, however, it's not just the local optimists in Tallahassee falling for the hype.

Florida State appears in the top 10 of most early preseason polls, while noted college football analyst Phil Steele predicted a perfect 12-0 season.

The Seminoles' defense projects to be dominant, chock-full of NFL talent in the likes of Lamarcus Joyner, Brandon Jenkins and Xavier Rhodes.

The offense is solid at the skill positions, with a returning senior at quarterback in EJ Manuel and a deep corps of wide receivers.

And the schedule sets up nicely, with rivals Clemson and Florida coming to Tallahassee, and only a road date at Virginia Tech looming as a game in which the Seminoles likely won't be favored.

Add it all up, and even by Tallahassee's seemingly boundless standard for enthusiasm, this year's expectations are high.

"The expectation is 10-2, 11-1, 12-0 in the regular season, playing in the ACC championship game and winning it, and playing in a BCS bowl," said Jerry Kutz, vice president of marketing and communications for Seminoles Boosters, Inc. "That is the expectation of both the fans as well as the team and the staff, and anything less than that will be a disappointment."

That's a lofty goal for a team that hasn't won a conference title since 2005, but perhaps that's the point.
In his first two seasons as head coach, Fisher has made plenty of progress in rebuilding a program that had languished -- both on the recruiting trail and in the standings -- in Bowden's final years at the helm.

One strong piece of evidence: Recruits. During Fisher's tenure, all three of his signed classes have been in the top six in the nation, including No. 1 in 2011 and No. 2 this past year. By comparison, the three previous classes were ranked No. 8 or No. 9. Next year's recruiting class stands No. 9 in ESPN's rankings, with several months of work still to be done.

But this season fans aren't so much grading Fisher on his work as the architect of the rebuilding process as they are judging him on what he can do with the pieces he now has in place.

"For me, I'm loyal to a fault," Gavin said. "But for a lot of fans, this year makes a big difference to them."

Bowden was ushered out in public fashion, but even his most ardent supporters agreed the Seminoles had fallen on hard times. Fisher was the coach-in-waiting, and even those who remained dubious about his appointment admit he's breathed life into the program.

"I love Coach Bowden to death, no doubt, but these guys are full-speed, going at it recruiting and everything else," Childers said.

But now is the real test, and the expectations this year are a dividing line for many fans.

Bowden left on a down note, but his successes have set the standard by which Fisher -- and this year's team -- ultimately will be judged. In that sense, this Florida State team really is getting back to where the program used to be.

And,as always, it's not hard to convince an eager fan base that those halcyon days are just around the corner.

"FSU got spoiled. Coach Bowden spoiled everybody because he was always in contention," Childers said. "To get back to where Coach Bowden had us, I think they're headed in the right direction."