SITTING IN thestudent section of Doak S. Campbell Stadium last Sept. 20, Dekoda Watson wassure of one thing: He wasn't coming back to Tallahassee in 2009 for his seniorseason. Watson, a linebacker from Aiken, S.C., was serving a suspension foracademic misconduct, and as he watched his teammates lose to WakeForest—Florida State's third consecutive loss in the series—it was painfullyclear that the Seminoles' long dominance of the ACC was over. The program thathad won 12 outright or shared conference championships in 14 years (1992through 2005) hasn't advanced to the ACC title game in three seasons.
"When I was inthe student section, I saw us make so many mistakes it just hurt," Watsonsays. "I won't lie, I wanted to leave. But you know what? I've never won aring, and the more I looked around [after the '08 season], the more I startedto believe that this could be our year in the ACC."
Indeed, though theschedule is brutal—11 of 12 opponents played in bowls last season—the Seminolesshould be the class of the ACC Atlantic. With eight starters back on offense,including junior quarterback Christian Ponder and all five linemen, the onus ison the defense to come through. The top three tacklers from 2008 have departed,so it's understandable why defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews was relieved tohear that Watson was returning after all. "Dekoda is our leader,"Andrews says. "He's going to be a disruptive force."
Watson played inthe last 10 games, including a 42--13 whipping of Wisconsin in the Champ SportsBowl, and occasionally flashed playmaking skills that recalled past starFlorida State linebackers Derrick Brooks and Peter Boulware. Despite beinghampered by a sore hamstring and an injured left elbow that required Tommy Johnsurgery in the off-season, the 6'2", 226-pound Watson had eight tackles forlosses and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 46.
"It's time forus to bring back the glory to Florida State," says Watson, who might havebeen a second- or third-round pick in April's NFL draft. "That's why I cameback."
Get the latest and best Seminoles stories, statistics and fan blogs from acrossthe Web, handpicked by the editors of SI.
ALL BUT ONE OPPONENT PLAYED IN A BOWL IN '08.
COACH: Bobby Bowden (34th year)
2008 RECORD: 9--4 (5--3 in ACC)
FINAL AP RANK: 21
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 Offense 8, Defense 5
12 Jacksonville State
19 at BYU
26 South Florida
3 at Boston College
10 Georgia Tech
22 at North Carolina
31 N.C. State
7 at Clemson
14 at Wake Forest
28 at Florida
Florida State's young defense will be challenged byCougars quarterback Max Hall, who last season led a BYU offense that finishedsixth in the nation in passing with 310.4 yards per game.
One of the Seminoles' strengths is an offensive linethat features three players who were freshman All-Americas—sophomore lefttackle Andrew Datko, junior center Ryan McMahon and junior left guard RodneyHudson, now a Lombardi Award candidate.
FERNANDO MEDINA/US PRESSWIRE
Coming off of elbow surgery, Watson (36) will step into a leading role on the Seminoles defense.