As they lifted weights this summer, their minds occasionally drifted back to the nightmare of Nov. 15, 2008. Florida State's offensive linemen were woefully inexperienced back then—three freshmen and two sophomores starting—and Boston College defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace destroyed them in a 27--17 Eagles win. (The Seminoles had just 285 yards of total offense.) "They whipped us up front," said Bobby Bowden, then Florida State's coach.
"We still use that game for motivation," says Ryan McMahon, the Seminoles' sophomore center that night. Pushed by that failure, Florida State's offensive line has become one of the nation's best. All five starters from that game—left tackle Andrew Datko, left guard Rodney Hudson, McMahon, right guard David Spurlock and right tackle Zebrie Sanders—are still starting in Tallahassee. Last season the line cleared the way as the Seminoles' offense averaged 421.4 yards a game (28th in the country) and 30.1 points (32nd).
The best of the group is Hudson, who last year won the Jacobs award as the ACC's top blocker and this season could be the first lineman to earn All-ACC honors for a fourth time. Hudson, 6'2" and 282 pounds, executes with ruthless efficiency. In 2009 he did not allow a sack or even a quarterback pressure. "When you watch film, he's a guy who just doesn't make mistakes," says senior quarterback Christian Ponder. "It's pretty crazy."
If the line plays to its potential, the Seminoles can compete for the ACC title. Meanwhile their defense, which last season allowed 434.6 yards (108th in the country) and 30.0 points a game (94th), will get a makeover under new coordinator Mark Stoops, who transformed Arizona's defense into one of the best in the Pac-10.
On offense first-year coach Jimbo Fisher will continue calling plays, as he did when he was Bowden's coordinator. And the return of a healthy Ponder, who threw for 2,717 yards in nine games before his 2009 season was shortened by a shoulder injury, gives Florida State a Heisman candidate—assuming the linemen in front of him block as expected.
Fisher has no doubt they will. "When you're good up front," he says, "you usually have a chance to win."
COACH Jimbo Fisher (1st year)
2009 RECORD 7--6 (4--4 in ACC)
FINAL AP RANK NR
RETURNING STARTERS 16
Offense 10, Defense 6
11 at Oklahoma
25 Wake Forest
2 at Virginia
9 at Miami (Fla.)
16 Boston College
28 at N.C. State
6 North Carolina
20 at Maryland
This speedy outside linebacker (he had a team-high 93 tackles in '09) is seeing reps in the middle.
After an injury-shortened '09, the prolific Ponder enters this season as an under-the-radar Heisman candidate.
A nickelback and dynamic return man in '09 (18.4 yards per punt return), Reid will be an every-down player this fall.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (HUDSON)
Hudson, who did not allow a sack or a quarterback pressure in 2009, could end up as the most decorated lineman in ACC history.
HARRISON STEG/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM