- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. (AP) - Jimbo Fisher heads into his third season at Florida State with the nucleus intact from a team that failed to live up to some big expectations in 2011.

The slogan for the past season was “Now,” which translated to one week at a time after an early season three-game losing streak.

“We were close, but there were details we left out,” Fisher said. “Hopefully the details will be the difference and take us over the top next year.”

Unlike the recently completed campaign, 2012 could be a now or never year for Seminoles with so many key players either seniors or likely to leave early for the NFL.

Fisher has also made some adjustments over his first two years as a head coach trying to balance the requirements of being boss and trying to handle the quarterbacks and offense.

“He’s been a little more patient with the team,” star safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “Trusting the kids.”

The 46-year-old Fisher is sold on the talent available. Nearly all of the top playmakers and defenders return, along with one of the nation’s most reliable placekickers in Dustin Hopkins. He is closing in on Florida State and Atlantic Coast Conference records for field goals and scoring.

Redshirt senior quarterback EJ Manuel has 17 starts (13-4) under his belt and battled through a shoulder injury while playing behind an offensive line that struggled almost all season. Manuel’s health will be crucial to Florida State’s success next season.

“He’s a guy you’re proud to be the leader of your football team,” Fisher said. “The face of your organization.”

Manuel already ranks ninth in career total offense at the school with 4,853 yards and has ran or passed for 31 touchdowns. He heads into his final year working on a masters’ degree in international relations and trying to rejuvenate an offense that was almost nonexistent in the final three games of the season. The Seminoles managed only a field goal in the second half of a 14-13 loss to Virginia and followed the next week with less than 100 yards of total offense in a 21-7 win at Florida.

An 18-14 Champs Bowl victory over Notre Dame on Dec. 29 took some sting out of the somewhat disappointing season for the Seminoles (9-4, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), who failed to get back to the ACC title despite being a preseason favorite to win the league title.

The defense designed by coordinator Mark Stoops ended up saving the season as Fisher’s offense inexplicably disappeared down the stretch. Florida State led the ACC in scoring defense and total defense while the offense was eighth in total yardage.

Stoops was persuaded to remain one more year with a tidy $128,000 pay hike that boosted him to $568,000 a year for the upcoming season.

And he’ll have defensive ends Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and “Tank” Carradine returning to once again harass opposing quarterbacks and Joyner anchoring an experienced secondary. Florida State has racked up 88 sacks in the past two seasons.

The effusive Fisher and his highly paid group of assistants are 19-8 in two years since taking over for Bobby Bowden, who put the school on the collegiate football map with a pair of national championships in the 1990s. Fisher and his assistants are the seventh-highest paid coaching staff in the country while taking the Seminoles to successive Top 25 finishes.

“We didn’t achieve the wins of which I think we were capable of,” Fisher said Friday. “We learned a lot about our guys and handling adversity.”

Fisher earned a pair of extensions that has him making $2.7 million annually through the 2016 season.

University President Eric Barron said after he’s proud of the way Fisher has conducted the program and speculated that maybe the team was ranked a bit too high at the beginning of the 2011 season.

Hopkins, a stellar student who paints his shoes gold a day or two before each game, already has booted 63 field goals and has 326 points. He’s likely to surpass the ACC and Florida State scoring records _ an identical 393 points _ barring injury. Return specialist Greg Reid is also likely to surpass the ACC career mark. He is only 180 yards shy of the league punt return mark of 1,296 yards held by former Virginia Tech star Eddie Royal.

The major personnel departures include punter Shawn Powell, wide receiver Bert Reed and linebacker Nigel Bradham, who led the Seminoles in tackles three straight seasons.

It would seem Florida State would have little trouble achieving its 36th straight winning season and earning a 31st consecutive bowl bid. Fisher isn’t anticipating another non-BCS bowl.

Next year’s schedule includes nonconference visits from Florida and Orange Bowl champion West Virginia in addition to league stopovers by Clemson, Boston College, Wake Forest and Duke with road trips at South Florida, Miami, Virginia Tech, Maryland and North Carolina State.

The Seminoles open their season Sept. 1 against Murray State (Ky).

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