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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW: FSU enters 2011 in unfamiliar position --- as heavy favorites

FSU starting quarterback EJ Manuel takes over the offense full-time this season, and is expected to lead the program back to greatness.

FSU starting quarterback EJ Manuel takes over the offense full-time this season, and is expected to lead the program back to greatness.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to 10 wins in his first year as head coach at the school and expects to be even better in year two.

He's not alone.

The Seminoles, who finished 10-4 last season, were an overwhelming favorite of the media covering the Atlantic Coast Conference to win their first league championship since 2005 and run their streak of winning seasons to 35.

They'll have to do it with a new starter at quarterback, but junior EJ Manuel is hardly untested. He has a 4-2 record when he started games the past two years when Christian Ponder was sidelined with injuries.

Manuel, some believe, could be just as good or better than Ponder, who was the 12th player selected in April's NFL Draft.

"Quarterbacks are the key guy," Fisher said. "I have an extreme amount of confidence in him and belief in him."

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Manuel has accounted for more than 2,000 yards offense and 11 touchdowns in his career and led the Seminoles to bowl victories against West Virginia and South Carolina.

"I think EJ is a little more athletic than Ponder was," fullback Lonnie Pryor said. "When it comes to throwing the ball and reading everything, I'm pretty sure they're on the same level."

Manuel and his teammates get what could well be their biggest test of the year just three weeks into the season when Oklahoma comes calling with quarterback Landry Jones, who passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Sooners to an easy 47-17 win against FSU last year.

Fisher emphasizes that his team will be prepared this time for the Sooners.

"We'll put our heart and soul in it," Fisher said, adding "the only test I was ever nervous about in grade school or high school was the one I didn't study for."

Their Sept. 17 rematch has become the most anticipated game for the Seminoles since Bob Stoops' upstarts Sooners upset Florida State, 13-2, in Miami to capture the national championship in what turned out to be former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's last crack at winning a third national title.

"Even if you win that game, you've got to go on the road the next week and play a very tough Clemson team," Fisher said. "I think the Oklahoma game will take care of itself."

With the likely exception of the Oklahoma game, Florida State will probably be favored in the rest of its games this season.

Florida State starts with a pair of warmup home games: Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe and Sept. 10 versus lower-division Charleston-Southern. The Seminoles also host Maryland, North Carolina State, Miami and Virginia and travel to Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College and Florida.

Fisher is convinced the Seminoles' talent is as good as anyone's, but only the season will determine if they're mature enough to challenge for the BCS title.

"Expectations and preseason rankings don't win you trophies," Fisher cautioned.

The biggest question marks overall come with the offensive line, where Florida State must replace one of the most decorated offensive lineman in ACC history, All American Rodney Hudson, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and center Ryan McMahon, a four-year starter. Fisher must also replace Taiwan Easterling, his most reliable possession receiver who left school early to sign a Major League Baseball contract.

Fisher is counting on juniors Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith and senior Bert Reed to lead the way for a host of eager underclassmen fighting for playing time on the receiving corps while veteran tailbacks Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas combined to rush for 1,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, but wasn't named the preseason starter.

Defensive end Brandon Jenkins, linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid lead defensive coordinator Mark Stoops' young defense that ranked third nationally with 48 sacks last season, led by Jenkins' 13.5 sacks.

The Seminoles also return one of the nation's best special teams that feature field goal specialist Dustin Hopkins, punter Shawn Powell and Reid, who led the nation in punt returns in 2009.

"I wouldn't trade those two, our punter and place-kicker for anybody in America," Fisher said. "It's like money in the bank."

Hopkins made all 53 extra point tries and 22 of 28 field goal attempts to lead the ACC in scoring with 119 points. His 41 career field goals and 216 points scored have him on pace to break the ACC and school records in both categories.

Fisher's big decision will be settling on a No. 2 quarterback. That is his biggest concern with untested newcomers in Jacob Coker and Clint Trickett, and returning sophomore Ethan Gilbert. None have seen the field much at all.

The Seminoles regained in-state bragging rights last year with impressive victories against Florida and Miami, outscoring them by a combined 72-24.

"This program is coming back," Hopkins said when asked about challenging for a national title. "We want to be in that conversation."