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Can Fisher, Seminoles finally live up to preseason hype?

Florida State receivers Rashad Greene (80) of Albany, Kenny Shaw (81) and Kelvin Benjamin (1) have fun during a photo shoot during the Seminoles' football media day recently. FSU opens the season at home Saturday against Murray State.

Florida State receivers Rashad Greene (80) of Albany, Kenny Shaw (81) and Kelvin Benjamin (1) have fun during a photo shoot during the Seminoles' football media day recently. FSU opens the season at home Saturday against Murray State.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL KICKOFF

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s look at FLORIDA STATE continues a series of college football previews counting down to the 2012 season starting this week. On Thursday, we’ll take a closer look at AUBURN.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State is heavily favored to win its first Atlantic Coast Conference title in seven years and perhaps challenge for a national championship.

Still, coach Jimbo Fisher said though there is a sense of urgency, there is no more pressure than usual on the Seminoles.

“I don’t think it’s this year or bust at all,” said Fisher, now in his third year as head coach. “(But) we do have much more depth than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here.”

Still, the Seminoles have plenty to prove to a fan base that expected more than a 9-4 showing a year ago and no longer fills Florida State’s 83,000-seat stadium on a regular basis.

The Seminoles were expected to get back among the nation’s elite in 2011, but an early three-game losing streak took care of their preseason hopes of winning the ACC and a BCS bowl berth.

This season begins with the same optimism.

Florida State should have little trouble posting its 36th straight winning season and receiving a 31st consecutive bowl bid, but Fisher expects much more. He believes another year of experience will help his team avoid last year’s pitfalls and get back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2005.

Fisher points to his team’s wealth of talent that includes one of the best returning defenses in the country — the Seminoles gave up only about 15 points per game last season — an experienced fifth-year senior quarterback EJ Manuel and one of the nation’s top placekickers in Dustin Hopkins.

“We’ll be a very good football team,” Fisher said. “Everybody’s got to be ready when their number is called.”

LOOKING AHEAD:

WHO: Murray State at Florida State

WHAT: 2012 season opener for both.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Tallahassee, Fla.

TV: SUN.

Albany native Rashad Greene — the Seminoles’ top receiver — is one of them.

As a true freshman a year ago, he put together one of the most impressive first seasons in Florida State history — and he even missed four games due to an Achilles injury. But Greene, who also missed some preseason practice — with the flu most recently and because he underwent an appendectomy last month — is back and hoping to stay healthy.

At 6-feet and 175 pounds, Greene led FSU with 38 catches for 596 yards and seven TDs last season, with a team-high average of 66.2 yards per game. He not only scored a touchdown the first time he was thrown a pass last season, but he capped off his amazing freshman year by also being named the MVP of FSU’s Champs Sports Bowl victory. With Florida State trailing, 14-7, at the half against Notre Dame, Greene almost single-handedly brought the Seminoles back from a halftime deficit to lead them to the win.

Greene finished with five catches for 96 yards and one TD — all in the second half.

And this year, he’ll also be returning punts following the dismissal of top retrurn man Greg Reid this offseason.

Greene, who — while filling in for Reid — returned a kick for a TD last year that was called back, said he’s more than ready for the challenge of pulling double duty.

“I’ve always done it, even in high school (at Westover and St. Thomas Aquinas), so I’m familiar with it,” Greene told The Miami Herald recently. “I just feel comfortable being back there, catching those punts and reading the (blocks).”

A favorable schedule — the Seminoles only leave the state three times — is good for FSU. A seven-game home schedule includes a pair of lower-division schools to begin the campaign, followed by two more home games before a trip to Tampa, where Florida State hopes to avenge a 2009 loss to South Florida.

The only trips outside Florida boundaries are at North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Maryland.

The 46-year-old Fisher has banned his players from using social media accounts during the season in hopes of keeping them more focused.

Florida State finished 9-4 in 2011 after posting a 10-4 mark in Fisher’s first year as head coach following three seasons as offensive coordinator and Bobby Bowden’s predecessor.

The much heralded defense salvaged the 2011 season by smothering Florida and Notre Dame in the final two games That unit returns virtually intact led by defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins and safety Lamarcus Joyner.

The Seminoles have recorded 88 quarterback sacks the past two seasons, including 21.5 by Jenkins. Florida State gave up an average of only 15 points a game last year, despite surrendering 35 to Clemson and Wake Forest on successive weekends.

The Seminoles will have to replace punter Shawn Powell, who graduated, and Reid.

But Florida State does have Hopkins, the placekicker known for his gold-colored shoes, returning for this final season. He is within reach of both the school and ACC scoring records of 393 points. He has four field goals of more than 50 yards, including a 55-yard kick that beat Clemson, 16-13, in 2010.

It’s been a dozen years since Florida State’s last run at a national title — an exasperating period for fans accustomed to the Seminoles being contenders.

Those successful teams were always strong at quarterback, especially in the national title years of 1993 and 1999 when Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke were at the helm. Fisher said senior QB returner EJ Manuel, his first marquee recruit, has similar abilities.

“He can lead you to a championship,” Fisher said about his 6-foot-5, 238-pound quarterback.

He’s also much bigger than the elusive Ward and far more mobile than Weinke.

“They understood what to do in order to win games whether they were having a great game or having a bad game,” Manuel said of Ward and Weinke. “They still understood what it took, how to put their teams in situations to win the game.”

Manuel, sporting a new beard, said he dropped about 10 pounds in the offseason and believes he’s in the best shape of his life headed into Saturday’s home and season opener against Murray (Ky.) State. He’s 13-4 as a starter in a career and has thrown for 4,344 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Manuel and the offense could get a boost from the return of receivers other than Greene, including Willie Haulstead, who is returning from a serious injury a year ago.

Haulstead, who sat out all of last season with concussion symptoms, caught 38 passes for 587 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010. He’s 6-3 and provides another big target for Manuel, who already has 6-6 senior Rodney Smith and 6-6 redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin available, along with a handful of smaller veteran receivers. Fisher also lauded the preseason play of junior Greg Dent, who is also returning from injury.

“Greg Dent’s had the best fall of all the wideouts. By far,” Fisher told The Tallahassee Democrat recently.

Chris Thompson, who ran for 845 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010 when he had three touchdown runs of more than 70 yards, suffered a season-ending back injury in the fifth game last year, but he is back in the mix at tailback with sophomore Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr., for carries.

But the offensive line hasn’t been able to provide enough protection or open holes; its been the Seminoles’ Achilles heel the past two years.

Fisher said that problem is solved now with a sophomore-dominated front that didn’t see much action until the bowl game win vs. Notre Dame.

“Guys have played, and even guys who haven’t played are very talented,” Fisher said. “Our weakness last year may now be our strength because we had to play so many guys.”

Manuel, who missed one full game and a half of another after being knocked out of the Oklahoma game in the third quarter, took a pounding last year behind a line that gave up 41 sacks.

But Fisher is counting on the group to do a better job protecting Manuel and helping ignite a dormant running game.

“I think we’ll have a very good offensive line,” Fisher insisted. “When you’re good on the offensive line, you can have a very good football team.”