Jameis Winston, the No. 1 high school QB recruit in 2011, won the starting job for tonight’s 2013 season opener for the Seminoles, who travel to take on ACC newcomer Pitt at Heinz Field. (File photo)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — On Sept. 5, 1992, Florida State played its first Atlantic Coast Conference game, announcing itself with a nod, a polite wave and a 48-21 thumping of Duke.
Almost 21 years later to the day, No. 11 Florida State will welcome the ACC’s newest member, Pittsburgh, into the fold during a primetime Labor Day night game on ESPN at historic Heinz Field.
And looking down the Panthers’ 2013 schedule, this showdown may very well be their biggest game of the year in Week 1.
“Season openers don’t get any bigger than facing the defending ACC champion, Florida State, on national television,” Panthers second-year coach Paul Chryst said.
It’s a matchup of teams that ended last season on very different notes.
In Jimbo Fisher’s third year as head coach, the Seminoles claimed their 13th ACC title in the last two decades, finished 12-2 — the most wins since the program won its last national championship in 1999 — and were crowned the BCS Orange Bowl champions with a 31-10 thumping of overmatched Northern Illinois.
The Panthers, meanwhile, lumbered to a 6-6 regular-season record — including 3-4 in the Big East Conference — and slipped into the BBVA Compass Bowl, where they were throttled by Ole Miss, 38-17, to secure a 6-7 season in Chryst’s first season.
That probably explains why, even with Florida State starting first-year quarterback Jameis Winston on Monday night, the Seminoles enter the game as 10 1/2-point favorites, and on the road, at that.
Still, history is on the Panthers’ side: Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, which began in 1971, at 5-3, including winning the last meeting in 1983 in Pittsburgh, 17-16.
An ecstatic Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson sounded like he was ready to play the latest installment in the exciting series the day after it was announced.
“To start and end our inaugural ACC season at Heinz Field with two of the most storied brands in college football is spectacular,” he said, referring to the opener against two-time national champ Florida State and the season finale Nov. 29 against five-time national champ Miami.
The Seminoles are happy to be the welcoming mat for Pitt.
“We are excited to open up the season with a great opponent like Pitt and getting to play a new opponent at their venue to welcome them to the ACC,” Fisher said. “We are looking forward to that.”
Seminole fans have been looking forward all summer to the announcement of their new starting quarterback after senior EJ Manuel was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills in April.
The winner of the job, as expected, was redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, who beat out sophomore Jacob Coker for the job.
Winston, a two-sport star at Florida State who also plays baseball, came to the Seminoles as the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation in 2011 out of Hueytown, Ala.
And when Fisher finally made it official Friday — only 10 days before the Seminoles’ season opener — the biggest, best-kept secret in North Florida all summer was finally out.
“It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to go through,” Fisher said. “We truly have two very good quarterbacks and guys I feel very comfortable with either one of them in the game starting.
“It’s going to take both guys for us to have the season we (want to) have. Like I said, it was a tough decision.”
The Seminoles are just glad the battle is over and they know who will be leading them Monday against Pitt. Winston, however, was not permitted to share his thoughts; freshmen are off-limits to the media all season.
“Me, personally, I was just happy for him,” Florida State junior offensive lineman Cameron Erving said of Winston getting the starting nod. “The guy has worked his butt off.
“He’s a natural leader; I noticed this the first day he got here, because I was his mentor when he got to college. He takes command of the huddle. Of course, he’s young and there’s going to be those ups and downs. But we’ve got his back.”
Like Florida State, Pitt also lost its dynamic starting quarterback, Tino Sunseri, and will look to new starter Tom Savage to lead an offense.
Actually, to say Savage is new is slightly misleading. The former Rutgers star who transferred twice, first to Arizona in 2011 and then to Pitt in 2012, sitting out a year at both stops, and has been around the block, but he hasn’t played a down of college football since 2010.
Savage won the starting job as a freshman for the Scarlet Knights in 2009 and passed for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he lost the starting job a year later and bolted Piscataway.
Savage has looked impressive in preseason camp, according to Pitt’s coaches, and little time was wasted naming him the starter. And while the Panthers are ready to see what their new signal caller can do, no one is more ready than Savage.
“I’m excited,” Savage said. “It’s going to be fun. I’ve waited more than two years to strap up the pads and play.”
Greeting Savage will be a Seminoles defense that was ranked No. 2 overall in the nation a year ago.
Although it lost seven starters, the Seminoles return defensive Timmy Jernigan, linebacker Christian Jones and Lamarcus Joyner, who is moving from cornerback to safety. All were preseason All-ACC selections.
Florida State will counter on offense with weapons such as James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman at running back, and wideouts Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene, a junior who has led the Seminoles in receiving since his true freshman season.
The Seminoles probably will face a ticked-off Pitt defense Monday that, while it finished ranked 17th in the nation last year and has nine returning starters (led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald), was torched for 29 or more points five times last season.
Of course, the Panthers are known for putting up a few points themselves — they scored 27 or more six times last year — and they have a major weapon in wide receiver Devin Street, who finished second in catches per game (5.6) in the Big East and amassed 975 yards last season.
How any of that past success translates over to a new conference with a higher quality of opponents remains to be seen for Pitt. And if the Panthers want to get the ACC’s attention right off the bat, they know what they have to do, beginning with traditional powerhouse Florida State.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
• Former Westover star and current FSU junior WR Rashad Greene is that recruit not many wanted out of high school but every program now wishes it had. The junior wideout and Biletnikoff Award nominee didn’t just start as a true freshman, he led the Seminoles with 38 catches for 596 yards and seven touchdowns, the first coming on his first catch in a Seminole. He was also named the Champs Sports Bowl MVP in 2011 after almost single-handedly leading Florida State from a halftime deficit to beat Notre Dame. As a sophomore, he again led the Seminoles with 58 catches for 741 yards and six touchdowns and added two scores on punt returns. Greene sustained a finger injury that kept him out of much of the last two weeks of practice, but he is expected to be in the starting lineup vs. Pitt.
• DB Tyler Hunter has been under the radar, but with the departure of All-ACC cornerback Xavier Rhodes to the NFL, the chance to make that game-changing interception or sack on third down on a corner blitz is now Hunter’s after getting only three starts last year. Despite his limited role in 2012, the junior tied Rhodes for the team lead with three interceptions.
• Freshman LB Matthew Thomas’ journey to Florida State was a strange one, but now that he’s in Tallahassee, the expectations are as sky-high as the days of former Seminole Derrick Brooks, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thomas, the former Booker T. Washington High School star out of Miami who was the Seminoles’ only five-star recruit in their 2013 class, tried to back out of his commitment a few months after making it, saying he was pressured by his family to stay in the state and close to home. Fisher, however, refused to release Thomas, who appeared to be leaning toward USC instead, and the stand-off began. Thomas eventually relented, apologized to the Florida State fan base and Fisher.
SERIES HISTORY: Florida State is 3-5 all-time against Pitt, including a 17-16 loss in the last meeting in 1983. Pitt has won three straight in the series dating to 1980 and five of the last six meetings since 1974.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I thought it was a tremendous gesture by Coach Chryst and the University of Pittsburgh for suggesting that we wear the decal. (My wife) Candi and I and our foundation can’t be any more thankful as this will continue to bring awareness for the fight against Fanconi anemia that affects many. I can’t thank the University of Pittsburgh enough for such a great idea.” — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, thanking Pitt coach Paul Chryst and the University of Pittsburgh for offering to join forces to fight a rare blood disease close to Fisher’s heart by wearing a special “I Fight Fanconi” Kidz1stFund decal on the back of their helmets during their primetime broadcast. Fisher’s son Ethan suffers from Fanconi anemia.
• Senior WR Willie Haulstead, a one-time rising star who was second on the team as a sophomore with 587 yards and a team-high six touchdowns, was ruled academically ineligible one day after preseason practice opened. The dismissal closed the book on a frustrating last two years for Haulstead, who had to redshirt his junior year after sustaining a concussion in preseason practice. Last year he was never the same player, catching three passes for 31 yards.
• TE ends are dropping like flies in Tallahassee, and outside of junior returning starter Nick O’Leary, the position is thin and has led to a defensive lineman being converted to offense. Giorgio Newberry was asked to switch positions this offseason after TE recruit Kevin Haplea tore his ACL and TE Christo Kourtzidis transferred.
• WR Greg Dent and RB James Wilder Jr. both had offseason legal troubles. Dent’s matter has yet to be settled, and he is suspended indefinitely until it’s resolved, while Wilder seems to have put his troubles behind him and opened camp on time with the team. Dent is facing one count of felony sexual battery after the victim, a longtime friend of Dent’s, alleges he sexually assaulted her at his home.
• Junior DE Dan Hicks, a fifth-year senior, has made a full recovery from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season.