TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) â€” Jimbo Fisher has an edge as he kicks off a new era at Florida State: The Seminoles' new head coach helped recruit most of his players the last four years.
It won't take him long to find out how good a job he's done.
After a warmup against lower-division Samford (Ala.), the Seminoles travel to Oklahoma and then host Brigham Young before beginning their 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
Fisher is replacing the iconic Bobby Bowden, who departed after chalking up 377 career wins. That's second most in major college history behind Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Rather than give Bowden a chance to get back on top one last time, former Florida State president T.K. Wetherell replaced him in January to give Fisher a shot at a fast start with a team both coaches believe could hit the jackpot in 2010.
"We're recruiting good players and getting guys to do the right thing," Fisher said. "The thing we've got to understand is how to win, how little things add up to big things and you don't put yourself behind the eight ball all the time."
That's exactly where Florida State was for much of last season. Only a come-from-behind Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia in Bowden's finale avoided his second losing season in 34 years at Florida State.
The Seminoles, instead, finished 7-6 for the third time in four seasons. They also went 0-for-Florida, losing to traditional intrastate rivals Miami and Florida and newcomer South Florida.
Bowden and Fisher, who spent three years as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting, partnered to build for the 2010 season. Florida State's offense and kicking games are geared to be prolific. The defense, if improved over last year's dismal showing, is the key to a run at the ACC title and a BCS bowl game.
"I think we can rectify a lot of those things," Fisher said.
The offensive line, perhaps Florida State's best ever, returns intact, led by guard Rodney Hudson and center Ryan McMahon, both seniors. Juniors Andrew Datko and David Spurlock also return as starters.
Christian Ponder, who was playing as good as any quarterback in the country when he went down with a shoulder injury last November, is back for his senior year. Florida State is promoting him as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Fisher also will try to find playing time for redshirt sophomore EJ Manuel. He accounted for four touchdowns and 1,013 yards offense while leading the Seminoles to a 3-1 record as Ponder's replacement.
While the 6-2, 220-pound Ponder's career numbers are modest, NFL scouts are projecting him as a likely first-round pick.
Fisher said Ponder's character and academic achievements â€” besides an undergraduate degree he's already earned a master's in business administration â€” make a statement.
"He does not want to be average in anything he does, and he's willing to put the sweat in to get the glory," Fisher said. "He really doesn't look at it as glory. I think he just looks at it as who he is. That's his DNA."
Ponder, though, has lost one of his favorite targets. Fisher on Sunday announced he had dismissed junior Jarmon Fortson from the team for an undisclosed policy violation but he's confident the receiving corps is deep enough to withstand the loss.
Junior Bert Reed, returns after catching 60 passes for 710 yards last season. Rodney Smith, a 6-6, 220-pound sophomore, likely will slip into Fortson's starting position, Fisher said. Fortson's departure also will mean more opportunities for junior Taiwan Easterling, sophomore Willie Haulstead and freshmen Kenny Shaw and Christian Green.
Florida State looks just as solid at running back. After a spirited competition, 5-8, 186-pound Chris Thompson, a sophomore, has gone to the top of the depth chart at tailback. He beat out 5-11, 190-pound junior Jermain Thomas who started last year, gaining 832 yards at the rate of 5.1 yards per carry. Thompson was just as prolific in a backup role at 5.2 yards per carry but got the ball only 23 times.
Besides the speedy Thompson and Thomas, the Seminoles have bulk when they need it in 6-0, 209 pound sophomore Lonnie Pryor and 6-0, 235 pound junior college transfer Debrale Smiley.
Albeit personable and upbeat, the 44-year-old Fisher's coaching style differs from the effervescent Bowden's. His approach is process driven and more resembles another of his old bosses, Alabama's Nick Saban. Fisher, who was Saban's offensive coordinator at Louisiana State, calls it "the modernization of the way things are being done."
While Bowden built Florida State with unusual candor and openness, Fisher seeks perfection in secretive and selective ways and has a more hands-on approach.
A pair of sophomores, cornerback Greg Reid and place-kicker Dustin Hopkins, anchor the special teams. Reid led the nation in punt returns a year ago.
Hopkins' booming kickoffs and long-range field goals invoked memories of Scott Bentley and Sebastian Janikowski, whose accurate and powerful legs helped propel the Seminoles to national titles in 1993 and 1999.
Although only 5-8 and 170 pounds, Reid is being looked to as a playmaker in a defense woefully short of them in recent seasons.
Florida State (7-6, 4-4 ACC) opens its league season Sept. 26 with a visit from Wake Forest. The Seminoles sandwich road trips to Virgina, Miami and North Carolina State around a mid-October visit from Boston College before a brutal November. It features home games against North Carolina, Clemson and a trip to Maryland before hosting the traditional non-conference rivalry game with Florida.
"Your ultimate goal and the first objective, if you want to get back to the BCS, you've got to win your conference," Fisher said.
Not an easy task under any circumstances, but Fisher's trying it in the glare of Bowden's legacy even though a decade has passed since his last national title.
"The 90's are over," Fisher said. "Worry about doing things right and the direction you're going. If that happens, winning will come."
Associated Press Writer Bill Kaczor contributed to this report.