CFT preseason No. 2: Florida State

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2010 record: 10-4, 6-2 (1st ACC Atlantic)

2010 bowl: 26-17 win over South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl

2010 final AP/coaches’ ranking: 17th/16th

Coach: Jimbo Fisher, second year; 10-4 overall, 6-2 conference

Offensive coordinator: James Coley, second year

2010 offensive rankings: 33rd, scoring offense (31.4 ppg); 60th, total offense (381.3 ypg); 39th, rushing offense (171.4 ypg); 68th, passing offense (209.9 ypg)

Defensive coordinator: Mark Stoops, second year

2010 defensive rankings: 20th, scoring defense (19.6 ppg); 42nd, total defense (353.7 ypg); 29th, rushing defense (128.7 ypg); 71st, passing defense (225 ypg)

Returning offensive starters: 8

Returning defensive starters: 8

Location: Tallahassee, Fla.

Stadium: Doak S. Campbell Stadium (grass; 82,300)

Last league title: 2005

2011 schedule: [view]

2011 roster: [view]

2010 statistics: [view]

Snapshot: Surprise!!! The Seminoles didn’t even sniff the Top 10 in the two major polls at the end of last year. They lost their starting quarterback and two long-time starters along the offensive line. They will face a stiff non-conference test in the third week of the season against a team (Oklahoma) that will likely be ranked ahead of them to start the year.

Yet, here they sit at No. 2.

Of course, the question is, why? First and foremost, it should be acknowledged that the loss of Christian Ponder could potentially be a significant blow to FSU’s chances of getting back onto the national stage — were it not for the presence of EJ Manuel. The redshirt junior brings a different dynamic to the table than did Ponder, namely the ability to make yards with his legs if a play breaks down. And it’s not like he’s a totally raw unknown, either; he’s started six games the past two seasons in place of an injured Ponder, winning four of those contests. While there’s no guarantee a seemless transition from Ponder to Manuel will take place, the new starter has shown enough flashes during his limited appearances to give the ‘Noles confidence that the offense will be in more-than-capable hands. Also, it’s not as if the transition will be made with a bare offensive cupboard. FSU returns four of their top five receivers from a year ago — the lone exception being Tawain Easterling, who left the program earlier this offseason for a career in pro baseball — as well as their top three rushers from the running back position. The defense was above average during the 2010 season, and, with eight starters returning from that unit as well, nothing but improvement is expected from that group.

Add it all up, and taking into account the “softish” nature of the ACC as a whole, the talent is there for the Seminoles to make a return to prominence sooner rather than later. There will be one game, though, that will determine whether their return is of the ACC variety once again or, for the first time in a decade, a national one.

Make-or-break game: Sept. 17 vs. Oklahoma

If the Seminoles are to be the national contenders I, as well as a few others, expect them to be, this is a must-win game for them. And, making it all the more intriguing, it’s the same for the Sooners as well. The advantage for the ‘Noles, obviously, is that they will be playing the game at Doak Campbell Stadium. The advantage for the Sooners may be they will be coming off a bye week, although the Seminoles might as well be coming off a bye as well as they will face Div. 1-AA (FCS) Charleston Southern the week before this showdown. And then there’s the been-there, done-that angle; the Sooners overwhelmed the ‘Noles 47-17 in Norman last season. Regardless of what went down last season, the winner of this year’s game will likely set themselves up for a season-long run that could end with a January date in New Orleans.

Heisman hopeful: Manuel

This might be a significant stretch given it’s his first year as a full-time starter at this level, but if Manuel can play to the level his coaches think he can … if his team can win — especially in high-profile games — the way some think they can … if those two things come to fruition, and experience be damned, Manuel will be in the discussion throughout 2011. In 12 games in which he’s played and thrown a pass, Manuel has amassed nearly 1,700 yards and six touchdowns. One area of concern is turnovers; Manuel has thrown 10 interceptions in just 199 attempts.

Postseason projection: BcS championship game

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Division II, Division III and NAIA title games set while FCS heads into semifinals

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Outside of a thrilling Army-Navy game and the Heisman ceremony, it was an empty Saturday at the highest level of college football.

But no so at the lower levels.

The divisional playoffs are cranked into high gear. Let’s take a brief look at where everything stands in each division.

FCS

Top-seeded and defending champion James Madison needed a last-second field goal to survive visiting Weber State, 31-28, on Friday night, while No. 5 seed South Dakota State routed New Hampshire, 55-14.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seed and winner of five of the last six national titles North Dakota State walloped Wofford, 42-10 in Fargo. No. 6 seed Sam Houston State outlasted upstart Kennesaw State, 34-27, to send the Bearkats into their fifth semifinal game in the last seven years.

Semifinals: No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 1 James Madison — 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPNU; No. 6 Sam Houston State at No. 2 North Dakota State — 8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2.

Division II

No. 4 seed West Florida traveled north and upset top-seeded Indiana (Pa.), 27-17 on Saturday, to send the Argonauts into their first championship game. No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Commerce fended off the option attack of No. 3 Harding (Ark.), 31-17, putting the Lions in their first title game as well.

National championship: No. 2 Texas A&M-Commerce vs. No. 4 West Florida — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2 at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.

Division III

In a similar dynamic to FCS, the defending champion is on a collision course with the traditional champion. In the first semifinal, defending champion Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) blanked Brockport (N.Y.), 24-0. The Crusaders will make their third trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, looking to win their second title.

In the other semifinal, Mount Union (Ohio) overcame a 21-10 deficit to beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 43-40. The Purple Raiders will play in their 20th Stagg Bowl — all of them coming since 1993, and 19 of them since ’96 — with a shot at their 13th national championship. However, Mount Union has won just — “just” — two national championships since 2009.

National championship: Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) vs. Mount Union (Ohio) — 7 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN at Salem Stadium in Salem Va.

NAIA

The NAIA was off this weekend, taking a break in between last week’s semifinals and Saturday’s national championship. Defending champion Saint Francis (Ind.) out-gunned previously-undefeated Morningside (Iowa) 43-36 in the first semifinal, while Reinhardt (Ga.) held off undefeated Southern Oregon, 37-34 in double overtime.

National championship: Saint Francis (Ind.) vs. Reinhardt (Ga.) — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3 at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Minnesota lands commitment from 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle

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P.J. Fleck is going to need a bigger boat.

Minnesota has landed a commitment from the largest recruit on record, as 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele has committed to the Gophers. Faalele made the announcement on his Twitter page on Saturday night.

A 3-star recruit, Faalele is rated as the No. 29 offensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports. He listed 20 offers, including from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and LSU.

As the story goes, Faalele did not find football; football found him. He was discovered by a recruiter from Hawaii working out at a gym in his native Melbourne, Australia. He attended a Michigan satellite camp in Australia and played this season — his first season in pads — at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

In making the trip from the Land Down Under to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Faalele will be joined by a pair of IMG Academy teammates in offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap, Jr., and quarterback Zack Annexstad, who also committed to Minnesota on Saturday.

Those pledges now give Minnesota the 26th best recruiting class in the country and the sixth best in the Big Ten — but the No. 1 class in the Big Ten West — in the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Minnesota’s class may not be the best in the country, but it’s among the biggest — both in size (the Gophers have 25 pledges thus far) and stature.

Texas A&M suspends DT Zaycoven Henderson amid felony gun charges

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Texas A&M defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson was suspended amid multiple felony charges on Saturday.

As detailed by Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News, witnesses say Henderson pointed a rifle at one person outside College Station’s Campus Village Apartments and threatened to kill two others and allegedly threw the gun out of a fleeing car as police arrived on the scene. The car was later tracked down by College Station officers, who discovered marijuana in the car.

He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, tampering with evidence and marijuana possession. The first charge is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in a prison. The second is a third-degree felony and the third is a misdemeanor.

He was booked into the Brazos County (Texas) jail at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Texas A&M has suspended Henderson indefinitely, which really only lasts one game as the senior from Longview, Texas, was set to close his Aggies career in the Belk Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 29 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Henderson made 35 tackles with five TFLs and 2.5 sacks in 12 starts this season. He was honored as a member of Texas A&M’s senior class at the annual team banquet earlier this weekend.

UCLA reportedly hires Paul Rhoads as defensive backs coach

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Chip Kelly has reportedly hired one of the most respected men in the business to his staff. According to a report from Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman, Paul Rhoads is on his way to Westwood to coach UCLA’s defensive backs.

Rhoads spent the past two seasons at Arkansas, the first as defensive backs coach and the second as defensive coordinator in addition to his duties with the secondary. He’s best known, of course, for his 7-year run as the head coach at Iowa State, where he took the Cyclones to three bowl games and created this viral moment before any of us knew what “going viral” went.

In addition to Arkansas, Rhoads also owns defensive experience at Auburn, Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Pacific, Ohio State and Utah State.

UCLA finished last season ranked 74th in pass efficiency defense, yielding a 57.1 percent completion rate for 7.3 yards per attempt with seven interceptions against 18 touchdowns.