Most every Seminole fan’s calendar has a bold red circle around September 2, 2017. And another surrounding September 16. After all, it’s not every year that the ’Noles open with Alabama and commence ACC play with a tilt against arch-rival Miami.
It is every year, however, that Florida State, along with all the other premier college football program in the country, pencils in a couple of lesser opponents, and for good reason. You typically only get one bye week per season, and scheduling some lower-level competition is good for working out the kinks, resting players, and exposing some younger athletes to a little live action against actual opponents and not just on the practice field. And it’s a good thing for the underdogs, too, as those smaller teams, while usually leaving with a loss, also depart with experience against elite talent in unforgettable settings and hefty checks that help sustain their respective programs.
So no, you probably don’t have Saturday, September 9 marked on your calendars. But perhaps you should, because FSU’s home-opener against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks could be Jimbo Fisher’s most important contest against an inferior opponent while at FSU, the 2013 “contest” against Florida notwithstanding.
After all, while the Seminoles, even starting true freshman quarterback James Blackman in place of the injured Deondre Francois should still cruise past the Warhawks, there’s plenty that the ’Noles will need to work on against ULM.
Florida State players love to talk about the first time that they ran out of the tunnel at Doak Campbell Stadium, their hearts pounding to the beat of the war chant, and 80,000 fans doing the tomahawk chop in unison. Blackman will do it for the first time not as a redshirt or as a reserve, but as the Seminoles’ starting QB. Imagine experiencing that moment for the first time. Now try to fathom that you have to be the most important player on your team just moments later.
James Blackman will have to use all of his talents, block out the noise, and do just that. And this is a kid who has less than a week to adjust to being the starting quarterback for FSU— while he’s still figuring out how to be a college student. Remember, Blackman was not an early enrollee, so he’s learning how to navigate the intricacies of Jimbo Fisher’s offense while also learning how to get around campus. He’s contemplating driving down the field against opponents in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans and millions watching on television. Meanwhile, he’s only been able to drive a car for a couple of years.
And when he takes the steering wheel of the Florida State offense, he’ll be in charge. He’ll be the man. That means adjusting from a freshman reserve to the Seminole field-marshall, commanding players who’ve spent more years on campus than he has months. And he has just days to embrace that role and find his voice, his own leadership style. He can’t be Deondre Francois— nor should he try. Players can smell the stench of an imposter a mile away. Like Gainesville in August.
But the Louisiana-Monroe game is about more than just Blackman. It’s also about getting his teammates on the same page as their new quarterback, a challenge in and of itself, because, at this early stage of the season, numerous position battles weren’t even decided with Francois at the helm. How does this switch affect the running back and receiver rotations?
The insertion of Blackman presents a curveball— not only must Fisher decide who’s best at which offensive positions, he has to deliberate as to which players mesh best with the frosh QB. Remember, Blackman has taken most of his reps with backups; he no doubt has better chemistry with certain players. Does Fisher alter his lineup card to reflect that? Saturday could tell.
Fisher himself is another key piece in how these puzzle pieces fit together— or don’t. First, there’s the game plan, the Xs and Os. How much of his complex playbook will he either ditch or simplify to accommodate Blackman? Moreover, how much will he have his new QB rep against the Warhawks, to make sure his young signal-caller can handle it in game action? And how much will he hold back, kept squirreled away and off the scouting film of Miami?
More broadly speaking, how will Fisher handle his young quarterback, who’s yet to complete a collegiate pass? We’ve seen Fisher burn timeouts and grow irate with much more accomplished, seasoned QBs, those who’ve enjoyed Heisman buzz. Will he dial it back with Blackman? Can he walk that fine line between demanding and delusional, unrelenting and unrealistic? After all, he only gets three timeouts per half, and they’ll probably need to be spent making sure that the FSU special teams are headed in the right direction. And I mean that literally. After their putrid performance against ’Bama, they may just line up facing the wrong way.
Usually, the primary question facing a team like Florida State in advance of a game against a team the caliber of ULM would be “by how much?” For FSU on September 9, many more queries take precedent.