TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jimbo Fisher began his Monday press conference by saying, “Finally, the season is here.” He’s right about that. Fisher’s third-ranked Seminoles meet No. 1 Alabama Saturday at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, a game that Chick-fil-A’s promoters are calling the “G.O.A.T.” – the greatest opener of all time. That’s a lofty claim, but it’s hard to argue: Saturday’s game marks the highest-ranking clash in a season opener since the Associated Press began its preseason poll in 1950. The Nos. 1 and 4 teams have three times met to begin the season, but never No. 1 and No. 3.
With that as his backdrop, Fisher met with the media for about a half hour to preview the game and put the final wraps on FSU’s fall camp. Here are highlights from that conversation:
Jimbo Fisher is famous for his commitment to eliminating “clutter,” but he also lives in reality. There’s no escaping the buzz surrounding this game, which features the two winningest teams of the last seven years, two of the sport’s highest-profile head coaches and a pair of college football’s most passionate fan bases.
There’s no way to avoid it, so Fisher on Monday chose to embrace it.
“If you’re here at Florida State playing in these games, you’re going to be in hyped games,” he said. “Every year, we play Clemson, Miami, Florida, Louisville – whoever we play, what conference, what big bowl, play Michigan, (play) in the National Championship game, that’s part of being at Florida State.”
But this is different than a bowl or a national championship game, which typically has only a couple weeks to gain steam before kickoff. FSU-Alabama has been scheduled for more than two years, and the attention immediately turned to the game right around the time the clock hit zero on last year’s College Football Playoff title game.
That was nearly nine months ago.
“There is probably more hype because we’ve had longer to talk about it as a season opener. That has a lot to do with it in my opinion,” Fisher said. “But it’s the first time two top-three teams have played to open up a season. So I understand where that comes from. But for us, we’ve just got to play a game. We have to play the football game, not everything else, and that’s going to be the key.”
Fisher said that he expects Matthew Thomas, the fifth-year senior linebacker, to return to practice Monday after a three-week absence.
“He should be practicing today,” Fisher said.
Thomas may be the most important FSU defender not named “Derwin James.” He led the Seminoles with 77 tackles a year ago, started 12 of 13 games and entered the offseason on a high note after an all-star performance in the Orange Bowl.
Fisher downplayed any concerns that Thomas might be rusty after missing practice, and said that he’ll have no trouble getting up to speed quickly.
“No, he’s played (before),” Fisher said. “He’ll be in condition.”
Thomas’ return further bolsters a linebacker corps that features two more seniors – Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh – and a trio of promising sophomores. Although one of those sophomores, Dontavious Jackson, will likely miss a few weeks due to an injury.
As expected, Jacques Patrick sits atop the projected running back depth chart that was released to the media Monday. After that, well, things get a little murky.
The depth chart lists freshman Cam Akers or senior Ryan Green or sophomore Amir Rasul as the No. 2 running back. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to throw freshman Khalan Laborn in that group as well.
The point is that FSU might not have a clear-cut second-team running back. The Seminoles are loaded with options in the backfield, and Fisher said that he expects all of them to play sooner rather than later.
“They’ve got to get touches, they’ve got to get in the game, and you’ve got to get them broken in and put in there,” Fisher said. “The big thing is they’re ready to get in there. They’ve proven it every day in practice. I’ve been with (fullback Johnathan) Vickers and Jacques, they’ve been doing a great job. But Amir and Cam, they’ve all done a tremendous job behind him. Feel very confident. They’ve all made plays in scrimmages and practices in a lot of different ways. They’ll play.”
The Seminoles on Saturday will face one of the top defensive lines in the country. Good thing, then, that Rick Trickett’s group has spent the last month tangling with one of the few defensive lines that can rival the Crimson Tide’s.
After hours of watching his front five contend with the likes of potential All-Americans Derrick Nnadi, Demarcus Christmas, Brian Burns and Josh Sweat, Fisher said he feels good about the progress his linemen have made.
“I do. I think our lines had a really good camp,” he said. “We ran the football, we pass-blocked and did the things we had assignment-wise, and worked hard on blitz pickups and different things – the running game, the pass game, all the different scenarios.”
Fisher noted that the line has four returning starters from last year (Alec Eberle, Landon Dickerson, Cole Minshew and Rick Leonard), as well as a fifth member, left tackle Derrick Kelly, who has starting experience from the 2015 season.
The lynchpin, though, is Eberle, the redshirt junior who is finally healthy after playing with a painful hip ailment for much of last season.
“I think Eberle, being not only healthy, but more experienced inside, (is important),” Fisher said. “You talk about the quarterback being more experienced in decision-making. Well, your center getting you on the same page, making calls up front, knowing which way the line is going to go, how it’s going to block things, that’s huge. …
“So I feel good about where they’re right at right now. We have to play well and play (against) great players on the other side. It’s going to be a physical, hard-fought game, but how they’re playing right now, I’ve been very pleased.”
In addition to being former colleagues, Fisher and Alabama coach Nick Saban have maintained a lengthy friendship over the years. The two often talk and share insights and stories, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the communication has been kept to a minimum this summer.
That doesn’t mean the two are any less friendly, just that pleasantries can be put on hold while the game is at hand.
“When it’s time to keep score, we’ll keep score,” Fisher said. “Until then, we’ll be nice.”
Fisher is 1-0 in head-to-head matchups against his former boss, having helped guide the Seminoles to a 21-14 win over Alabama in 2007. It was Fisher’s first year as FSU’s offensive coordinator and Saban’s first year as the head coach in Tuscaloosa.