December 28, 2008
Florida State 42, Wisconsin 13/California 24, Miami 17. Because I came of age in the era of total dominance by Florida State and Miami, there's always a part of me that consistently struggles to believe the overwhelming evidence that the 'Noles and 'Canes are just teams, and that their collective string of four and five-loss seasons puts them in exactly the same place as any other program enduring a stretch of mediocrity. Another generation might have the same experience with, say, Notre Dame. Realistically, I'm able to put the teams into their proper competitive context, but when I see those uniforms on television and the players look the same in them as the nightmarish champions burned into my impressionable young brain, on some level I'm still thinking, Big and fast. They are big and strong and fast. It's Pavlovian or something. Hence, I find I'm very susceptible to any suggestion on the field that either one might be "back," finally, and I've had to start consciously guarding against this tendency.
If I wasn't careful, today could have been a catalyst for some runaway optimism about the direction of Florida State, in particular. Every time I looked up at the Champs Sports Bowl, Mickey Andrews' defense was batting around Wisconsin like a predator toying with its prey, occasionally pouncing for the kill in the form of two defensive touchdowns and a lockdown on the end zone until the game was well out of hand. But it wasn't exactly like that. Wisconsin ran for 200 yards, with P.J. Hill averaging nine yards per carry thanks to a pair of long runs that a more explosive back in the open field might have taken to the house, and was uniquely ill-suited for pass-happy comeback mode when the gap began to widen. The 'Noles scored on a couple freak plays -- fumble returns for touchdowns fall into this category by definition, especially the first one against the Badgers, after UW had driven 75 yards inside the FSU 25 -- on a pair drives that began in Wisconsin territory and following a phantom roughing the punter call.
It was a big win, certainly, but was there anything different about it? According to the score, maybe, but considering the circumstances and how poorly Wisconsin played over the last two-thirds of the regular season, not really. FSU backed a mediocre team into a corner and got a few breaks to make it look really ugly -- a good effort to finish 9-4, but not exactly "turning the corner" material in itself.
Because 9-4 seems like a long way from 8-5, though, it is the kind of performance that will likely get FSU labeled as an ACC contender next summer, in the same way that Miami's failure to slow down the brilliant Jahvid Best in the Emerald Bowl will relegate the 'Canes (again) to "not quite there yet" status (at least auntil the Canes learn to manage a basic two-minute drill without running around with their head cut off while a timeout sits on the board, lonely and forgotten). This is probably right, despite the promise of Miami's extremely young talent base, because UM hasn't proven itself against competent teams as anything but a promising yet totally inconsistent 7-6 also-ran. Florida State began the day a little ahead of that, and looked far ahead of it in Orlando. But however tempting it might be, until FSU demonstrates that old killer instinct with some kind of consistency, board that bandwagon at your own risk.