Point: Florida State is regarded almost unanimously as the favorite to win the ACC championship and finally reassert itself as a national contender this fall, as thoroughly documented earlier this week. Counterpoint: Um… actually, previous disappointments notwithstanding, the buzz over a Seminole resurgence is kind of a tough one to refute on its own merits.
For one thing, perennial talent advantages aside, there's a good case to be made that the resurgence is already well underway after the Seminoles' best season in ages under first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher. They trounced Miami in Miami, snapped a six-year losing streak against Florida with a 31-7 beatdown to close the regular season and convincingly handled SEC East champ South Carolina in the bowl game. The 'Noles' two conference losses in the regular season came by a combined six points, and they took the ACC's Atlantic Division crown outright for the first time since 2005. They finished in the top 20 of the final polls for the first time in the same span, and cracked ten wins for the first time since 2003.
A few weeks later, they signed arguably the best incoming recruiting class in the country to add to a lineup that already brings back 17 returning starters and an even more hyped than usual set of up-and-coming blue chips waiting in the wings. And the expectations for 2011 went through the roof.
Still, after a decade in the wilderness, there is one very large dragon waiting between Florida State and the promised land: Its ongoing futility against the national elite. Over the last five years, FSU is 6-15 against teams that ended the season ranked in the Associated Press' final top 25, and 1-5 against teams that finished in the top ten. (The one top-10 win coming in 2007 against Matt Ryan-led Boston College, which finished tenth.) In their two biggest games last year, against Oklahoma in early September and Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, the Seminoles came up a combined 41 points short.
The early loss in Norman, in particular, drove home the 'Noles' not-ready-for-primetime status with authority. It wasn't just a loss: After five extended Sooner touchdown drives in the first half alone, it was a drive-by incineration. Oklahoma took its foot off the gas in the final quarter, but still finished with a 142-yard advantage in total offense, a 2-to-1 edge in first downs, a 3-to-1 edge in turnover margin and a 31-point edge on the scoreboard, 47-17. The embarrassment knocked FSU out of the polls for three weeks and out of consideration as a national player for the rest of the year.
The wasn't only a disappointment for Florida State. In the span of a few hours, the entire top half of the ACC was engulfed in flames: The unanimous conference favorite, Virginia Tech, went down at the hands of a I-AA/FCS patsy to fall to 0-2; the defending conference champ, Georgia Tech, lost to the worst team in the Big 12; and Miami's hopes for a return to the upper crust were soundly dashed at Ohio State. Yet again, the ACC was resigned to play out the conference schedule as the league without a contender. It still hasn't put a team in the top five of the final polls in ten years.
The last ACC team to crack that barrier: Florida State in 2000, when it lost its third consecutive trip to the national championship game to … wait for it … Oklahoma, under second-year coach Bob Stoops. Eleven years later, the 'Noles are finally in a position to begin harboring those kinds of ambitions again, and the road still goes through the Sooners, who will come to Tallahassee in the third week of the season ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the nation.
There won't be any sidestepping the memory of last year's rout: OU will arrive with the vast majority of the lineup that lit up the same Seminoles last September, including quarterback Landry Jones, who hit 30 of 40 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns, along with nine of the 12 receivers who caught passes from him. Nine starters are back from the defense that held FSU to a single touchdown prior to a meaningless fourth quarter. From a personnel standpoint — with the notable exceptions of Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder and Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray — it will be about as close as college football comes to a man-for-man rematch.
The difference, aside from the more Seminole-friendly locale, is how far Florida State has really come over the last year. The late wins over Florida and South Carolina certainly looked like progress, but the intervening loss to Virginia Tech certainly did not. For the second year in a row, the Hokies are absent from the regular season schedule, looming at the end only as a potential rematch in the ACC title game; rivals Miami and Florida are both in rebuilding mode under new head coaches. After FSU and Virginia Tech, it's a good bet no one else in the conference will even appear in the preseason polls to open the year. There's no chance for redemption or a mulligan: If Florida State is really on the brink of a breakthrough, Sept. 17 is the day it becomes a reality or crawls back into its hole for another year.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.