September 28, 2011
It's an annual tradition: Summer forecasts declare Florida State back on the upswing, at last; Florida State loses early; Florida State drops out of the national picture until, like the blooming of new flowers, the expectations the following summer.
Coming into this season, the Seminoles had been bounced from the polls following an early loss in four consecutive Septembers from 2007-10. Now, with their highest expectations in nearly a decade fading in back-to-back defeats at the hands of Oklahoma and Clemson, they've lost seven of their last eight September games as a ranked team, the lone win coming last year against mighty Samford.
So: Is it about that time again to pack up the FSU hype for another year? As a darkhorse national championship contender, clearly. As a relevant player in the ACC and BCS at-large races? Reply hazy, try again later.
For one thing, based on what we know at the moment, losing to Oklahoma and Clemson by a combined 15 points isn't exactly a death sentence. Against the former, the 'Noles slugged it out with the No. 1 team in the country well into the fourth quarter (the Sooners pulled away by two scores with two minutes left and Bob Stoops looking like he'd just seen his team walk away from a nasty car wreck), with their starting quarterback on the bench for most of the second half. Against Clemson, they came up five points short against an undefeated team that had just convincingly snuffed out the nation's longest winning streak, with redshirt freshman QB Clint Trickett making his first career start in the most hostile environment in the ACC.
That brings them to 2-2 heading into a bye week, 0-1 in the conference, and clinging to the bottom of the polls — far from the top-ten projections, but still very much in the mix to play for an ACC title, and to break through to a BCS bowl. Because if the question is, "Is Florida State still going to wind up winning a lot of games?" the answer is pretty clearly "Yes."
On the other side of the off week, the next five games on the schedule are against Wake Forest (which is Wake Forest), Duke (which is Duke), Maryland (which was just bludgeoned by Temple), N.C. State (which lost to Wake Forest and was just bludgeoned by Cincinnati) and Boston College (which was bludgeoned by Central Florida and actually lost to Duke — which, again, is Duke). At that point, the Seminoles' should be 7-2 without breaking a sweat. Then comes Miami, which has already lost to Maryland (see above) and to Kansas State. They close the ACC slate against Virginia, which barely escaped Indiana on a last-second field goal and just lost to Southern Miss. They don't play Georgia Tech (currently 4-0), North Carolina (3-1) or Virginia Tech (4-0) from the Coastal Division.
By the time it goes to Florida on Nov. 26, then, FSU should be coming off at least six wins in its last seven, if not seven straight, with the very real possibility that none of those wins will have come against a team with a winning record. (If any of those eight aside from Miami does wind up with a winning record, it's only because they get to play against each other.) If for some reason they don't make it to Gainesville with at least eight wins already in the bank, then yes, the 'Noles have clearly underachieved, again. But up to that point, as far as their national standing is concerned, winning doesn't amount to anything more than not losing. Taking Oklahoma to the wire may turn out to be meaningful if the Sooners run the table. Surviving the dregs of a dreggy conference tells us nothing.
To put it another way: If Florida State does turn out to be more or less the team it was supposed to be, will we even be able to tell?
Until we get to Nov. 26, we won't — and if the rest of Florida's season looks anything like it did after a 4-0 start in 2010, the Gators may not be as reliable a gauge as we expect, either. The ultimate measuring stick, I suspect, will be what it's always been: Winning the ACC championship. Even after ceding the tiebreaker to Clemson, FSU looks like the favorite to emerge from the Atlantic Division: In contrast to the Seminoles' light obstacle course through the rest of the conference schedule, Clemson has Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia Tech ahead, two of them on the road. If the 'Noles fall short of the conference title game and wind up in the Champs Sports Bowl, given the unanimous preseason consensus, it will be a disappointment. If they win the Atlantic Division but lose the championship game and wind up in the Champs Sports Bowl, it will be a disappointment. By all but eliminating Florida State's opportunity for an at-large BCS berth, the loss at Clemson reduces its margin of error over the next two months to zero.
But the margin still exists. And unless the Seminoles reveal their true, mediocre selves in the meantime by stumbling into the rabble of the ACC, it's still going to take all of those two months to determine whether they've got what it takes to exploit it.