Expectations shape perceptions more than we often realize. This fact is further complicated by the fact that our memories of the past are also often skewed by hindsight bias, causing us to forget things that don’t fit as well into the final narrative we have constructed about the past.
The perception of Florida State at this point in the 2014 season is an excellent example of these two points. After returning the bulk of a team that rolling through the 2013 regular season schedule with a 42-point average margin of victory, most expected the Seminoles to begin the 2014 season on the same kind of scorched-earth tear.
After four weeks in which the Seminoles have not covered the spread, the narrative is now set: this Florida State team is simply not as good as the 2013 buzz saw. In fairness, it’s true that FSU has not played as well so far as the 2013 team did as a whole. But a closer look shows that this year’s team’s early-season performance is remarkably similar to last year’s start.
Let’s take a look at the headlines in the week preceding FSU’s fifth game against Maryland last year:
Look awfully similar to the headlines after FSU “barely” beat North Carolina State by 15 points on the road, don’t they? To further the point, one of the above is actually from this week—can you guess which one from the headline? Didn’t think so. Hale summarized last year’s situation this way:
“That's the upbeat spin. These are the raw numbers: Through four games, Florida State has coughed up 606 yards on the ground, nearly half the total its defense allowed in 14 games last year. Boston College amassed 397 total yards Saturday; only Clemson (2010 and 2011) managed more against FSU since the start of the 2011 season -- and the Tigers' high-flying attack gets its shot against the Seminoles in just three weeks. The defense has started slowly in every game, and as a result, FSU has trailed in three of four games. It's a particularly disconcerting picture given that this week's opponent, Maryland, has topped 500 yards of offense three times, is averaging better than 7 yards per play, has a dual-threat quarterback and one of the ACC's most explosive playmakers in receiver Stefon Diggs.”
The 2013 Turning Point
Ah yes, Maryland. The 4-0 and 25th-ranked Terps became a trendy pick to challenge Florida State in Tallahassee the next week, taking advantage of those weaknesses Florida State had showed on defense through the first four games. Florida State had trailed in three of their first four games against lesser opponents; the Terps would finally provide a stern enough test to really threaten the Seminoles.
The NY Post’s Howie Kussoy had the following to say about the matchup before picking Maryland to cover vs. the Noles:
“C.J. Brown has thrown for over 1,000 yards with only one interception, while rushing for six TDs and 6.3 yards per carry, and should be able to exploit the Seminoles’ defensive flaws exposed against Boston College, which ran for 200 yards and scored 34 points last week.”
Stewart Mandel (then of Sports Illustrated) had FSU winning close, 28-21.
ESPN’s ACC Bloggers were clearly torn on this one, expecting a close game and possible Terrapin upset: Andrea Adelson had FSU beating Maryland 30-21 and Heather Dinich had the Noles beating the Terps 28-27.
We, on the other hand, had the Noles rolling and spent the better part of the week explaining that the problems on defense through the first four weeks were easily fixable. But nobody saw the 63-0 whitewashing that actually transpired against Maryland, as the FSU defense suddenly turned the corner and the Seminoles turned into a terrifying monster that rolled through everyone until getting punched in the nose by Auburn in the first half of the BCS National Championship Game, only to restore order by going on a 24-10 second half run to win the title.
Remembering 2013, Projecting 2014
But very few seem to remember what that dominant Florida State team looked like after four games, despite the remarkable similarities to this point. I mean, would anyone even notice if the headlines and concerns from last year were pasted into this week’s articles? Just substitute “NC State” for “Boston College” and you’ve got basically the same articles.
Yes, Florida State trailed in two of its first four games. But the 2013 Noles trailed in three of their first four. Yes, FSU gave up 214 yards (9.7 YPP) and 24 points in the first quarter at NC State. But the 2013 Seminoles gave up 17 points on 6.3 YPP on Boston College’s first three drives, giving up 24 points in the first half.
The biggest difference between the two seasons so far has actually been on the schedule—each of the 2014 Seminoles’ first three FBS opponents have been better than the first three 2013 opponents. Florida State trailed against Pittsburgh, Nevada, and Boston College last season—not exactly a murderer’s row to start the season.
In contrast, an objective look at the numbers suggests that Florida State has played the toughest schedule of this year’s remaining unbeaten teams so far, with both Clemson and Oklahoma State playing at a top-25 level so far and NC State a better squad than last year’s Boston College team. (And that doesn’t even account for playing Clemson without Jameis Winston.) Unlike last season, FSU has already played two of the three or four best teams on its schedule.
Does that mean this Florida State team has played like a national championship team so far? No. But just like golf tournaments aren’t won on Thursdays but can be lost on that day, national championships aren’t won in September but sure can be lost in that month. The point is that this Florida State team is in a remarkably similar position to last year’s team, which grew into one of the most dominant teams in college football history.
We still don’t know whether this team will make the same kind of leap, but a look at the NC State film shows the same kind of (fixable) problems as last year as well as the talent to turn the corner. Add the return of OLB Markuss Eligwe and probable reinstatement of OLB Matthew Thomas to this defense, which has mostly lacked an explosive presence on the edge to complement Mario Edwards, Jr., and the smart money is on the Seminoles’ defense making a similar leap to the one we saw in the second half of 2013.