After Florida State's win over Alabama, it appeared that the Seminoles had turned the corner, with many fans expecting the improvement to continue without a hitch for the rest of the season. This was especially true after the initial optimism about the change to Xavier Lee, who looked so promising after the Alabama and NC State games. Many (including this author) expected Lee to provide a lasting spark to the offense for the remainder of the season. Instead, Lee did not uphold his end of the bargain as a student-athlete, and his struggles afterwards mirrored those of the team (and vice-versa). As a result, the coaches switched back to Drew Weatherford before the Duke game.
The fact is that the last few games have offered something of a reality check on the condition of the program at large right now. Those closest to the program quite frankly did not expect a significant turnaround in our record this year. During the summer, I talked with a member of our athletic department who has watched virtually every practice since Deion Sanders frequented the fields. He talked about the new staff—saying some very good things about how hard-working they are and how they are restoring the necessary discipline to the team—and concluded that we are back on the right track, that we'll get things turned around. But he cautioned that he didn't expect our record to be any better this year than last (even suggesting that we might have a losing record this year given our schedule), saying that it didn't matter what kind of staff we had out there, we simply don't have the talent that we did during the dynasty years. He pointed out that we simply "don't have a Peter Warrick, an Anquan Boldin out there"; instead, the one reliable playmaker we have right now is Antone Smith, "essentially Travis Minor." He then noted that even with Trickett's hard work, we still don't have the horses up front that we did in those years.
The staff is acutely aware of this as well. In a short conversation with Jimbo Fisher this spring, he made it very clear to me that we have a long way to go talent-wise, saying we're "not even close" to the kind of talent that LSU has (something that any observer of college football should recognize). He expects us to be able to close that gap very soon, but this year we simply don't have the horses we once did to be able to win games in which we make mistakes. The margin between winning and losing is simply too thin.
So, given that, where are we realistically right now as we approach the brutal finishing stretch this season? As is usually the case, the situation is neither as good as it looks nor as bad as it looks. We're not as good as we looked against Alabama and we're not as bad as we looked in the fourth quarter against UM. Right now, we have probably three players who would have played extensively on any of our dynasty teams: Myron Rolle, Andre Fluellen, and Antone Smith. A few others would certainly have gotten some time, but would have either been situational (i.e. Greg Carr) or are too young to have already played much in those years (Preston Parker, Budd Thacker, Marcus Ball).
At the same time, we're showing some substantial improvement up front on both offense and defense. Justin Mincey and Everette Brown have shown some very encouraging signs of being FSU-caliber defensive ends, Patrick Robinson has become our best corner, Parker has become our feature receiver, and our offensive line has improved both in pass protection (zero sacks in the two games prior to Miami) and run blocking (over 150 yards against UM). Most encouraging is that the improvement we are seeing is almost entirely with our young guys—players who will be able to help us next year and afterwards. And given Parker's contributions so far, we can no longer say that Smith is our only reliable playmaker.
The next two games will ultimately define this season, and fortunately we match up better than one might expect. Boston College has struggled to run the ball efficiently this year—this is not your standard BC team that will line up and try to play power football—and their receivers have had trouble creating space against good secondaries. They do have probably the best QB in college football in Matt Ryan, but because they are relatively one-dimensional, we have a surprisingly decent chance to escape with a win as long as we can avoid turnovers on offense.
Virginia Tech has also had a great deal of trouble running the football this year—their offensive line is not much better than ours—the difference is that they don't have a passing game, either. That game will be a defensive struggle that, again, we have a decent chance to win. Should we win one or both games, it would give us a chance to go into the Maryland and Florida games and actually come out with a pretty good rebuilding season.
When I was at FSU, we had a couple mottos that were emphasized regularly within the team as a matter of pride—they really summarized our identity. One was "we (I) will never quit"—nobody will ever outwork us, we'll fight harder than they will, nobody will ever break our spirit. The last few years, we seem to have lost that identity, with the Wake Forest blowout being the first time I had ever seen an FSU team truly quit. Fortunately, this current group seems to have embraced that motto once again, as there has not been a situation yet in which I have seen the team at large back down. When we've lost, we've lost fighting.
The other motto, however, seems to be the thing missing from this team: "FINISH THE DRILL." This was a common refrain throughout Mat Drills and practices—every action taken in any drill needed to be at absolute full effort and focus, with complete attention to detail. Anything less was unacceptable. While it has been encouraging to see this team's willingness to fight, it has been equally frustrating to note their total lack of a killer instinct. We have now lost three games that we were in position to win simply because we were unable, unwilling even, to finally shut the door on the opposition. There were about five or six plays against Miami that, if we simply had played with more desire and killer instinct, would have turned the game the other way.
This has also also been reflected in our miserable red-zone performance; when we get the ball in scoring position, we've simply got to have that "finish the drill" mentality where we refuse to be denied. The coaching staff's recent decision to do conditioning at the end of practice (the way it used to be) is a step towards developing this, but the biggest step will be doing it once or twice. Jimbo Fisher has said several times that we are re-learning how to win, and learning how to close teams out is the final lesson we've got to master before we're there again. Whether we learn this lesson or not will have the biggest impact on the next four games. If we can learn it, we could win all four. If not, we could lose all four.
Next week, we'll take a quick look at what we can realistically expect in the way of improvement from this year to next.