?The High Expectations
In 2015, albeit an accepted 'rebuilding year', Florida State fans across the nation were left with one of the worst feelings in college football- a stinging loss in a major bowl game to end the year. Look no futher than to February 3rd, national singing day, for evidence that the 2015 campaign was unacceptable in the culture that Jimbo Fisher had cultivated in Tallahassee. A slew of top high school prospects vaulted the 2016 recruiting class to the #1 class in the country (Rivals.com) toping Saban's Alabama, Myers' Ohio State, and Harbaugh's Big Blue. 2016 had officially began for the Florida State Seminoles. Through tough, hot, and intense spring & summer practices Fisher and the rest of the coaching staff preached 'every play is for the national championship' setting the tone for the goals of the 2016 FSU football team. With the 4th toughest strength of schedule heading into the season (ESPN.com) FSU would need to be at the top of its game all season long. Over 90% of the starters in the previous year on both ends of the ball returned to Tallahassee sensing something special was in the air. Even Showtime's critically acclaimed show “A season with" would feature Florida State, showing unprecedented behind the scenes access to coaches, players, and the program. For Nole Nation, it smelt like 2013 from Tennessee Street to Pensacola, from Tallahassee to Thomasville, and from the Panhandle all the way down the turnpike to South Florida.
The Historic Start
On August 21st, the first AP preseason poll was released, featuring Fisher's Noles as the #4 team in the country. “Oh my god we're the #4 team in the country, do you really want that?" Jimbo challenged his team. That set the stage for a primetime matchup with #12 Ole Miss and I was fortunate enough to be there on the cool brisk night in Orlando, Florida when FSU started its journey through the regular season. The game against Ole Miss eerily foreshadow how the rest of the season would unfold for the Noles. Chad Kelly and power house Rebel offense shredded Florida States defense early, jumping out to a 28-6 lead, leaving myself and the other 60,000 Florida State faithful stunned. With halftime closing in, and FSU in critical need of a spark, 19 year old redshirt freshman quaterback Deandre Francois (Orlando, FL) grew up in a big way. Francois connected with wide receiever Travis Rudolph (West Palm Beach, FL) for a late 2nd quater touchdown. The comeback was on. Florida States defense, in particular senior defensive end Demarcus Walker (Jacksonville, FL), went 'mamba mode' in the third quarter forcing multiple turnovers and stifling the Ole Miss offense that looked unstoppable in the first half. Florida State completed the biggest comeback in school history that night and came out on top against their SEC foe.
All things were rolling for FSU, an unsettling injury to star safety Derwin James (Haines City, FL) aside, the Noles went into Louisville as the #2 team in the land for a top 10 matchup against the #10 Cardinals. Much like the first half of the Ole Miss game, Florida States defense was torched by Louisville's offense, particularly by the play of Heisman candidate Lamar Jackson (Boynton Beach, FL). Since first attending Florida State in 2010 as a freshman student this was the worst lost I had ever seen, watched, experienced, lived through, however you want to word it. Florida State wasn't use to getting blown out, in fact we usually were the ones blowing people out, we did the dominating, we left teams with no hope. With a final score of 63-20, Florida State was left stunned, defeated, dominated, and reeling from by far the most embarrassing loss any member of the program had ever been apart of. Nationally, Florida State's playoff hopes took a huge blow, and they plummeted in the rankings out of the top 10, falling to #13 with a 2-1 record. With such a crushing loss so early in the year, the 4th hardest schedule in the country barely completed, a crippling injury to one of the best defensive players in the country Derwin James, things seemed like they couldn't get any worse for the 2016 Seminoles...but they did. Sporting the longest home active winning streak started by the likes of Jameis Winston & company, the Noles hosted North Carolina in Doak Campbell Stadium for what was thought to be a sure victory. In a heartbreaking last second play, UNC converted on a 54 yard field goal to hand the Seminoles their second loss of what was turning into a devastating season full of let downs, failed goals, and most foreign to the FSU program…losses.
The Getting Up
National Championship hopes? Gone. Playoff hopes? Gone. ACC championship? All but gone. Major bowl game? All but gone. And this is only heading into the second half of the year. Jimbo Fisher, the coaching staff, and the leaders of the team (Dalvin Cook, DeMarcus Walker) were now tasked with arguably the toughest assignment of their respective careers- keeping the 2016 Florida State Seminoles together as a team, as a unit, and as developing young men. The second half of the schedule consisted of all 3 of FSU's biggest rivals- Miami, Clemson, and Florida. The first of which, a South Florida showdown with hated rival Miami Hurricanes, provide the turning point in the 2016 season for FSU. A Miami native and former high school standout at Miami Central, this was a homecoming for Florida State's star running back Dalvin Cook. Cook, like the rest of his teammates, had never lost to Miami during their tenure at FSU, and he was determined to continue that streak. In the locker room before taking the field in the 305, Cook challenged his teammates, “2016, how they gonna remember us". Once again I had the pleasure of being in Miami at the new Hardrock stadium to watch what would be an epic battle between hated in state rivals that ended in dramatic fashion that will go down in history, and this time- in Florida State's favor. Dalvin Cook had over 150 yards from scrimmage, highlighted by a 59 yard TD late in the 3rd quarter. First year starter Travarus McFadden (Fort Lauderdale, FL) was also having his own homecoming, a 5 star recruit out of south florida's American Heritage. McFadden had arguably the most important interception of his young Florida State career as the Hurricanes were driving in the red zone to take the lead late in the second half. After Miami scored what seemed like the tying touchdown with only seconds left in the game, Demarcus Walker once again put the team on his back and blocked the ensuing extra point denying Miami a chance in overtime and improving to 4-0 against the 'Canes. The 2016 Florida State Seminoles got up that night. They brought the fight to them, it was F-S-U time. Following the win against Miami, FSU would go 5-1 in its remaining 6 games, closing out the season winning six out of its last seven, with the only loss a 3 point deficit to playoff bound Clemson while the Noles held a late lead with only a few minutes left in the game. The regular season would be capped off with a dominating 31-13 effort against rival Florida, leaving little doubt that Florida State was still the king of the sunshine state.
The Past, Future, & Present
The turnaround of the 2016 Seminoles season must be largely credited to defensive coordinator Charles Kelly and the Florida State defense. Just like I chronicled the defense during the Ole Miss game, they started out horrible in the first half, only to prove to be elite in the second half. FSU's defensive rank improved an incredible 85 spots in yards per play given up from week 5 to the conclusion of the year (Warchant.com
). Florida States offense finished 25th nationally, 12th in time of possession, and 1st in red zone efficiency (Espn Stats & Info). The defense surged in the second half of the year to finish 37th nationally, 17th in 3rd down conversion defense, and 1st in team sacks (Rivals.com
). Florida State resurged from a dismal first half of the year where a primetime 'New Year Six' bowl was a pipe dream, to the Orange Bowl a likely landing spot for the Noles. FSU is in the company of only Alabama as the only two programs since 2012 to be in either the National Championship game, playoff semi-final, or BCS/NY6 bowl game for 4 straight seasons (2012-2015). 2016 would make it an astounding 5 straight seasons in one of those three games. The graduating class of seniors went 8-0 against their in state rivals, the only class to ever do so, cementing their legacy that includes 2 ACC championships (2013, 2014), a National Championship (2013), a CFB playoff berth (2014), and a 45-7 record. However it was the junior running back Dalvin Cook that proved to be an immortal FSU star, finishing the 2016 regular season with the most career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in Florida State's history passing legends Warrick Dunn and Greg Allen. With team leaders Cook, DeMarcus Walker, & Roderick Johnson receiving 1st team all ACC accolades and all three NFL bound (Cook has not officially announced), Jimbo Fisher and the Florida State program will look to its younger emerging stars to carry the flaming spear forward. Freshman QB Deandre Francois who was voted ACC Rookie of the Year, sophomore cornerback Travarus McFadden who finished the season tied for first most interceptions nationally, and freshman standout defensive end Brian Burns (Fort Lauderdale, FL) will look to carry on the legacy and culture of winning left to them by the graduating upperclassman that made Florida State University one of the best programs in the country.