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Column: Feelings, thoughts heading into 2021 season

More than 100 players, coaches, staff and fans shared heartfelt feelings about Coach Bobby Bowden with the Osceola over the past couple of weeks, which we have and will continue to share with you. Each one of those interviewed mentioned a virtue coach possessed, and/or an example he set, that profoundly shaped their life and thus the lives of their children and the people they touch.

The list of virtues mentioned is long: faith, humility, selflessness, patience, discipline, kindness and empathy. He took time for people no matter what their station in life. He listened and respected what you had to say, no matter your race. He lived his faith yet was a fierce competitor, tough as nails. 

The words and the sentiments are wonderful. It is abundantly clear that the seeds Bobby Bowden planted in all those people – you and me included – live on in us and in the people we influence. 

As I listened to the interviews and reflected on my 40 years observing Coach Bowden, I related to a lot of the stories told and the qualities mentioned. Perhaps you could, too. You may have seen how he influenced you positively in some way and if you are like me, you may be challenged to become a better version of yourself through his example.

I can’t think of a better tribute to Bobby Bowden’s memory than by embracing the challenge.

Thoughts heading into the 2021 season

Our football team is absolutely loaded and I expect them to win the national championship. And they may do it undefeated. Oh, wait, I meant to say the futbol team.

Mark Krikorian is in the midst of what we may look back on as a dynasty in women’s collegiate soccer. The ‘Noles have won two national championships (2014, 2018) and should have won their third last season, upset by Santa Clara. I don’t see anyone derailing the ‘Noles this season as they opened with two shutout wins over SEC teams No. 9 Texas A&M and Alabama.

Thoughts heading into the 2021 men’s football season

People ask what I’ve seen on the practice field and ask this question: “Are we back?”

Back to what? I wonder. The 1980s, 1990s or later?

My honest answer: FSU is better than it was last year or the year before or the year before that. We will be a more competitive team and there are signs we’re headed back in the right direction.

When we watch practice, we see what you will see in games:

  • Mike Norvell runs a very organized operation. They get a lot of work done in the time allotted. I think that’s because he has all 10 assistants and his internal staff back from last year. It is the first time in the former Memphis coach’s career that he’s been able to hang on to all of his assistant coaches. Memphis was the cherry tree for the SEC, Big Ten and other conferences looking for coaches.
  • The players who wanted to be at FSU, and buy in to Norvell, have also come back knowing the expectations and how practices would be run.  
  • The coaches and players enjoyed a full 15 practices in the spring of 2021 as opposed to three in the spring of 2020. 
  • Rather than spending the summer of 2020 in their hometowns, working out wherever they could, they’ve been on campus all summer working out in Josh Storms rigorous conditioning program. As a result, you won’t see bellies hanging over belt buckles.
  • What we’ve seen is a better conditioned team, practicing with a purpose instead of taking a knee, or slumped over with eyes on the ground, rather than into a coach’s eyes. You should see the results of that on Sunday.
  • You see coaches holding players accountable for poor decisions and unforced penalties and you see the players responding to hard coaching. We’ve even begun to see players holding themselves and teammates accountable. A defensive end jumps offsides and immediately does 10 “up downs.” Your program is turning the corner when it begins to be a player, rather than a coach, driven team.

Reasons to like this team

“This is a team that’s willing to work, it’s willing to push,” Norvell said. “We try to make our guys uncomfortable as often as possible so that in the moment when maybe things aren’t going as well for them that they can respond the right way. We play with emotion. We play with passion. We’re trying to make sure that’s a controlled passion. You’ve got to prepare them for that. I like what I’m seeing.”

You can see a team that likes to work in the offseason program, at practice and in the classroom, as their grade point average is highest in program history, and in the community, Norvell told the Tallahassee Quarterback Club.

All of that is encouraging. Those observations typically mean the players have “bought into” what the coach is preaching. You are likely to see it translate into more individual dependability and more-cohesive team play on Sunday. 

The team appears to enjoy one another, which couldn’t be said in year’s past. 

Those intangibles can be the difference between a team going 3-6 in 2020 and 6-6 (or better) in 2021 simply by taking care of “the little things” that led to losses in years past. 

Bring the right expectations

I like this team and I think you will like it too if you bring the right expectations, and I think most of us will.

Rule No. 1: Get over the 1990s

Too many of us evaluate what we see with Dynasty Era eyes. Don’t do it. You will make yourself crazy.

In each of those 14 consecutive years where FSU finished in the top 4, the 85-man roster was blessed with 25 to 30 players who would be selected in the NFL Draft when their time came.  

As I look at this team, I see a bunch of good ‘guys’ but not as many ‘dudes’ – players bound for the NFL – as you saw in the Dynasty Era when most of the draftees would be taken in the top five rounds.

There were dudes at virtually every position, sometimes two or three deep. It will take a lot of good recruiting and evaluation to get back to those days where FSU’s recruiting classes were perennially ranked among the nation’s top 3. Three head coaching changes derailed that train. The 2021 team is comprised of what is left of recruits from classes ranked No. 11, 18, 22 and 22 the past four years. It is also the beneficiary of 15 or more players from the transfer portal, with virtually all of them working their way onto the two-deep roster. 

In addition to working the portal, Norvell has taken early steps to get back to top 10 recruiting classes. The 2022 class is ranked No. 9 nationally with 18 verbal commitments.

This team doesn’t need to have Dynasty Era talent to make big strides toward improvement.

Bobby Bowden has said numerous times his 1977 team was his favorite. The 1977 season was Bowden’s second at Florida State and his first team to beat Florida, go to a bowl, win 10 games and finish in the top 10. 

You’d take that, right?

The 1977 team saw only 15 of its entire roster selected in the 1978 to 1982 NFL drafts, with just three taken in the top five rounds (Bobby Butler, Willie Jones and Ken Lanier). 

Or, you may find, this 2021 team resembles mid-1980s teams from a talent perspective. Those teams had as many as 24 players taken in the NFL draft, although the majority were not taken in the top five rounds. The Seminoles’ records in those years were 8-4 (1983), 7-3-2 (1984), 9-3 (1985) and 7-4-1 (1986).

Most fans would take those results as a significant improvement over the past three years. 

There may well be more than 15 to 25 “dudes” on this 2021 roster and we won’t have to wait until they graduate to know. We’ll get a real good idea in a nationally broadcast night game against Notre Dame this coming Sunday night.

Guys and dudes, both are important

Went into camp concerned about talent, concerned about depth, but each day saw players emerge. Here’s my post camp thoughts: 

  • Thirteen players we expected to play like ‘dudes’: Jermaine Johnson, Dennis Briggs, Fabien Lovett, Amari Gainer, Jarvis Brownlee, Meiko Dotson and Travis Jay on defense. Jashaun Corbin, Jordan Travis, McKenzie Milton, Dontae Lucas and Devontay Love-Taylor. Keyshawn Helton is a “dude” on this team, whether the NFL likes his size or not.
  • Over the course of the camp, I made up a list of players who caught my eye. The list grew to more than 30 “guys” who may develop “dude” status in coming years, including 2021 incoming freshmen. But even if this group of 30 never attracts NFL attention, they are guys who can help this team get where it wants to go. When you look at those teams from the mid-1980s, they had many “guys” contribute to those wins who never attracted NFL attention. This list of 30 will have a lot to say about what this 2021 team becomes. 

Rule No. 2: Respect the schedule

Florida State will play five teams ranked in the AP Preseason Coaches Top 25 poll. The Seminoles, who received no votes in the poll, open the season as a 9.5-point underdog to No. 9 Notre Dame, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. There are four other games in which the Seminoles will likely be a 7-or-more point underdog: at No. 10 North Carolina, at No. 3 Clemson, No. 14 Miami and at No. 13 Florida.

There are three games in which the Seminoles will be a heavy favorite (Jacksonville State, Syracuse and UMass). 

There are four games (at Wake Forest, Louisville, at NC State and at Boston College) where FSU could be the favorite or could be the underdog but one way or the other, the margin is likely to be seven or fewer points. NC State and BC received votes in the Preseason AP Poll.

These four games, three on the road, are the most informative games on the schedule. They are “next-step” games. 

The Notre Dame game is a statement game. Yes, FSU upset UNC last year. A win is one or both of those games is absolutely possible and would make a huge statement. The Florida and Miami games are always important, in-state rivalry games. But the games at Wake, Louisville, at NC State and at BC are games FSU has consistently found a way to lose over the years. These are the games where all the little things — the offseason buy in, the hard work and unity, the discipline — will play a major role in the outcome of those games. 

Those four games will tell you just how far the Seminoles have come. 

Vegas.com has the over/under for the number of Seminole wins at 5.5 regular season games, which is an improvement over 3-6, likely gets you back to a bowl game and tells you just how challenging the schedule will be. 

I say FSU wins more than 5.5. What say you?