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Column: FSU gave us fun, fits and fight in a wild season

GAINESVILLE — Be competitive in 11 games, not counting Clemson. Be fun to watch.

This was my repeated offseason desire, two realistic expectations that would make Florida State fans happy going into the 2021 season. Fans had endured turbulent 2017-20 seasons in the transition from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart to Mike Norvell, with a few assists from Odell Haggins along the way. 

While fans and media always want to project a win-loss record, it felt like being competitive and being fun to watch were better benchmarks. In fairness, we probably saw more competitiveness and less fun. But after a 2020 season in which FSU lost games by 3, 42, 16, 32, 24 and 16 we saw more fight and competitiveness with a 2021 team that lost by an average of just 8.8 points but was very close in rivalry games, too.

Walking out of Doak Campbell Stadium, as well as a few road venues this fall, the fun was reflecting on the game. Win or lose, we often saw a fight that made us smile.

Walking away from the Swamp on Saturday evening, following a 24-21 loss, the reality hit: This was the last time we could reflect. FSU’s season is finished at 5-7, a win shy of .500 and a spot in a bowl game.

“Losing sucks,” quarterback Jordan Travis said. “It’s just how our year went. We had a lot of ups and downs. Didn’t start the game off strong but, man, we fought. This is a team that fights hard for the guy next to him. And it’s real impressive to see. We haven’t been like this ever since I’ve been at Florida State. Just seeing the team grow together, just getting better every single day and we’re going to keep working.”

There is the longest of longshots, that FSU could still get in a bowl using a waiver. But with academics (APR rate) being the first method for evaluating five-win teams and their merits of playing in the bowl season, the difficulties left behind dating back to Fisher don’t help the Seminoles.

This is likely the end of the road for the 2021 team and the first reality that hits is FSU wasn’t focused enough mentally for Jacksonville State in week 2. If the Seminoles had been then they would be 6-6 and not have an empty feeling for the holidays. For player development and the growth of a young program under Norvell, it would have been ideal to see players and coaches earn the additional practices and a bowl game.

Given the opportunity to watch practices in August, we tried to take a big-picture view of the team and help to shape expectations. This was a team with deficiencies. There were days where Jordan Travis didn’t practice and days when McKenzie Milton didn’t practice either, although both had days where they were sharp. There were more drops than “wow” catches, raising questions about dependability. There was development from offensive linemen but questions about if there were enough healthy bodies. The defensive line often looked dominant. The linebackers were a question mark. The defensive backs often got the best of receivers in one-on-one settings. We were right in some regards and off in others. 

The big takeaway in August: The Seminoles looked better than in 2020 but would struggle. There weren’t enough difference-makers to overcome the talent gaps. The big takeaway at the end of November: There weren’t enough difference-makers to overcome the talent gaps and that led to some competitive but close losses.

“I believe Bobby Bowden said, when you’re building a program, you lose by a lot then you lose by a little, then you win by a little and then you win by a lot,” said defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who did his part to spearhead the turnaround. “In my book this program is on the right track and then the mindset of these guys shows in every game we play.”

If a measuring stick is being competitive against a rival then this is a positive result from Norvell’s team in year 2: FSU lost to Notre Dame by three (in overtime), at Clemson by 10 (with the final play tacking on a Tigers touchdown), beat Miami by 3 and lost at Florida by 3. Notre Dame isn’t a true, annual rival but if there were four games that jumped out at you when the schedule was set earlier in the year, the Seminoles gave you competitive results.

FSU wasn’t fun to watch every week. There were persistent shortcomings, especially on special teams. There were growing pains. There was a win over Miami, ending a four-year drought against rivals in what was the best moment of the season.

In the middle of an ugly September, none of this seemed plausible. It may have been laughable. There were then close losses and narrow wins. There was growth. 

It’s not the kind of growth we were seeking on a number of Saturdays. And it’s hard to reconcile with another losing season, a fourth straight one at that. The standard at Florida State is much higher than fighting for bowl-eligibility. 

But we’re seeing steps in the right direction. When asked minutes after the loss on Saturday what was next, Norvell mentioned a number of things — including an early morning flight to see a recruit. Progress comes through hard work, and Norvell gets back to work early on the 2022 signing class and shaping the program for the 2022 season.

“Continue to work,” Norvell said. “We’re going to have guys, they played their last game today. And, man, I’m forever grateful for them. But our guys, it’s a tough season, some challenges physically. We’ve got to rest up. We get into the offseason. We obviously go recruiting. We’re hitting the road first thing tomorrow morning, I’m hitting a 6 o’clock flight and we are going. Because that is something that is critically important that we continue to find the right fit for Florida State and who we bring in here. …

“As we get into this offseason, we just have to continue to grow up as a football program. The little things, the fundamentals, the consistency of execution. We’ve seen some really good flashes of that through this back half of the season. We’ve got to continue to allow that to be our identity day in and day out. I fully believe these guys are going to be able to accomplish that, and that’s what we’re going to work for each and every day.”