Did FSU miss its best title chance?
There are two ways you could look at this season for Florida State:
The Seminoles began their journey back to the top of college football.
The Seminoles blew their best chance in years to actually be a national title contender, something that might be on hold for a little while as they go through major changes headed into 2013.
That is a pretty black-and-white assessment of an entire season's worth of games. But with any situation, there is room for gray. So perhaps the most accurate picture is that this season was about a little of both, an interesting juxtaposition for a program that last played for a national title at the end of the 2000 season.
Because coach Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles face an inordinate amount of pressure to recapture the glory days of the past, and, well, they were in perfect position. They had it all right there in front of them in early October: a huge win over No. 10 Clemson, a No. 3 ranking and a schedule that would feature just one more ranked team all year long.
Just about everybody started to believe this could be the year of the mighty Seminoles. It was lost on no one in Tallahassee that their last national title appearance came in Miami, the same national title host this year.
Well, Florida State is in Miami, but a week early -- playing in the Discover Orange Bowl against Northern Illinois.
Though Florida State has posted its first 11-win season since 2000 and is in its first BCS game since the 2006 Orange Bowl, it still feels as though an opportunity has been missed.
Just look at the lineup the Seminoles put on the field this year. EJ Manuel, a veteran quarterback, a leader, a guy dedicated to getting Florida State back on top. Talent and depth at receiver. A revamped offensive line. Running backs ready for a breakout season.
All-American bookends at defensive end, Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. When Jenkins got hurt, Cornellius "Tank" Carradine stepped right in and had an All-ACC season. Back there with them, you can count some of the best defensive backs in the nation in Xavier Rhodes and Lamarcus Joyner.
Then you have one of the best special teams players in college football -- highly decorated kicker Dustin Hopkins, one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history. You see why many people believe this was not only a now-or-never moment for Manuel, but a now-or-never moment for the Seminoles.
Yeah, it's definitely a big-time step up from where we were in the past. And you see our players grow. They know now how to win, win not just critical games, conference games and then the conference championship games.” -- Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley
"When I left LSU, did they keep winning? Yeah. Because they have a program. When Nick Saban left LSU did they keep winning? Yeah," Fisher said. "My point is, you build a program, you don't build a team. You battle for it every year. I think we can start to get into those hunts every year, and we will."
But Florida State will look vastly different in 2013. Though the Seminoles do return a vast majority of their offense, they must replace Manuel, who has thrown for 3,101 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, both career highs, and hit a career-high 67.9 percent of his passes as well.
The defense could be in major rebuilding mode. Jenkins and Carradine are headed to the NFL draft. Werner, one of the top-rated juniors in the nation and a unanimous All-American, could head there with him, though he will not officially announce his decision until after the Orange Bowl.
Rhodes, Joyner and linebacker Christian Jones, the team's leading tackler, also are considering leaving school early for the NFL draft. Senior starters on the interior of the defensive line Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud, and starting linebackers Nick Moody Vince Williams also will be gone.
Florida State also goes into next season with several of its top coaches gone, including defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, defensive end coach D.J. Eliot and top recruiter Eddie Gran.
But the talk around south Florida this week has not focused on opportunities lost, but on the major steps this program has taken under Fisher. Steps that are necessary for any program to try to win a national championship.
"When we got here as a staff the first year, we played for ACC championship against Virginia Tech, and we lost that game, and we knew what it was like to go to that game. We didn't know what it was like to win that game as a staff, as players," Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley said during a news conference.
"So this year I thought getting there, winning that game, now we know what it tastes like. Now we know what it's like to get into this big game, BCS Orange Bowl. Yeah, it's definitely a big-time step up from where we were in the past. And you see our players grow. They know now how to win, win not just critical games, conference games and then the conference championship games."
The younger players who will be relied upon next year now know what it takes to win a championship. A plethora of talent returns, including ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., the entire offensive line and Rashad Greene among others.
Still, there will be an incredible amount of change. So the chances Florida State is a part of the national championship conversation in 2013 the way it was before this season started, well, they appear to be remote. Already, many believe Clemson will have the edge in the Atlantic Division next season, especially if quarterback Tajh Boyd returns for his senior season.
But playing for national championships is what Seminoles fans have come to expect. Rebuilding cannot last long when you are at a program that has brought in the talent Florida State has in recent years, knowing exactly what the goal must be.
"The expectations have been there because we've gone out and gotten players. We recruited our tails off," Fisher said. "We got those players after a 6-6 team. We convinced them we could win championships here and we have. We'll just keep doing what we do."
Heather Dinich contributed to this report.
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