- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Last week's loss at NC State ended any talk of a national title. Florida State still can finish strong, win an ACC championship and go to the Orange Bowl. But a disappointing loss to another unranked foe when the Seminoles were heavily favored didn't just sink a season's worth of dreams, it was a reminder that this team, no matter the eventual finish, hasn't changed much from the ones that came before it.
Of course, Saturday's loss wasn't the end. It was merely the halfway point -- six games into a 12-game regular season. There is plenty of time for the Seminoles to bury that disappointment, to recapture some of that early season enthusiasm and, most importantly, to prove that loss doesn't define them.
In the locker room this week, Florida State's players and coaches will spend a lot of time taking stock of where they were and where they're going as they redefine their goals and figure out what went wrong in Raleigh, N.C. So it only seems reasonable that we do the same.
Six games in, here are our awards for the best and worst performances of the first half of the 2012 season.
Best performer (offense): Chris Thompson
If nothing else goes right this season, Florida State fans should at least take solace in what is one of college football's best feel-good stories of the year. After breaking his back against Wake Forest last season, Thompson wondered if he'd ever play football again. Now, he's poised to become FSU's first 1,000-yard rusher in 16 years (he's on pace for 1,334). Thompson has turned in three 100-yard games already, and his first-half performances against Wake Forest and NC State were electric. Thompson's 572 rushing yards are just 7 shy of Devonta Freeman's team-leading total from a year ago, and his 746 yards from scrimmage are already 40 more than Rashad Greene's team-leading tally for all-purpose yards from 2011.
Best performer (defense): Bjoern Werner
Werner finally stepped out of Brandon Jenkins' shadow during FSU's first three games when the junior dominated the opposition to rack up 6.5 sacks. The problem is, all that attention might not be a good thing. In his last three games, Werner has been held without a sack and has just one tackle for loss. Still, he has been very good. He has disrupted the backfield routinely, batted away throws, and made tackles in space.
Best freshman: Kelvin Benjamin
It's actually a pretty tight race because there hasn't been any freshman who has truly distinguished himself the way Greene and Timmy Jernigan did last year, but there have been a handful who have turned in strong starts to the season, including Ronald Darby, Cason Beatty and Giorgio Newberry. But the top performer has clearly been Benjamin, who has worked his way into a major role on offense, leading the Seminoles with 259 receiving yards.
Best answer to a preseason question: Field cornerback
When Greg Reid was dismissed on Aug. 1, it left a gaping hole in an otherwise accomplished secondary. There were significant concerns about whether any of Florida State's inexperienced corners could fill in, but as it turned out, two of them stepped up. Nick Waisome has been excellent as the starting cornerback opposite Xavier Rhodes, turning in a defining performance against Sammy Watkins and Clemson, and Darby has been as reliable a No. 3 as the Seminoles could've hoped for.
Worst answer to a preseason question: Once again, the hype exceeded reality
All the preseason jubilation about the potential of this Florida State team came with an asterisk. FSU fans had been burned too many times. But there was a legitimate belief among many that this year really would be different, that the confluence of talent, depth and a manageable schedule would put the Seminoles back on top. Perhaps that will still happen, and the 2012 season will end with an ACC and Orange Bowl title, which would at least mark a major step forward. But the loss to NC State -- Jimbo Fisher's fifth to an unranked opponent since taking over in 2010 -- has at least temporarily ruined much of the good will built up through a 5-0 start.
Biggest disappointment (offense): The line
In fairness, it's tough to call the line a disappointment because a) it hasn't been that bad, and b) the expectations weren't particularly high. But after Clemson week, when FSU was riding high, Manuel was a major player in the Heisman talk and the offense looked to be unstoppable, those expectations got ratcheted up a bit too far. Through four games, the line had allowed just four sacks and 14 tackles in the backfield. In the last two games, the results have been far different. USF and NC State combined for six sacks and 19 TFLs, and the offense has largely remained stuck in neutral.
Biggest disappointment (defense): The linebackers
Like the O-line, this was a unit that carried its share of concerns from the fan base as FSU readied for the start of the 2012 season, but there was far more optimism here. Nick Moody's transition from safety to strongside linebacker seemed like a natural fit, but he has just six tackles in six games. Christian Jones was supposed to blossom into a star, but nearly half of his 31 tackles came in last week's loss to NC State, and he was burned repeatedly against Clemson. And the middle linebacking duo of Vince Williams and Telvin Smith was supposed to be the anchor of the unit, but it was at the forefront of NC State's dink-and-dunk attack that led to two second-half touchdowns in what was FSU's low point of the season.
The Jeff Bowden award for worst play call: The bootleg
Really, it's a take-your-pick from the NC State game for worst play call, as Fisher's decisions were overly conservative and, in some cases, completely indefensible in the second half. But if there's one moment that falls squarely on Fisher's shoulders as an indictment of his game plan, it's Manuel's bootleg on a third-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Needing just 2 yards to continue a drive at the State 19, Fisher called for a bootleg, rolling Manuel out to his right. Assignments were missed, Manuel was immediately under pressure, and the play fell apart with a 15-yard loss that killed the drive and took FSU out of field-goal range. The worst part? Fisher wasted a timeout just before the play to be sure this was the best way to proceed.
Best offensive play: Thompson's back-to-back TDs against Wake Forest
OK, so technically it's two plays, but who's counting? After breaking two bones in his back in a loss to the Demon Deacons a year ago, Thompson earned his revenge on consecutive first-half carries against Wake this season. The first went for a 74-yard touchdown. The next went for an 80-yard score. Thompson finished the game with 220 yards of offense despite not seeing the field in the second half.
Best defensive play: Carradine's forced fumble
Cornellius Carradine came off the edge unblocked on the final play of the third quarter against USF and demolished backup quarterback Matt Floyd, who coughed up the football. Jones was there to scoop up the fumble and return it for FSU's lone defensive touchdown of the season.
Biggest question still looming: What defines a successful 2012?
The answer to this question was never a national championship -- at least not for the fans who brushed aside the delusions of grandeur and looked at the big picture. FSU might have had national-title talent, but the ACC was going to make that a tough task no matter what, and over the course of 14 games, it's never hard for any team to find one loss. The problem most fans have now isn't that the Seminoles will end the year without a perfect record, it's that the end of that dream came in such gut-wrenching fashion -- with FSU playing a conservative game in maddeningly lackluster style against a team it should have beaten handily.
A loss to Clemson or Florida would've been upsetting but understandable. This one was a kick in the gut. And that creates a significant problem for Fisher and his team: How can they make up for this loss and regain the faith of their fans?
The answer won't be simple. A big win over Boston College proves nothing, really -- just as those easy wins over Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest meant little in the big picture. That same ACC slate that was likely to keep FSU out of the national title hunt also will provide precious few opportunities to bury the past permanently and reinvigorate the fan base.
But it has been 13 years since FSU beat Miami three consecutive times and 12 years since it beat Florida in three in a row. The Seminoles have never held a three-game winning streak against both in-state rivals concurrently. It also has been 12 years since Florida State won 11 games or finished in the AP top 10, 16 years since it won an Orange Bowl and seven years since it won an ACC title.
Those goals still remain, and so there is plenty left to play for. The bigger question, of course, is whether this group still is interested in achieving all of those things.