TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The difference between winning and losing was 10, maybe 12 plays, Jimbo Fisher said. He believes that is cause for optimism after a stunning upset at the hands of NC State. After all, a few mistakes can be easily fixed. It's not a catastrophe, it's a blip.
But as Fisher eschews the bigger picture for the minutiae of missed assignments and erratic execution, the burning question among Florida State's fan base looms large. For the fifth time in Fisher's 2 ½-year tenure, the Seminoles lost a game to an unranked foe when heavily favored. If the reason is simply a few small details -- 10 to 12 plays when one player failed to execute -- why was the margin of error so small to begin with?
"Focus and concentration, technique," Fisher said. "You look at teams that have success and the games they slip. That's why, as coaches, you have to keep them focused and detail-oriented especially with the mental strain that goes on with the season. We'll have this conversation every year. Kids have to train themselves to do that every week."
The problem, of course, is that Fisher has this conversation every day.
For months, Fisher has preached about this team's maturity, its level of focus, its dedication to the cause. He has preached about prioritizing each game equally, taking every opponent seriously, allowing the details to dictate the end result. It's the process of building a winner, and somehow that message failed to endure through 60 minutes against NC State.
At least, that was the explanation Fisher gave Monday. EJ Manuel wasn't so sure.
"I don't necessarily think that clutter, whatever that is, that's not what caused the lack of focus. I don't even think it was a lack of focus," Manuel said. "We just didn't make the plays we needed to make."
But how could the No. 3 team in the country, a team Fisher said was ready to compete for a national championship, simply fail to make the plays it needed to beat an NC State team that had allowed 1,175 yards of offense to mediocre opponents Tennessee and Miami (Fla) already this season?
Those answers are tougher to find, and Fisher returns to focus, execution and precedent.
"Sometimes it happens, things gradually slip," Fisher said. "I thought we had great practices [last week], and it's a matter of focus. Once you start playing six, seven games [and] things are going well you feel good you just slip."
Fisher said he heard the right words from a handful of players throughout the preparations for NC State, but that the quiet majority might have strayed. In the wake of Saturday's loss, several players admitted to buying into the team's hot start, neglecting the task at hand. Senior Dustin Hopkins said the in-game leadership among the seniors was too slow to speak up. Fisher suggested the media hype played a role as well.
"You guys [in the media] make it a 3, 4, 5-game season. It's not. It's a 12-game season," Fisher said during his news conference on Monday. "We have to continue to focus and understand attention to detail in all games. That comes with maturity and us keep pounding and selling the message and keep with the process."
But it was Fisher who stoked the fires of preseason expectations, and it's Fisher who has preached to his players about eliminating distractions.
"I think now," he said. "I think we're ready, and I think we can do it now, and I think it's something we should do."
That stood in stark contrast to his take on Saturday's loss, which didn't quite approach acceptance, but bordered on understanding.
"That's the life of a coach," Fisher said. "How many undefeated seasons have there been around here? One. So, what are the odds that you're going to lose one during the season? That's part of it. You have to deal with it."
Fisher is correct. Losses happen, and his job now is to ensure there are not additional defeats in the future. If Florida State wins out, that blip on the radar might be overshadowed by an ACC championship.
But the precedent has been set, and recent history suggests this will not be the last time Florida State plays flat against a mediocre opponent. It's an ongoing battle.
So Fisher returns to the message. The situations and the opponents change, but the process stays the same.
"Just got to keep going in the process and believing in it," Fisher said. "Once you get it, you'll get it, and hopefully we're mature and the leadership and coaching on the team will be big. You have to just push on and get refocused."