Florida State had some excuses. It was playing a true freshman under center. It was competitive in its losses. It couldn’t catch a break after creating them regularly in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure.
Then came last week’s 35-3 loss at Boston College, a lifeless performance that made it perfectly clear there is much more missing from the Seminoles than just an experienced quarterback.
Florida State, in fact, has a chance to complete one of the most disappointing single seasons in recent memory. The Seminoles (2-5, 2-4 ACC) are a loss away from clinching a losing season — assuming they don’t scramble late to make up a September game against Louisiana-Monroe that was canceled by Hurricane Irma.
This team started the year ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason poll, which goes to show preseason rankings guarantee nothing. But they usually indicate a team on its way to a postseason bid somewhere. Since the AP expanded to a top 25 in 1989, only three teams that began the year in the top five eventually finished with a losing record. That star-crossed group includes 2000 Alabama, 2005 Tennessee and 2010 Texas. Unless Florida State wins out against Syracuse, Clemson, Delaware State and Florida, it will join the list.
It’s already well on its way to becoming the 13th team to begin a year in the top five and end it unranked in the last 29 years. It’s become more common in the last decade, but still isn’t an every-year occurrence.
Preseason top five to unranked finish, since 1989
(Unrelated side note, since Fisher’s buyout is about $39.3 million: Only two coaches on this list didn’t return to their respective underachievers the following year. A burned-out Urban Meyer left Florida in 2010, two years after winning a national title. And Alabama’s Mike DuBose was fired in the middle of the 2000 season but allowed to coach the rest of the year.)
The Seminoles’ defense didn’t live up to its advance billing, but they have far greater problems on offense. Yes, their receiving corps has dealt with injuries and freshman James Blackman had to learn on the job after Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Under the conditions, Blackman’s acquitted himself well and demonstrated plenty of toughness. If Florida State hadn’t misfired in its quarterback evaluations in previous recruiting classes, though, Blackman would probably be in line for a redshirt season.
The program’s offensive line has been a jumble for a few years, a problem obscured some by former tailback Dalvin Cook’s talent for turning nothing into something and something into a lot. Cook left after last year, and the result is not good. The running game isn’t as strong, and the pass protection is struggling as well; Florida State is 118th nationally in sacks allowed.
Conventional wisdom was Florida State could be one of the season’s most interesting teams. As it turns out, a pending offseason likely to bring staff changes is going to be far more fascinating in Tallahassee.
Stuck in the Swamp
The shelf life of the typical power conference football coach gets shorter and shorter. That said, it’s still amazing to think Florida will have its sixth full-time coach in 18 seasons when it kicks off next Labor Day weekend.
Steve Spurrier resigned after the 2001 season. Ron Zook lasted three seasons. Then Meyer won two national championships in six years. Will Muschamp’s tenure covered four seasons. Jim McElwain didn’t even last three years in Gainesville. That’s a lot of turnover, in part because Florida’s had a knack for picking guys who were either not quite prepared or simply overmatched when it wasn’t hiring Meyer.
Three things stand out to make the Florida gig an interesting brew of characteristics. One is access to talent thanks to its location, which makes sub-.500 seasons difficult to justify beyond extreme misfortune or coaching malpractice. The second is the demands of fans, who grew accustomed to great offenses in the Spurrier and Meyer eras and have little patience for boring football. If Florida’s going to scatter some losses across its schedule, it had better be in 38-35 or 42-38 shootouts. Setbacks by 17-16 and 19-17 margins do not play well with the Gators’ fan base.
Finally, there’s the often-overlooked fact of Florida’s relatively recent emergence as a national power. Prior to Spurrier’s arrival in 1990, the Gators had three finishes in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll, all in the 1980s. They had 10 under Spurrier, then three under Meyer and one in Muschamp’s stint (a No. 9 finish in 2012).
Greatness isn’t guaranteed for Florida, but geography is enough of an ally that a new coach should inject some life into the program relatively quickly. But heaven help whoever gets the gig if he can’t extract the Gators from what’s become almost a decade of offensive doldrums. It wasn’t what got McElwain tossed aside, but it would have eventually.
Pac-12’s playoff problem
The Pac-12 has a problem. A big one. No, it has nothing directly to do with the release of the College Football Playoff committee’s first rankings for the season. Those should be largely ignored and fretted about less with five weeks of games still to come.
It has everything to do with the loss column, which inescapably matters a ton in a 12- or 13-game season. Lose twice, and the chances a team is going to end up in the top four at season’s end diminishes greatly. At the very least, a two-loss team is going to need chaos elsewhere or an overwhelming resume to earn a spot in the semifinals.
As November begins, only one Pac-12 team has suffered less than two losses. That would be Washington (7-1), which played a manageable nonconference schedule (though that game against Fresno State looks more respectable now). The Huskies also have Stanford and Washington State still to come. Washington’s profile will be a lot meatier if it defeats both of those teams and then knocks off the Pac-12 South champion (preferably for the Huskies, either a 10-2 Arizona or a 10-2 Southern California). But barring chaos coupled with a torrid finish for Stanford, the Huskies look like the Pac-12’s last hope of landing a playoff berth.
Five games to watch
No. 7 Penn State at No. 24 Michigan State (Saturday, noon, Fox): The Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) are coming off their first loss of the season and can ill-afford to feel sorry for themselves. If they do, they are a near-lock to find themselves in a first-to-score-20-wins slog against the Spartans (6-2, 4-1).
No. 4 Clemson at No. 20 N.C. State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC): Neither team can clinch the ACC’s Atlantic Division this week, but the winner is a good bet to make it to Charlotte. Clemson (7-1, 5-1) looked sharp last week against Georgia Tech, while N.C. State (6-2, 4-0) will try to shrug off a loss at Notre Dame.
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 11 Oklahoma State (Saturday, 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1): It’s effectively a playoff eliminator in Stillwater, where Baker Mayfield and the visiting Sooners (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) face Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys (7-1, 4-1) in a matchup of two of the nation’s most exciting offenses.
No. 13 Virginia Tech at No. 10 Miami (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): Between this and Clemson-N.C. State, it’s almost like the ACC has a set of league semifinals this week. The Hurricanes (7-0, 5-0) can clinch the Coastal Division with a victory coupled with a Virginia loss to Georgia Tech, while the Hokies (7-1, 3-1) would have the inside track on a return to Charlotte if they can leave South Florida with a victory.
No. 19 Louisiana State at No. 2 Alabama (Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS): Can Ed Orgeron’s Tigers score against Alabama? Like, at all? LSU (6-2, 3-1 SEC) has scored 63 points in its last six games against the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0), absorbing two shutouts in that span. Both teams are coming off a bye week, so expect the defenses again to be ultra-prepared.
Read more from The Post: