Thu Sep 02 01:33pm EDT
The last word on the season's most pressing topics.
It's a testament to the thoroughness of Florida State's dominance in the late eighties and early nineties that the national perception of the 'Noles has consistently been colored at least as much by that decade as by the one that just passed. But these are the grim facts: FSU hasn't finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll since 2000, hasn't won 10 games since 2003 and hasn't won an ACC championship since 2005.
It hasn't beaten Florida since Ron Zook's second season in Gainesville, in 2003. With the old ACC dominance shriveling away and Urban Meyer's Gator Death Star at full strength, the highlight of the last four years was a blowout of Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl. That came on the heels of a three-game losing streak against Wake Forest, and amid three 7-6 finishes in those four years, which were largely stricken from the books, anyway, by a widespread academic cheating scandal.
Over the years, that decline has been laid at the feet of a string of middling, disappointing and occasionally scandalous quarterbacks, injury-ravaged offensive lines and epic flops by the once-highly-touted likes of Fred Rouse, Callahan Bright, Adrian McPherson and Brandon Warren. Other big-name recruits, like Antone Smith and Justin Mincey, finished mediocre careers with little fanfare. But looming over all of it, just as he had in the scorched-earth years, was the titanic scapegoat, Bobby Bowden.
There's no need to recount Bowden's rise and fall as the legendary, back-slapping overseer of one of the most dominant runs of his or any era. But as much as he was the common link between the golden years and the slowly fading 'Noles of the last decade, by the end he had become an ossified, out-of-touch, nepotistic liability, a doddering figurehead overseeing a geriatric coaching staff beset by generational squabbles between Bowden's old guard and the up-and-coming replacement that had been foisted on them by the university, Jimbo Fisher. The situation was in such obvious disrepair last September that a university trustee openly called for Bowden's head in the midst of a three-game losing streak – matching the longest of Bowden's tenure – and outgoing FSU president T.K. Wetherell had no choice but to cut the extended farewell short a year earlier than planned.
To backward-looking loyalists, the whole affair was a sordid disgrace to the name of an undisputed legend. But for a certain, sizable segment of the FSU base, the old man's demise finally meant morning again in Tallahassee, the decisive moment for the old ACC order to be restored. And that moment is now Fisher's to seize.
Even among the most ardent Bowden apologists, Fisher's first mandate is to deliver on that optimism. As offensive coordinator, he made obvious strides in raising the offense from the depths of the ill-fated Jeff Bowden Experience, which still stands as the prevailing symbol of the 'Noles' overall decline, to a consistently high-scoring affair led by the first competent FSU quarterback in years, Christian Ponder. As head coach, Fisher has another mole to whack, this time to recharge a vastly underachieving defense that somehow yielded more yards than any other unit in the ACC last year, a far, far cry from the relentless Mickey Andrews defenses that routinely left opposing quarterbacks in broken heaps at the hands of a soon-to-be first-rounder throughout the nineties. For that, he's enlisted the youngest of the Coachin' Stoops Brothers, Mark, to take over a still-talented group that cannot possibly be worse than it was last year on its way to the bottom of the conference.
If the new blood on the sideline is the savior of the struggling empire, though, the worst fear is that the decay is already too far gone to prevent the total, walls-falling-in collapse that seemed so inevitable under the old regime. The 'Noles teetered on the brink of a losing season throughout the end of the Bowden era, struggling through two 6-6 regular seasons since 2006, but without ever taking the sub-.500 plunge – Bowden "retired" on 32 consecutive winning seasons – at year's end. What happens to the prevailing optimism if this team, plagued by an alarming dearth of playmakers (Ponder notwithstanding) on both sides, is the one that finally goes under? Ponder's throwing shoulder is an unknown quantity after offseason surgery, and his gung-ho style tends to put him in harm's way more often than Fisher would probably like; the defense could significantly improve and still qualify as "bad." With a schedule that includes four teams in every preseason top 25 on top of Atlantic Division peers Clemson and Boston College, FSU could easily be a single upset loss away from another 6-6 regular season, and the sobering realization that the malaise didn't leave with the old man.
At the end of the year, then, the prevailing question – above specific goals like a division or conference championship, or even ending the losing streak to Florida – is whether a stagnant program has regained some momentum toward its birthright as ACC overlord and perennial national contender under the new administration. If so, it's full speed ahead to the top. If not, we may get a chance to see sooner rahter than later just how deep FSU's issues really run.
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Previously: Nebraska comes full circle, quarterback willing. ... Big 12 leaves its fate to the young guns. ... Alabama's defense reloads (or does it?) ... Rich Rodriguez's last stand.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.