Florida State finished the last two seasons with identical 10-3 records. But the feeling this offseason has been far from the same.
There are reasons why. Florida State has a returning starter at quarterback, and a defense that showed it had the potential to be elite. Combine that with the way the Seminoles ended 2016, and expectations have skyrocketed, both inside the program and out.
That all leads back to a question that coaches try to answer every single season: How much momentum does a team gain with a strong finish and major bowl victory? Contrast the end to 2015 and 2016. Florida State ended 2015 with a 38-24 loss to Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Once spring practice opened, coach Jimbo Fisher criticized his players more than usual for their lack of focus and preparation.
When the 2016 season began, Florida State needed a second-half rally to beat Ole Miss then got blown out at Louisville in Week 3. A home loss to North Carolina left the Seminoles at 3-2, questioning themselves and their season.
“Sometimes we came into games and thought because we’re Florida State, that people were going to lay down for us,” tight end Ryan Izzo said. “We’re going to get our best shot from every team.”
Fisher explained it this way.
“I always say it’s like your kids. You say it to them 100 times, but until they experience what you tell them, it’s not reality,” Fisher said. “One of the hard things for people to do, including coaches and everybody, is to change, to look at things and take a deep evaluation and change, and that’s why we really did change. It was more I get it now. When they’re young, you don’t ever know which one of them understands how to focus on detail or are getting by what they’ve always gotten by with. They had to learn.”
Florida State closed the year with wins in eight of its final nine games. But the biggest two for momentum and confidence came to close the season, against rival Florida and in the Capital One Orange Bowl against Michigan.
The Seminoles went into that game as the underdog (and with consecutive dispiriting bowl losses, too). Though they had to withstand a late comeback from the Wolverines, Florida State reached 10 wins for the fifth straight season.
And truthfully, those wins felt just a little more gratifying considering where they stood through five games. Not all 10-3 records are created equal, after all. And those wins helped the returning players focus much more in the offseason. They also helped Fisher with some of his motivational tactics, because he got a glimpse at what this team could be headed into 2017.
“I’m not saying this is like 2012 to 2013,” Fisher said, referring to the offseason that led to the national championship. “But they learned to believe in each other a lot. At the end of the season, we started to play so well, and I saw how they started to trust each other. You see how they practice and communicate and you get a feel for how they interact.”
Izzo believes this is the closest team he has been on, noting, “When somebody sees somebody slacking, somebody sees somebody not focused, we all pick each other up and make sure we point out that guy. I think our team being so close, that’s why everybody stays so focused because everybody is honest with each other.”
The leadership Derwin James provides cannot be overstated, either. Even while he was hurt last year, he tried to remain a leader, but there was a dynamic shift on the field players had to adjust to with James out.
His return to the field has just added another dimension.
“I know everyone looks up to me in certain situations,” James said. “I think I do a great job of leading by example. It’s very important to me, what my teammates think of me and what my coaches think of me, and that’s why I try to work hard and be that vocal leader we need on this team. Without leadership you can’t win a championship.”