It was a quiet day in Tallahassee last March when Jimbo Fisher sat in his office, offering perspective on what happened to his team the previous season.
There are no play sheets to consult when a team loses its best player to a devastating injury, and the effect on Florida State when safety Derwin James went down in Week 2 – well, it was staggering. The following week, the Seminoles looked listless and out of sorts in an embarrassing loss to Louisville. Two weeks later, they lost to North Carolina.
Players struggled with new roles, but they also struggled without their leader. To those who watched, the vacuum was obvious.
“I call it the Michael Jordan effect,” Fisher said in March. “As long as Jordan was on the floor and they knew they had Jordan on the team, we’re going to play and Mike will make it right. It becomes a mentality. And then the way it happened with Derwin, it took us a while to adjust and get guys right, and then it made other guys’ roles jump and change. It’s an impact. You prepared for that, but when it’s the main guy, sometimes it takes a little bit of time.”
Those words are especially prescient now that Florida State has lost starting quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury, a major blow to a team with championship aspirations. What are the odds that one team loses its best player in consecutive seasons? Yet here the Seminoles are, stuck in the same scenario.
Fisher put on a brave face when he met with the media Monday, telling reporters, “We've got a heck of a great football team in front of us that we can still go do some great things and have a tremendous year.”
That may be true. Florida State put an elite defense on the field against Alabama on Saturday night, and has players on offense capable enough of making the necessary plays to win. But there are obvious personnel questions now that Fisher has tabbed true freshman James Blackman the starter at quarterback.
Blackman has only been on campus for a few months, and though Fisher said he will not change the offense with a freshman running the show, the play calls must be tailored to what Blackman can do. Getting Blackman ready in a week's time is a challenge in itself.
Beyond that is the psyche of the overall team. Fisher saw first-hand how the James injury impacted his players mentally a year ago. It was Francois’ mettle, grit and determination that helped unite the team to respond.
That North Carolina loss served as a turning point, and Fisher credits Francois for that. Florida State finished 10-3, with an Orange Bowl win over Michigan. “The respect our guys got, our team started changing,” Fisher said back in March. “He had as much an impact on that as any. Not just his playing but his competitiveness and toughness.”
So when Francois went down Saturday night, the expectation was that he would pop right back up, the way he had done so many times. Instead, he lay on the turf in agony. It took a month for Florida State to pull out of its spiral after James got hurt. Losing a starting quarterback, whose toughness became a rallying cry, has the potential to shift the dynamic in more far-reaching ways.
What happens to Florida State’s season now is anyone’s guess. To make it into the College Football Playoff, the Seminoles will in all likelihood need to run the table. Whether they can do it with the first true freshman to start at Florida State since 1985 becomes the immediate question.
“I didn't see nothing in the rule book that says he can't go play well or our team can't go play well,” Fisher said Monday.
Maybe Blackman does play well. Ohio State won a national championship with its No. 3 quarterback only a few years ago.
Or maybe, as was the case last year, it takes a little bit of time.