TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There are two games left on the docket for Florida State, and in the aftermath of Saturday's emotional loss to Florida, those will become the focal point for a team rocked by disappointment.
It's been seven years since FSU has won an ACC championship, 17 since it won an Orange Bowl. These next two games can still provide an optimistic coda to a season that, compared with so many that have come before, represents marked progress for the program.
And yet, Saturday's loss might be the lingering memory for this Florida State team, the line of demarcation between progress and greatness, expectations met and goals left tantalizingly out of reach. Fair or not, the Gators were the best measuring stick Florida State will see this season, and the Seminoles came up short.
"I don't think this game should define our season," receiver Rashad Greene said. "You have to look at the whole season, not one particular game."
Perhaps that's the true frustration of Saturday's game though -- not that FSU floundered on its biggest stage, but that the signs were there all along. The loss to Florida wasn't the aberration, but rather the culmination of concerns that lingered in the background through the first 11 games of 2012.
At the line of scrimmage, it was Florida that was the more physical team. FSU's run defense wore down, which certainly came as a surprise given the unit's dominance for two straight seasons, but in a year in which the Seminoles had won so many games by such wide margins, they'd never been tested like this before.
"We had a lot of confidence coming in here being able to run the football," Florida coach Will Muschamp said when it was over. "We've run it well versus everybody. We've run it well versus better defenses."
Florida State lost the battle in the trenches on offense, too, with EJ Manuel routinely under pressure. He took just two sacks in the game -- both costly -- but pressure led to at least one of his three interceptions, and it caused him to exit the pocket and absorb a brutal blow in the fourth quarter that changed the course of the game.
Florida's defensive front was easily the most talented FSU had seen this season, but the signs of trouble were already there. In the previous two games, the Seminoles' line was shaky, and Manuel was dumped for eight sacks.
"I'm not going to take anything from [Florida], they did a good job," Manuel said. "But I thought I could've executed better."
Ultimately, the difference in the game was the turnovers -- five of them in all. They led to 14 Florida points and likely wiped at least six points off the board for Florida State. Manuel called his four contributions "uncharacteristic," which for the efficient quarterback is a fair statement. For Florida State, however, turnovers have been a ticking time bomb.
"We shot ourselves in the foot, and with great teams like that, they'll capitalize on mistakes," running back James Wilder Jr. said.
FSU had a special teams fumble for the sixth time in 12 games Saturday. The five turnovers represented a season-high, but also the climax of a growing trend. In its last six games, FSU has 16 fumbles -- 10 of which it lost -- and seven interceptions. The Seminoles' 23 turnovers for the season put them in a class with Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Boston College -- near the bottom of the national standings.
For all the miscues and missed chances, however, Florida State still had a chance to win. The Seminoles were outplayed, but they were not outclassed. The same resilience they showed against Clemson and Virginia Tech was prominently displayed in a dizzying third quarter in which a 10-point deficit was quickly transformed into a seven-point lead, as Werner and Manuel rallied their troops and, for a few brief moments, gave Jimbo Fisher all the ammunition he'd need to rail against inept computer rankings and pollsters who undervalued FSU's potential.
And then, of course, it disappeared.
"There was ample opportunities," Fisher said. "We just didn't capitalize."
There are two games left, and Saturday's loss doesn't end the quest for an ACC championship or a BCS bowl victory. It doesn't negate the 10 wins that preceded it or overwhelm the immense progress Fisher and the departing senior class has made during the past few years.
But Saturday was, in large part, a microcosm for the 2012 season for Florida State. The Seminoles hung with the best in the nation and proved they belonged, but also had their fatal flaws exposed by a Gators team that was simply better. There is no shame in losing to the No. 4 team in the country, but there is also no better way to judge just how far Florida State has come or how much farther it has to go.
"It's not over because we lost this game," Greene said. "We've still got to work. We've still got to get better."