TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State team buses pulled into Doak Campbell Stadium for the final time this season on a clear-skied December morning, past half-empty tailgate lots toward a small group awaiting their arrival.
Interim head coach Odell Haggins walked off first, to loud cheers. Family members stepped forward to hug their sons and brothers. And within a few minutes, coaches and players had disappeared into the tunnel. In that moment, it felt as if another dimension had opened, swapping the traditional game-day atmosphere at Florida State for something entirely unrecognizable.
This is a team that opened the season No. 3 in the nation. That had championship expectations. That had an elite head coach who vowed only months earlier, "There's no reason for me to go anyplace else. This is a destination job."
The Seminoles fully expected to be playing on this very December day, but they thought they would be in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC championship game. Instead, they prepared to play Louisiana-Monroe in a game rescheduled from September, just so they could try to keep a bowl streak alive.
Players bounced through pregame warm-ups to blaring music, going through their normal routine. But the stadium was eerily quiet.
Nothing about this season proved to be normal.
What unfolded from July to December qualifies as one of the most unexpected Florida State seasons in recent memory. The Seminoles went from contender to afterthought in roughly a month, becoming the first preseason top-three team since Tennessee in 2005 to finish .500 or worse.
How did Florida State get here?
Over the summer, Florida State became a popular choice to make the College Football Playoff. Among 38 ESPN college football experts polled, 26 had the Seminoles making the top four. But it was not just outside expectations that were high.
Coach Jimbo Fisher and his players believed they could be championship contenders too.
"Our goal is the national championship every year," Fisher told the First Take crew during a visit to ESPN in July. "The internal pressure is greater than the external pressure. It always is. This is what we live with daily, and we're looking forward to it. It brings a sense of urgency to your players."
The litmus test would come in the season opener against Alabama, a game Fisher said he would use to measure where his team stood. The hype surrounding the game exceeded anything previously seen. Dubbed "The Greatest Opener of All Time," Florida State and Alabama stole all the headlines in the months leading up to the game.
Florida State defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi recalled this past weekend that former players told the Noles: "Forget the national championship game; this is the game I want to play in."
"So we heard that all the time: This is the game we've got to win," Nnadi explained.
For nearly three quarters, the Seminoles stood toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide, thanks to an exceptional defensive effort that completely shut down quarterback Jalen Hurts. But the game snowballed after multiple gaffes by the Florida State special teams.
The worst was to come.
With 5:48 remaining, quarterback Deondre Francois was tackled from behind on a rollout. His knees buckled. He was helped off the field and loaded onto a cart. He lifted his hands in prayer as he was taken to the locker room. The news emerged a short time later: Francois injured the patella tendon in his left knee; his season was over.
Fisher and the Seminoles had the entire season left to play, without their best player on offense.
Looking back on the injury, defensive back Derwin James said Saturday that Francois was "the engine of our program, our team -- he's the quarterback, so him going down was a big loss."
Fisher had to reevaluate his entire team.
"What are the strengths of the team, what are the weaknesses and figure out how we've got to play," Fisher said during a sit-down interview with ESPN.com in November. "Obviously, the defense was the strength of our football team. And then when you lose your quarterback, you have to try to play accordingly to them, and that's how your thought process goes: How do you make this team successful?"
Fisher chose true freshman James Blackman to start the following week against Louisiana-Monroe, a Group of 5 opponent that would help ease him into the starting job.
But then Hurricane Irma hit Florida.
The game against ULM ended up getting postponed. So did the Week 3 game against Miami. FSU was able to continue practicing, and Fisher kept the team in Tallahassee, which is why the 21-day stretch between games became so challenging. Fisher treated the ensuing weeks like another training camp, working his players as hard as he did in August. Contrast that to Miami's team, which spent nine days apart without practice because the hurricane heavily impacted South Florida.
But in hindsight, Fisher sounded remorseful. Because during fall practice, coaches pushed players with an end goal in sight: Alabama. Without that incentive, practice became more difficult.
"It was a challenge for our kids, and it did change our football team, just a little bit, in that they had another camp," Fisher said. "They went through three more weeks, and basically, that's what you did in fall camp. We were pushing -- we've got a big game, and you can keep driving. Now we play, we don't have success, and I've got to do camp again and again and again?
"The challenge came from, as I watched them, about a quarter way in. I started noticing guys would practice hard and little things were not going quite as well, and you've got to get on them; and I know in their mind they're thinking, 'Coach, I'm two weeks away from playing.' But that was the part -- keeping them totally focused in there -- that was tougher than I anticipated."
Perhaps the dynamic on this team changed over those 21 days.
"That whole time, my confidence went down a little bit because I don't know if I'm really doing what I'm supposed to be doing," Nnadi said. "We had just lost the biggest game ever, so when it happened how it happened, I think everybody just went down a little bit. We could maybe take our anger out on the next team, but a hurricane canceled it. Maybe the next team? Nope, still can't play. So we're here in camp after a loss. It just felt like what are we doing? We want to play somebody, but we're still just practicing and practicing and practicing."
Not only did the Seminoles have to sit on a tough loss to Alabama for three weeks, they came off their break to play NC State with a true freshman making his first career start at quarterback. Blackman held his own for large stretches against one of the best defenses he would play, but Florida State had absolutely no success in the red zone -- scoring just one touchdown on seven trips inside the 20.
It was the Florida State defense -- the unit Fisher deemed the strongest -- that failed to come through in critical situations, especially on several third-and-longs that sustained scoring drives. Perhaps it was an omen for things to come when James gave up a 71-yard touchdown reception. Florida State lost, dropping to 0-2 for the first time since 1989.
Incredibly, Florida State had no hope for the playoff just four weeks (and only two games) into the season.
"We finally got cleared to play, but at the same time, we haven't played a game in so long people might be a little sluggish," Nnadi said. "It gets to be a lot to deal with mentally and physically. I feel like mentally, we weren't ready."
Fisher said after the loss to NC State that there was no panic, only an increased urgency. With seven ACC games remaining on the schedule, perhaps the Seminoles could surprise a few teams and make it to the conference championship game. A come-from-behind win against Wake Forest the following week made it abundantly clear that this season would be a struggle unlike any Fisher had experienced as Florida State's head coach.
Still, Florida State had plenty of confidence headed into its showdown against rival Miami in their rescheduled game. The Seminoles had won seven straight in the series and got to play the game at home. Over their three most recent games, Florida State had always made the play in a tight game to win.
So when Blackman threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate with 1:24 remaining, the exuberant Seminoles sideline rejoiced. This would be the play that followed all the others.
But again, the Florida State defense faltered, allowing Miami to convert on two third-and-10 situations. With six seconds left, Malik Rosier threw the game-winning 23-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Langham, who made the play on top FSU cornerback Tarvarus McFadden.
"It was a shocker," Fisher said. "We've always, always made the plays we've had to at the end of these games. We've won these games. I keep saying find the inches. It's not a cliché, it's a fact; that's your culture, that's your practice habits, that's go find where we can get a little bit better and relax in those big moments. It shocked us as a team. No one hurt worse than our guys. No one hurt worse for them than I did."
James offered his take.
"We wanted to keep that streak alive," the DB said. "That's the one that hurt the most."
Two weeks later, Florida State lost another close game at home to Louisville, and afterward, Fisher got into a verbal altercation with a fan who screamed for coaching changes.
Somehow, that would not come close to rock bottom.
That happened just six days later, in Boston. Florida State sleepwalked through a 35-3 loss to Boston College, looking nothing like the team picked in the preseason to win the ACC championship. Yes, the Seminoles had lost their starting quarterback, but every single starter on defense remained. That includes multiple players who will be first-round NFL picks. They looked uninspired and lackadaisical, though Fisher disputes that assertion.
Maybe more concerning, it was the fourth straight season that Florida State had lost a game in blowout fashion. In three of those games, the Seminoles went in as the favorite.
The loss dropped Florida State to 2-5, and suddenly its hopes of getting to a bowl game for the 36th straight season seemed in real jeopardy. No game against an FBS opponent could be guaranteed anymore, not after that performance.
Fisher struggled for answers.
Meanwhile, linebacker Jacob Pugh told reporters in Tallahassee that the team had a lack of leadership: "Everybody is just doing their own thing, pretty much. Nobody is really focused."
After a loss to Clemson dropped Florida State to 3-6, reality set in: The Seminoles had to win out to keep their bowl streak alive.
But there was another reality that began to crystalize, one that seemed even more unimaginable than the season that had unfolded. Texas A&M targeted Fisher to be its next coach, and despite rebuffing overtures from LSU in recent years, many believed this time Fisher would leave.
Word leaked out in early November. In the days leading up to Florida State's game against Delaware State on Nov. 18, Fisher told ESPN.com, "I'm never going to respond publicly on any personnel, whether it's our staff decisions, my decisions or any of those things. That's the world we live in."
Did he get tired of his name constantly being linked to other jobs?
"I don't hear it," Fisher said. "I'm locked into what I'm doing here."
Fisher spent the next two weeks declining to discuss the reports. More than that, he never publicly stated his desire to continue as Florida State head coach. Folks in and around Tallahassee grew increasingly frustrated.
Fisher wanted to stay on to coach the team against Louisiana-Monroe. But once it became obvious Fisher wanted out, the situation became so untenable that he resigned -- the day before the game. Haggins took over as interim coach and addressed his players.
"We all have a job to finish," Haggins told them.
Fans and players embraced Haggins for taking over. Not only did he get loud cheers off the bus, he got a standing ovation when he was introduced during pregame warm-ups, and the warm salute continued throughout the game. There was a different energy on the sideline, a different cohesiveness. Everybody understood keenly, they were in this together.
Florida State won 42-10 to clinch a bowl appearance for the 36th consecutive season. Players doused Haggins with Powerade afterward. Nnadi stopped his coach on the way to the tunnel, toward the locker room, to give him a hug. A visibly emotional Haggins got choked up.
"I am not going to say Florida State is 6-6; they had a subpar season," Haggins said. "I am going to say our kids learned a lot this year about life."