TALLAHASSEE -- On Saturday night, Florida State saw it all come crashing down.
The hype, the undefeated season, their ability to control their own Atlantic Coast Conference destiny were all shattered at the hands of North Carolina State, 17-16.
For the past two years, the Seminoles have entered the season as a Top-10 team, a national title dark-horse, and collapsed beneath the weight of the pressure.
Last season it seemed more excusable. The team had been anointed a year too early. Injuries cost them severely. The schedule — with a huge game against Oklahoma backing up to a road date against Clemson — was too hard.
But last night, after surrendering a 16-0 lead to an overmatched NC State team in a mistake-ridden second half, it’s a lot harder to overlook. The Seminoles dropped from No. 3 in the rankings to No. 12.
The athleticism and the depth might have returned to FSU, but the leadership and killer instinct of yesteryear have not.
Last night seniors and team leaders made crucial mistakes — for the second consecutive week. A punt was blocked and down the stretch a top-five offense with a fifth-year senior quarterback and offensive-minded head coach were held to 121 yards and no points by a defense that gave up 651 yards the week before.
After entering the game 5-0 looking to make it 6-0 for the first time since their last national title in 1999, the Seminoles saw this season’s championship hopes dashed in 30 minutes of sloppy football.
The Seminoles didn’t lose their shot in a fit of glory so much as they just tripped.
Now FSU faces a crucial crossroads in its season. All year long players and coaches have talked about a new culture in the locker room and a new breed of player at FSU.
After several tumultuous seasons at the end of the Bobby Bowden era, the team claims to have finally improved team chemistry.
This week will test that seriously.
After getting praise in the media, the Seminoles now will start to get their first bad press. On campus things will feel different. Diehard fans who have become jaded by recent seasons — where one loss snowballs into two or three more — will expect more of the same.
FSU can still have a fantastic season though. The Seminoles likely won’t be able to win a national championship, but even with an embarrassing loss at NC State, the Seminoles can still run the table and win the ACC.
But the team needs to buy in and refocus and players can’t lose interest like in years past.
If FSU can get back on track, taking winnable games at home against Boston College and Duke, on the road at Maryland as well as winning tough battles at Miami and Virginia Tech, it could set up a Top-10 matchup at the end of the season with Florida, which is ranked No. 4.
Depending on how motivated they are, the Seminoles could still finish the season 13-1, with an ACC championship and an Orange Bowl title under their belt.
That’s a success by any measure.
After Saturday night’s game junior defensive end Bjoern Werner gave an impassioned locker room speech asking players not to give up, but to band together. That the Seminoles still have plenty of goals within their reach.
He’s right, they can still have an extremely successful season.
That is if the team buys in.
But if recent precedents are any indication, this might not be FSU’s last loss.