Two years after ugly loss, FSU riding high

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The ugly details flooded back, and Jimbo Fisher spit them out, one by one, like an investigator still piecing together a crime scene, years after the case had gone cold.

Everything about Florida State’s last trip to Wake Forest was dismal. Fisher’s quarterback was hurt, his line was inexperienced, his tailback suffered a career-threatening injury. The team was unfocused, coughed up five turnovers, and lost for the third straight time. It was the nadir of Fisher’s tenure as Florida State’s head coach.

Thinking back on it Monday, Fisher exhaled a deep sigh, then grinned.

“That seems like a long time ago,” he said.

It was just two years ago, but for the current Seminoles, it might as well have been another lifetime.

Florida State has played 30 games since that loss in Winston-Salem, N.C. In all 30, the Seminoles have held a lead in the fourth quarter. They’ve won 27 of those games, including their first eight of the 2013 season.

The personnel has changed a bit, and the coaching staff underwent turnover. Scheme is new and expectations have certainly shifted. But the biggest difference between Florida State today, and the team that fell to Wake Forest in 2011, is the mind-set.

Two years ago, losses against Oklahoma and Clemson the previous two weeks demolished the team’s psyche, and Wake Forest was the hangover. On Monday, linebacker Telvin Smith had trouble recalling who Florida State had played two weeks ago.

“That was a lack of focus on our part,” Smith said of that 2011 defeat. “But that’s one thing I don’t worry about with this team. Everybody’s focused week by week. I don’t have the same feeling going into the game with this team I’ve got now.”

Unlike Fisher, Smith wasn’t overwhelmed by the haunting memories of that 2011 loss. He remembers NBA star and Wake Forest alum Chris Paul was there, and he’d been excited about that. The other details, those have long since faded.

There were lessons in how that game played out, however, and those are what the Seminoles have held close in the two years since. If building a championship team is a process — something Fisher’s fond of saying — then the Wake Forest loss was a fundamental step along the way.

The day after that game, the team held a meeting. The loss was impossible to explain, but they weren’t interested in making excuses anymore. It was about putting things in the right direction again.

“I’m glad we had that year,” said center Bryan Stork, who made two tackles following interceptions in that 2011 loss. “Because I learned a lot.”

Florida State had to learn how to cope with disappointment, and Wake Forest was the ultimate elixir. In the year that followed, the trappings of success proved another dangerous diversion, and other hard lessons followed.

"We probably had the ability," Smith said. "Now we have the focus with the ability."

As Florida State stands poised on the precipice of an undefeated regular season, with four games remaining, none against opponents with a winning record, their obstacle now is simply time. The challenge is maintaining the focus, remembering the lessons.

The Seminoles can look back on that game two years ago, and see how far they’ve come. They can look ahead to a potential spot in the national championship game and see how far they still have to go. The idea, Fisher said, is not to do too much of either.

“We’ve evolved, and hopefully we can learn and continue to evolve,” Fisher said. “Tomorrow and the next day, you have to try and get better and better to get where we are trying to go.”