CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a span of four days last week, Florida State lost three times.
On Saturday, the Seminoles lost a heartbreaker to rival Florida in the final game of the season on their home turf. On Sunday, they lost their leading tackler and star defensive end, Tank Carradine, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And on Tuesday, they lost their beloved defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, to Kentucky. Never mind the constant swirl of rumors about head coach Jimbo Fisher following Stoops into the SEC for another head-coaching gig.
“There were a lot of distractions this week,” FSU athletic director Randy Spetman said.
Despite it all, one thing Florida State didn’t lose was sight of its goals.
With a 21-15 victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday in the Dr Pepper ACC championship game, the Seminoles knocked any perceived distractions over like bowling pins. There was no sign of a hangover from the Florida game as FSU jumped out to a convincing 21-6 lead at the half. The news about Carradine and Stoops inspired the defense to a game-changing finish in the fourth quarter, as an interception by Karlos Williams sealed the ACC title with about a minute remaining. For a fleeting moment late Saturday night, as confetti scattered in the air and the Seminoles celebrated their first ACC title since 2005, the rest of the college football world was forced to pause and finally let the Noles enjoy themselves.
They earned it.
“We are still ACC champions, and that is one goal,” FSU safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “We had a lot of goals and we met one of them. We have another one in front of us. That makes greatness, grasping opportunities in front of you.”
In order to do that, they had to forget the missed opportunities behind them -- the loss to NC State, the loss to Florida.
There’s no question there was a sense of relief from within the program Saturday night. This is a team that began the season ranked No. 3 in the country. The loss to NC State knocked the Noles out of the national title conversation and will continue to haunt them long after this season ends. Five turnovers in a loss to Florida was another statement opportunity squandered. And with Georgia Tech in position to put together a game-winning drive late in Saturday's game, NC State 2.0 looked like a very real possibility.
It was almost as if you could hear the entire city of Tallahassee exhale all the way in Charlotte when Williams snagged that pick.
“Oh man,” defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. “Oh, man. We’ve been trying to get here for a long time. That’s why I thank God for letting us win this game and I thank the seniors for helping this program get back to the top and get back into the national title conversations and winning these ACC championships and Orange Bowls and those types of games. We’re Florida State. That’s what’s supposed to happen. It wasn’t nothing miraculous. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t matter.
Give 'em a break. In the end, Florida State is right where almost everyone predicted this summer it would be: heading to the Discover Orange Bowl. While many will continue to lament what could have been, Florida State is staring down what is: the possibility at a 12-2 season with an ACC title and a BCS win.
Not exactly a five-loss Rose Bowl team, now is it?
“I’m extremely happy for our players because I know how hard it is and how much flak they’ve taken: ‘When are you going to be back, when are you going to win a championship, when are you going to do this,’” Fisher said. “... There’s a point in time you point back and you look at it and you say, ‘That was it.’ That’s the time that you got over the hump and you got there and you didn’t let the circumstances blur your vision, and they did that.”
It doesn’t always have to be about playing in the shadow of the SEC or comparing what’s happening in Charlotte to what’s happening in Atlanta. It wasn’t time to ask whether Fisher was the right man to replace Bobby Bowden. For once -- just once -- it can be simply about putting a trophy in the case and letting a group of players -- kids -- who have been through a lot enjoy it.
“I’ll be extremely proud of it 10, 15 years from now,” quarterback EJ Manuel said. “I’ll be able to say I helped our team get back to where we needed to be as far as the BCS conversation, the national championship conversation and things like that. I want to see greatness from here on out. We have a lot of great players, a lot of great young players, and guys understand what it takes to get to this point, so I don’t see us going back to where we used to be. I think Florida State is back in the conversation.”
Thanks in large part to the defense, which held Georgia Tech and the nation’s No. 3 rushing offense to just 183 rushing yards.
“You didn’t want to work this hard for three years and not be able to finish this,” Stoops said, “because our program, Coach Fisher and the players deserved this win.”
And they deserve to celebrate it -- without any distractions.