Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
SHREVEPORT, La. — Florida State’s tumultuous football season, which began with national title aspirations followed by a steep decline and surprising coaching change, is mercifully near its end.
The Seminoles have been bruised by a mix of close losses and injury problems. They mounted a late push for bowl eligibility and coped with the testy departure of former coach Jimbo Fisher.
Along the way, the Seminoles have matured and shown signs of gratitude and relief for their 2017 season, which will end against Southern Miss (8-4) at the Independence Bowl today (1:30, ESPN, 1010-AM).
FSU will play in its 36th consecutive bowl game — a streak the Seminoles say should stand after refuting a Reddit report last week that questioned their bowl eligibility. A victory would clinch the program’s 41st consecutive winning season and restore their pride.
"A win is a win, but going through this season, we showed our character and determination to finish the season strong," sophomore defensive end Brian Burns said.
"We had a lot of injuries and things we had to deal with, but we worked to become bowl eligible and now, we’re here. There’s no option besides coming out with a win. We have to dig down deep and get a win."
FSU began the season ranked No. 3 nationally, ready to make a leap toward the team’s first ACC title since 2014 behind a talented team that went 10-3 in 2016.
But an opening-week loss to No. 1 Alabama, marred by a season-ending injury to star quarterback Deondre Francois, made for one of the worst starts the Seminoles could have suffered.
It set the tone for a difficult year.
FSU suffered last-minute losses to Miami and Louisville and reached a boiling point after a blowout loss at Boston College but improved to finish 4-1 in the final five games before the bowl.
Fisher, the eighth-year head coach who replaced legend Bobby Bowden and led the Seminoles to the 2013 national championship, bolted for Texas A&M for a 10-year, $75 million deal while openly admonishing FSU and its administration’s commitment to the football program in the process.
It took five days for the Seminoles to land new coach Willie Taggart, the former USF and Oregon coach who immediately re-energized the program.
In the interim, longtime defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins has kept the team united and geared toward finishing the season at the 17th different bowl game in program history on a positive note.
"Coach Haggins has been like a father figure to us," said sophomore cornerback Levonta Taylor, who was recruited to play at FSU from Virginia by Haggins.
"He’s been a father figure to everyone on this team, just building the program back up. It’s been a rough season, but since he stepped in, everybody is head over heels and ready to go out there and fight for him."
Taggart and members of his new coaching staff, who have evaluated the Seminoles during their bowl game practices, are expected to watch the players in action during the bowl game.
While the players want to "put on a show" for Taggart, as junior running back Jacques Patrick said, redshirt junior offensive lineman Alec Eberle wants the current group of Seminoles to cherish their last game together.
"Any chance you get to go to a bowl game, it’s a huge opportunity," Eberle said. "A chance to come to this bowl game after the season we had, with all the ups and downs, the adversity we faced, it’s awesome. This team has another chance to play a game together. After this game, this team will never be the same."
Haggins wants the Seminoles to remain focused on beating the Golden Eagles, with an emphasis on putting the past behind them.
"We’ve moved forward and put the challenges behind us," Haggins said of FSU’s rocky season and its coaching turnover. "We’re having fun as a family, as a group and as a university. We’re moving forward."