ORLANDO — There have been better wins, for bigger stakes, underneath brighter lights. There has been more meaning, and more flash, and prettier performances. At the end of the game, there have been bigger trophies.
And so it is that, after a nice little win to complete a nice little season, that you can imagine the first question of a Seminoles fan:
What did this mean?
This time, the answer is a good one. Before it is done, this victory might mean everything.
This was a victory about Thursday night, and this was a victory about the 2012 season. This was a feel-good comeback against a team that used to be a big deal, and it could lead to future victories over teams that still are. This was a win in the Champs, and who knows, it might end up contributing to the next FSU champs.
This was FSU wrapping up one season and making you feel better about the ones to come.
When you think about it, what more can you expect from a midsized bowl than that?
No, this wasn't FSU's slickest performance, either. For three quarters, you didn't know if the Seminoles offense was based on a game plan or a leftover script from the Marx Brothers. Interceptions. Fumbles. Penalties. Sacks. Dropped balls. Missed blocks. The offensive line couldn't block anyone, and quarterback EJ Manuel looked as if he was standing in front of a buffalo stampede, and it didn't seem as if FSU was going to score until sometime next September. When Notre Dame went ahead 14-0, the deficit felt like 40.
Yet, the Seminoles came back to win 18-14 for their seventh win in their final eight games. Down the stretch, FSU beat Miami, Florida and Notre Dame — all teams that used to be somebodies — which makes the offseason look all warm and fuzzy. No, FSU hasn't returned to elite status, but from here, it doesn't look that many playmakers away, either.
What did this win mean?
For coach Jimbo Fisher, it showed why FSU thought he was worth giving a contract extension to before the game. After it, he might have been too expensive.
For Manuel, it means his senior season could be a lot of fun. Granted, he looked lost in the teeth of the Notre Dame pass rush for three quarters, but Manuel passed for two touchdowns in 96 seconds early in the fourth quarter. He still needs to smooth out some rough edges, and the Seminoles still need to tweak the offense to get him into open spaces. Still, Manuel has a chance.
For defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, it shows why so many teams were interested in offering him work. The FSU defense won this game, holding the Irish to one offensive touchdown.
For a recruit looking at the FSU program, it is worth a "hmm." FSU showed a lot of life, a lot of potential. At this point, the other college programs in the state are chasing the Seminoles.
"People are worried you're not getting back," Fisher said. "I think this season helped us get back as much as anything because we never faltered. You were 2-3. When they hit the practice field after we lost to Wake Forest to lose three games in a row, I knew we would have a good season because they hadn't changed one bit.
"Part of growing as an organization is understanding and controlling all of the things around the game, not the game but the media and the expectations and the fan base. What you can't control, and what you have to do to stay focused and live in the moment. I think they learned that this season. I think this thing will propel us better than if we had a super season."
No, this wasn't up there with the great seasons that FSU had more than a decade ago. Everyone knows that. At FSU, every season, every game, every drive is measured against the years of what FSU used to be, and what it is trying to be again. It has been 11 years since FSU finished in the top 10, and it has been six since it was in a BCS bowl.
Still, the memories are still vivid enough that the faithful leaves a light on, hoping excellence will find its way back.
A victory such as this one makes the season feel as if it's a step in that direction. It wasn't long ago the Seminoles were 2-3 and riding a three-game losing streak.
"We were close," Fisher said. "Go look it up, we were close. But there were details we left out. Hopefully, the details will be the difference and take us over the top next year."
From there, FSU got better. It is a young team, one that started only two seniors on offense and two on defense Thursday. There is no reason not to expect FSU to crack the top 10 next season.
Okay, okay. This was the Champs Bowl. Dynasties are not reclaimed at bowls such as this, and greatness is not restored. But steps can be taken in the right direction, and a team can find a bit of momentum.
As they say, it's a start.
Is there a better way for a season to finish?