CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To Florida State, this trophy used to be a trinket.
A little bit of happiness on the way to something far more grand. The Seminoles would stack their Atlantic Coast Conference titles in a corner, then go about the business of conquering the rest of the nation.
For this program, the ACC was always the prelude and never the final act.
Which is why it looked so strange to see them leaving a season behind in such a hurry Saturday night. Few players lingered. Fewer still mingled. As Virginia Tech celebrated its 44-33 victory in the ACC Championship Game, the Seminoles had little reason to stick around.
Never had the ACC crown seemed so important.
And never had losing it hurt so much.
"It was tough. It was tough. But you've got to use this moment as a stepping stone," said receiver Bert Reed. "I really feel that we'll remember this feeling. And we won't let it happen again next year."
For a team that once won nine consecutive conference crowns and 12 out of 14 from 1992-2005, it has to be devastating for another senior class to walk away without a league title. This makes five consecutive seasons without a ring to call their own.
The Seminoles also lost their shot at the Orange Bowl and will now finish with a largely meaningless New Year's Eve date at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
Still, if you are a fan of Florida State, ask yourself this:
Do you feel better now than you did at the end of last season?
Did you see enough improvement in the defense? Were you impressed at how FSU, once it got past the beatdown in Oklahoma, had an opportunity to win every single game? Are you excited that 17 of the 22 starters Saturday night are eligible to return in 2011?
No, this has not been a return to the glory days. It was more like a glimpse of days to come.
The first steps of a new coaching staff. The opening chapter for a new quarterback. The introduction of a reinvented program.
"I like the direction we're going. I thanked the seniors for the work they did setting the standard of how to do things, and now the young guys have to carry on," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I feel very good about our future. I really do. I like the direction of our program."
If there was disappointment, it was with FSU's defense. Nothing had contributed more to Florida State's success this season than the growth of the defense under new coordinator Mark Stoops. The Seminoles had gone from giving up 30.75 points per game in 2009 to allowing 17.83 points this season. And then they fell apart against Virginia Tech.
It was like suffering a bad acid flashback. Everywhere you looked there were the same broken coverages and blown assignments that had doomed FSU last season. Quarterback EJ Manuel would get the Seminoles within sniffing distance of the lead, then the defense would allow some Virginia Tech receiver to run wide open across the middle.
"We couldn't slow them down in the second half," Fisher said.
Two years ago, Manuel was imitating Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor for FSU's scout team before a regular-season game against the Hokies. Now, he was playing opposite Taylor in FSU's biggest game in years.
The kid was not perfect, but he was good. He was very, very good.
Manuel did not look intimidated. He did not look confused. He ran the offense calmly and efficiently for most of the night. His biggest mistake turned out to be the biggest play of the game, but even that could be excused.
FSU was leading 3-0 in the first quarter when Manuel tried to squeeze in a pass that was deflected by Virginia Tech's Bruce Taylor and dropped right into the hands of linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, who returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
FSU would trail the rest of the night, but it wasn't sunk until Manuel's second interception early in the fourth quarter.
And so another season falls short of glory in Tallahassee. Another season has failed to rekindle memories.
Still, there were strides taken.
These days, hardly anyone is shouting that Florida State president T.K. Wetherell destroyed a football program when he nudged a legend out the door. It was one year ago this week that Wetherell essentially fired Bobby Bowden and left a permanent scar on a program's facade.
The results have been mostly sunny. FSU beat Florida for the first time since 2003. The Seminoles reached the ACC title game for the first time since 2005, and early indications are they have their best recruiting class in years.
It isn't what they wanted, but it is a start.
As it turns out, a new start.