TALLAHASSEE — By the time the night had ended, there was nothing tangible for them to hold onto. No perfect record. No Top 5 ranking. No victory.
When they walked away from the most intense night of their football lives, there remained only one consideration worthy of comfort.
On this night, the Florida State Seminoles had earned vindication.
Vindication for a group of players who had been humiliated by Oklahoma just one year ago. Vindication for a head coach who was asked to replace a legend a short time ago.
Vindication for fans who had gone years in between moments such as this.
For a short time on Saturday night, the Seminoles were again at the center of the college football world. They played the No. 1 team in the nation to a virtual standstill for the better part of three hours before falling 23-13.
"There's no such thing as a good loss, but we know where we are now," said quarterback Clint Trickett, who came in for the injured EJ Manuel in the third quarter. "We played a bad game. That's what's so weird about it. We played a bad game against the No. 1 team in the country, and it came down to the last seconds.
"That's a statement where we are as a team."
Despite its lofty ranking to begin this season, FSU is not quite there as a legitimate national title contender. The defense still has problems in the secondary, and the running game is a non sequitur.
But if this were a growth chart, the Seminoles jumped several inches beyond what any reasonable fan might have expected. And they did it in prime time on national television.
"Fans have always heard how good Florida State was back in the '90s. Tonight, I feel we showed that we're coming back," senior punter Shawn Powell said. "We still have little things here and there that we have to clean up, but we're getting back to the FSU of old.
"We're a new Florida State team, but the type of competitiveness we had back then is coming back."
And, it should be noted, hardly anyone was talking about FSU's decision to push Bobby Bowden out the door.
Remarkable how quickly that furor passed. Amazing how suddenly the issue became moot. Seventeen games later, the world seems convinced that move was at least necessary, if not inspired.
For it is hard to imagine FSU would have advanced so far so quickly if Bowden still was roaming the sideline. That doesn't mean the Seminoles have already regained lost glory; there is still much ground that must be made up.
But it is hard to argue that Jimbo Fisher's ascension hasn't changed the fortunes for a program that had been stuck in neutral for far too many seasons in a row.
"We know we can compete up there with the top guys," Trickett said, "and that we are some of the top guys."
More than anything, FSU is no longer a joke on defense.
Go back to Bowden's final season — and the final season of defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews — and the Seminoles were giving up an absurd 30.75 points a game.
Seventeen games into the reign of new coordinator Mark Stoops, the Seminoles were holding the No. 1 team in the nation to 13 points through three quarters.
Oklahoma drove 80 yards on 15 plays to open the game but struggled to maintain consistency after that. In a span of two drives in the first half, the Sooners were kept out of the end zone on eight consecutive goal-to-go plays.
FSU still needs better athletes in the secondary, but this defense is as potent as anything seen in Tallahassee in quite some time.
"Defensively, they weathered the storm," said Fisher. "They kept us in the football game in the end."
FSU can be good. The Seminoles can be very good.
But they will absolutely have to find a running game if they want to remain relevant through December. The running game was spotty in the first two games against lightweights, and it was nonexistent when Manuel left the game Saturday.
At this point, it's difficult to understand why FSU is reluctant to use James Wilder. The freshman from Tampa's Plant High did not play in the opener, made a strong impression in the second game, then was ignored again Saturday.
Still, the most important thing is a direction has been established and confidence has been rediscovered in the head coach's office.
"I hope people saw how tenacious our defense is. I hope they saw how much work we've put in," Trickett said. "I hope it changes peoples' perceptions of us."