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Why one of the state’s ugliest games was a turning point for Florida, FSU and Jimbo Fisher

The 2017 Florida-Florida State game was comically bad. And, looking back 35 months later, enormously significant in a way that resonates this weekend.
The 2017 Florida-Florida State game was, at times, comically bad. But three years later, that unwatchable matchup looks like an inflection point for the Gators, the Seminoles and Jimbo Fisher.
The 2017 Florida-Florida State game was, at times, comically bad. But three years later, that unwatchable matchup looks like an inflection point for the Gators, the Seminoles and Jimbo Fisher. [ Times (2017) ]
Published Oct. 9, 2020

The 2017 Florida-Florida State game seemed like a forgettable episode of one of the finest rivalries in college football.

There were two botched extra points in a struggle of four-win teams. Two passes that hit receivers in the hands became interceptions. Two different players tripped over teammates and fell in the backfield.

It was comically bad. And it, turns out, enormously significant.

That 38-22 November loss was rock bottom for the Gators' historically inept offense. It was a four-quarter microcosm of the problems that continue to plague the Seminoles. And it was the last moment of garnet and gold glory for Jimbo Fisher.

Three years later, one of the ugliest games in recent history looks like a watershed moment for Florida college football — one worth revisiting this weekend as Fisher’s No. 21 Aggies take on No. 4 UF for the first time since that slop fest at the Swamp.

Related: Beating Florida helped Jimbo Fisher build Florida State. Can he do the same with Texas A&M?

Rock bottom at UF

Florida State defensive end Brian Burns (99) sacks Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) during the first quarter of the Nov. 25, 2017, rivalry game.
Florida State defensive end Brian Burns (99) sacks Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) during the first quarter of the Nov. 25, 2017, rivalry game. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The Gators earned their first loss of that Saturday before kickoff: Chip Kelly was taking the UCLA job. Scratch him off the list of possible replacements for Jim McElwain, who awkwardly exited a month earlier.

Things didn’t get much better once the game started. UF had a bad snap, gave up a strip-sack touchdown and threw an interception … and that was just the first quarter.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks threw two other interceptions — one was a pick-six, and the other should have been — during an 18-of-39, 184-yard day. An offense with four future NFL skill players averaged an anemic 3.8 yards per play, and the most accurate kicker in the country had an extra point blocked.

When the game, and season, had mercifully ended, UF had its fewest passing touchdowns (10) in more than a quarter-century and its second-lowest scoring average (22.1) in the past three decades.

But there were flashes of potential, like a first-half tackle for loss by Vosean Joseph (a 2019 fifth-round pick).

“Whoever that new coach maybe is going to step into some very good active players,” ESPN’s Anthony Becht said during the broadcast.

With Jim McElwain out, Randy Shannon served as UF's interim coach during the end of the 2017 season.
With Jim McElwain out, Randy Shannon served as UF's interim coach during the end of the 2017 season. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

But who would that new coach be? With Kelly out, Scott Frost seemed like the option. Becht threw out another name: Mike Norvell.

As UF floundered, Dan Mullen had the game on while fielding phone calls from his home in Starkville, Miss.

“I was just watching to see what the team looked like,” Mullen said.

Apparently he liked what he saw. Mullen took the UF job a day later, and the program’s years-long offensive ineptitude disappeared.

Mullen’s Gators have topped that day’s point total (22) in 18 of their past 19 games. Their passing efficiency through this season’s 2-0 start is more than 100 points better than in the 2017 finale, and their 7.8 yards per play rank second nationally.

Related: Why it’s championship or bust for the Florida Gators

Less than 35 months after fielding an unwatchable offense, the Gators are one of the most entertaining teams in the nation.

A bad omen for FSU

Quarterback James Blackman didn't have a great day in the 2017 win over Florida.
Quarterback James Blackman didn't have a great day in the 2017 win over Florida. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Even with a double-digit victory, FSU’s on-field product was not worth celebrating. The problems that are still plaguing the 'Noles were everywhere.

A leaky offensive line? FSU allowed 11 tackles for a loss that day, and only two teams this year have lost more yards to negative plays than FSU (126).

Inconsistent quarterbacking? James Blackman was 10-of-21 for 128 yards at UF. Now a redshirt junior, Blackman’s on the bench as FSU prepares to start its third different quarterback (Jordan Travis) in three games.

Related: Florida State’s new starting quarterback: Jordan Travis

Wasted talent? Despite boasting a pair of five-star NFL running backs (Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick), FSU averaged only 2.8 yards per rush against the Gators. Top-12 recruiting classes from 2016-18 have resulted in 12 wins since the start of the 2018 season heading into Saturday’s trip to No. 5 Notre Dame.

The most damning part, however, remains the multitude of mind-numbing mistakes.

That day’s lowlight was five-star linebacker Matthew Thomas' interception. With an open path to the end zone, Thomas started showboating 7 yards before the goal line. He stumbled and went down at the 1, then was flagged for excessively celebrating a touchdown he did not score.

Matthew Thomas' would-be touchdown was the ugliest moment of an ugly game.
Matthew Thomas' would-be touchdown was the ugliest moment of an ugly game. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

You can draw a line from that blunder to the program’s current disarray. FSU led the nation in penalties each of the last two years (9.2 per game) and is somehow averaging even more this year (10.0).

At the time, the struggles looked like an aberration for a powerhouse that would quickly rebound. Three years later, we know that’s not the case.

They were signs of a program starting to rot as its coach headed for the exit.

Related: From 2019: Why Jimbo Fisher deserves blame for FSU football’s mess

Jimbo Fisher’s farewell

Jimbo Fisher celebrates what ended up being his final game as FSU's head coach.
Jimbo Fisher celebrates what ended up being his final game as FSU's head coach. [ Times ]

Even as Fisher savored a school-record fifth consecutive win in the series, the possibility of his departure hung over FSU.

Rumors about Texas A&M pursuing Fisher had been brewing for weeks. So was this Fisher’s final Florida-Florida State game?

“Don’t start that,” Fisher said afterward. “I love Florida-Florida State. I hope not, that’s for sure.”

Three years later, Fisher insists he didn’t know it would be his final game with the Seminoles until later. But it was. He bolted for Texas A&M, becoming the first coach in 41 years to leave a school where he won a national title to take another college job.

His Aggies have a lot of similarities to his final FSU team. One of the nation’s most talented teams is 18-10 under his watch. The quarterback play has been pedestrian behind a leaky offensive line.

Related: Five thoughts on Florida-Texas A&M

Fisher said this week that his Aggies are making progress. Their young talent has the right intangibles to build his program the right way.

It sounded a lot like what he said after his final Gatorade bath in Gainesville.

This ended up being Jimbo Fisher's final ice bath with the Seminoles.
This ended up being Jimbo Fisher's final ice bath with the Seminoles. [ MONICA HERNDON ]

“There’s so many young players on this football team,” Fisher told ESPN. "There’s so much effort and ability…

“This team has never quit the whole year.”

Six days later, Fisher quit to take the A&M job.

And Fisher, Florida and Florida State have never been the same.