Seminoles coach Mike Norvell didn’t downplay the importance of his first taste of the Florida-Florida State rivalry, especially with bowl eligibility at stake for both teams.
“It’s a huge week for our program,” Norvell said during Monday’s weekly news conference. “This team, to be able to get into Week 12, especially how it started, with the opportunity to play for one more …”
Norvell didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t need to. FSU’s turnaround speaks for itself.
Who would have thought two months ago that the ‘Noles would be the steadiest — and perhaps best — program in the state?
That doesn’t mean as much as it should as Florida’s teams stumble to their worst collective season in almost 50 years. But it shouldn’t diminish the progress FSU has made this year.
When FSU blew a lead in the final seconds to lose at home to Jacksonville State in Week 2, the situation looked bleak. The Seminoles didn’t have a quarterback. Their secondary looked clueless. Their top-15 recruiting class seemed vulnerable. Their coaching staff, deservedly, came under fire after the worst loss of the program’s modern era.
Since then, FSU has shown steady improvement — the kind of growth you’d expect from a young team with a young coaching staff that hit rock bottom.
The Seminoles have found an offensive identity under quarterback Jordan Travis. FSU is 5-2 when he starts this season; the only losses were the overtime opener against No. 5 Notre Dame and a close loss at a Clemson team that’s back around the top 25.
FSU threw nine interceptions in the first five games but has only thrown one in the last six. An offensive line that has used more starting configurations than any team in the country (eight) is no longer the liability it used to be.
Its defense has recorded an interception in seven consecutive games, and the number of yards it has allowed per game has fallen every month.
The slow-but-steady growth shows up in ESPN’s SP+ rankings — opponent-adjusted advanced metrics. After the Jacksonville State debacle, the Seminoles ranked 64th nationally. Three weeks later, they were 63rd. After Week 7, they were up to 50th. Two spots higher after Week 10. Now 44th heading into the regular-season finale.
Granted, the ‘Noles expect more than respectability. An invite to the Gasparilla Bowl or Military Bowl is a failure most years. Norvell acknowledges that.
“Is our record where we want it to be? No,” Norvell said. “But throughout this season, there’s been a lot of lessons that have been learned.”
Two jump out from last week’s win over Boston College.
The first came in the closing minutes when Akeem Dent leapt for a game-sealing interception. It’s the type of pivotal, crunch-time play FSU failed to make early this season against Notre Dame, Jacksonville State or Louisville.
The play was especially noteworthy for what happened during the week. During a two-minute drill in practice, Dent had a would-be interception bounce off his hands to a receiver who scored. But when the moment counted, Dent made the play that kept FSU’s bowl hopes alive.
“You’re seeing those positive developments that are occurring through the experiences they’re having, whether it’s on the field in a game or in a practice,” Norvell said. “These guys, they’re truly growing.”
The other moment came afterward, when FSU had to choose someone to break the rock — an honor that’s a part of victory celebrations. Norvell had a player in mind, but a couple players asked for defensive coordinator Adam Fuller to do it.
Fuller was the subject of intense scrutiny after Jacksonville State. For him to become the center of triumph at his players’ request was, as Norvell called it, “a joyful moment to see.” It was also a clear culture-building sign of respect — one of Norvell’s program pillars.
“We will achieve success,” Norvell said. “When we get there, we’ve got to make sure that it is built the right way so that not only when you achieve it, that you can sustain it.”
FSU has not yet achieved true success, let alone sustained it. But Norvell’s Seminoles have shown enough this season to make you think they’re headed in the right direction.
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