The Florida State Seminoles are now on the outside looking in. It will take some work for them to regain national status this season.
Reaching the College Football Playoff looks like a very tall task. They need help for a shot at the ACC title.
As FSU tries to distance itself from a score that no one will soon forget — Louisville 63, FSU 20 — Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher is still fielding a question that won’t go away.
What went wrong?
At this point, there are other questions that matter a lot more.
Which FSU team will show up when the Seminoles (2-1) head for Saturday’s non-conference road game against the University of South Florida Bulls (3-0)?
Is FSU beaten-down and dispirited?
Or will it come out fighting?
“One game doesn’t define you unless you let it define you,’’ Fisher said. “It should drive us, not define us.’’
That sounds like the proper path, but some mental gymnastics will need to be executed.
After all, Saturday’s trip to Raymond James Stadium was supposed to be a warm-up act for FSU’s hoped-for return engagement, when the College Football Playoff championship game is staged in Tampa on Jan. 9. At the moment, that looks like a stretch because FSU needs Louisville to lose two ACC games just to have a shot at the league title.
FSU’s best shot is to dismiss any thought of that, going week by week, taking each game as it comes. Saturday’s game against the Bulls, contenders in the American Athletic Conference, will be difficult enough. After dealing with Cardinal quarterback Lamar Jackson, now the clear Heisman Trophy favorite, the Seminoles must find a way to stop USF quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Rodney Adams, who have helped the Bulls average 48.1 points over the program’s last seven games.
FSU’s best shot is to reset a battered defense which is still without its best player, injured safety Derwin James.
Its best shot is to figure out how to get Dalvin Cook going. The junior running back has fallen off the map — at least by his standards — in the first three games. It has caused some to wonder if he’s still hurt with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Or maybe the added 10 pounds of muscle are working against him, negating his elusiveness (or both).
Cook has 228 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns in three games, which is a far cry from his pace of 2015 — 1,691 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns — when he battled hamstring and ankle injuries.
Last season, Cook had a 266-yard rushing game against USF — the second-highest total in FSU history — and that type of production would certainly give some hope to the Seminole offense. It would also take the pressure off redshirt quarterback Deondre Francois, who was under siege against Louisville.
Fisher insists that Cook is fine physically.
“There’s nothing wrong with Dalvin,’’ Fisher said. “Normal bumps and bruises. Probably healthier than he was a year ago when you get right down to it.’’
Early in the game, Fisher said Cook was inches away from an 80-yard touchdown run, but a block was missed. It seems ridiculous to claim it was a game of inches in a 63-20 outcome, but Fisher’s larger point is FSU’s failure to execute the details, big and small.
As glamorous as FSU’s program has seemed at times — with flashy players and highlight-reel performances — it starts with the dirty work. So far this season, the Seminoles haven’t played with precision.
“You’re going to find out what defines us,’’ Fisher said.
“It isn’t the scoreboard. It isn’t the national championship. It isn’t a Heisman Trophy or a watch list for (another award).
“It’s about playing football. Going back to the process and remembering why you play football and how you have success. When you have success, you grind, you do the little things, which I thought we had done, but not well enough.’’
It’s back to basics.
It starts Saturday at USF.
“We eliminate the clutter and go back to each other,’’ Fisher said. “Sometimes, you have to do that. We need to do that.
“It’s like a lot of teams that faced that issue in the past. I don’t want to face them like we did. It’s very disheartening in a way. But hey, it’s reality.’’