I attended Florida State University from 2005 to 2007, well after the heyday of its football team under Bobby Bowden had passed. The Seminoles won the ACC during my freshman year, and the expectations were high again the following year. That season, however, ended up being an unbridled disaster by FSU standards; a 7-6 record, five losses by a touchdown or less, and one catastrophic failure against Wake Forest at home.
I was at that game against Wake Forest, having gotten the student tickets with my friends (and roommates) just days before. We had pitched a shutout at home against Virginia during the previous weekend; while that was unlikely against a surprising Deacons team, my friends and I figured we'd be treated to a good, competitive showdown at the Doak.
Man, were we wrong.
The calls for Jeff Bowden's firing began immediately after the first three-and-out. Wake Forest took the lead up a field goal, then added another... then scored a touchdown... and another. The not-so fearsome quarterback tandem of Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee produced a comedy of errors behind center, eventually combining for four picks. Most of the student section gave up the ghost by halftime, deserting the stands by the thousands before the marching band took to the field.
My group of friends decided to stick around for another quarter -- to this day, we don't know exactly why -- but even we had seen enough by the end of the third. The team fared no better after we left, in spite of the game having long been decided as a contest.
The final score: Wake Forest 30-0 Florida State. We were shut out at home for the first time during the Bobby Bowden era. The heads began rolling as soon as the clock hit all zeros: Jeff Bowden was relieved of his duties approximately 20 seconds after the game, much to the relief of every FSU fan worldwide.
When I went back to class the following Monday, there was a pall hanging over the entire campus. What was normally a hornet's nest of sound and activity had been reduced to an area full of sullen, desolate faces. I can't recall what the weather was like that day, but after that heavy defeat, the local forecast may as well called for a perpetual rainstorm.
* * *Those of us who attended Florida State at any point during that timeframe -- circa 2005 to 2011 -- had occupied a strange place in the FSU football fandom: fully aware of the program's glorious past, but accustomed to witnessing unrelenting mediocrity and heartbreak. Our mindset was a strange mix of cautious optimism and unwavering trepidation. The phrase "hope for the best, brace for the worst" wasn't so much a cliche, as it was a reality of our existence as Noles fans.
I saw this firsthand during the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, which pitted the Seminoles against Notre Dame. I sat in the top row of the upper deck on the FSU side of the Citrus Bowl, and was able to observe both sets of fans from my vantage point. When the Domers went up 14-0 early in the second quarter, I could hear a pin make its way down to the concrete, much less make contact with the floor. There was a palpable sense of dread along the entire sideline. Every FSU backer, it seemed, was bracing for impact, if only in a figurative sense.
Fortunately, we mounted a comeback, and sealed a gritty 18-14 victory. Both programs were expected to make huge strides next year, and possibly even contend for a national title. One team did indeed make it to the BCS Championship Game... but it wasn't the Seminoles. A calamitous late loss against Mike Glennon and his underdog NC State team put to paid our title hopes, while Notre Dame led a very charmed life the entire season, until they ran into a juggernaut Alabama team in Miami.
2011 Champs Sports Bowl, viewed from my seat
For all of our unfulfilled promises stretching back over a decade, the expectations before the 2013 season were no different than in years past: national championship or bust. The painful lessons learned during the early days of Jimbo Fisher's reign would finally sink in. The hopes and dreams were certainly there in abundance; but could the team finally deliver on them?
The showdown in the hostile environment of Clemson, SC would provide some much-needed answers to that question. Jameis Winston, who had gone from an urban legend to a one-man hype machine in about a month, would be facing his first test against a formidable foe. Admittedly, I was nearly pissing my pants in the build-up to this game. I made the conscious decision to watch the game alone, as I feared the possibility of seeing Tigers fans do so much as flashing a s**t-eating grin.
Then the Seminoles systematically destroyed Clemson on their own turf.
That was the moment when I started to genuinely believe. That was when I realized this squad could be a transformative, existence-altering one for FSU football. That was the moment when I realized this team was...... different.
* * *As easy as this is to say after the fact, I never doubted the Seminoles' ability to emerge victorious this past Monday in Pasadena.
This was a team that had proven to be a very dominant bunch, obliterating every team that stood in their way. They had made mince meat out of every big rival we faced: Clemson, then Miami, then Florida. Most importantly, we had a Heisman-winning quarterback who somehow managed to improve every week, even as he was facing the possibility of having his entire productive life come to an abrupt end.
My belief in my team was at an all-time high. Even as the game gradually got away from the Noles in the first half, I believed this team had enough confidence and quality to turn it into a proper contest after halftime. Even a back-breaking touchdown by Tre Mason couldn't completely obliterate my confidence, as it left enough time on the clock for one last miracle drive from our redshirt talisman.
The entire 80-yard march took a little more than a minute on the game clock; the breaks in play made that minute feel like an hour. The referees waited for what may as well have been an eternity after Kelvin Benjamin caught a short pass from Winston in the Auburn endzone... but they were always going to signal for a touchdown. It almost appeared pre-ordained, from the moment we were introduced to Jameis Winston, the precocious quarterback, during the build-up to the 2013 season.
I didn't get into college football until I actually got accepted into one, so I never got to see the Bobby Bowden-led FSU teams that played at an elite level for almost 15 years. They were desperately trying to live up to those lofty standards when I first stepped foot in Tallahassee. They never quite managed to accomplish that while I was there, and the disappointments of those years left the entire fanbase all the more beholden to the past.
And that is why seeing Fisher, Winston, and everybody on the FSU roster celebrate becoming national champions means so much to those who were there during our darkest seasons. It has a special place in the hearts of those laid witness to some heartbreaking losses, home and away. It resonates that much more to those of us who were in the stands for that Wake Forest game, when our illusions were shattered, and our conscience torched.
We've seen Florida State football at some of its lowest points. That's what makes our climb back to the mountaintop so magical.