TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With a little more than two weeks until Florida State kicks off against Pittsburgh on Labor Day, it’s a good time to analyze what went right and what didn’t in coach Jimbo Fisher’s first three seasons.
Florida State is 31-10 through three years of the Fisher Era. Plenty good, for sure. Plenty of losses, especially considering the program dropped only 13 games in the 1990s.
The good times include a 3-0 mark against Miami and consecutive bowl wins over South Carolina, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois. There was an ACC title in December as part of a 12-win season in 2012.
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The defense was considerably better under Mark Stoops, whom Fisher gets credit for hiring. Stoops transformed Florida State, which had been ranked 100th nationally in 2009, to one of the top 25 the next season and in 2012 the Seminoles were second in total defense; only national champion Alabama was better.
So when Stoops landed a job as Kentucky’s head coach, Fisher went searching for a coordinator and grabbed Jeremy Pruitt, who won a pair of national titles as Alabama’s defensive backs coach.
Two Florida State quarterbacks, Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel, were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Until Ponder was taken in the 2011 draft at No. 12 overall by Minnesota, the Seminoles had never placed a quarterback in the first round.
One other measuring stick should be Florida State’s record against Southeastern Conference programs. While it’s a small sample size, and many fans have begged for the school to schedule more SEC programs, the Seminoles are 2-1 against Florida and 1-0 vs. South Carolina. At a time when the ACC has struggled to hold up its end against the SEC and other top conferences, Florida State has fared well (the exception being a 37-26 loss to the Gators in Tallahassee in 2012).
And the coaching staff, despite a ton of change this offseason, also is doing far better on the recruiting trail. All of the classes under Fisher have been considered among the best in the nation, including the No. 1 class of 2011. The Seminoles are ranked fourth in the 2014 rankings, which take into account the 24 verbal, non-binding commitments.
There have been low points, too — plenty of games in which Florida State tripped up despite being overwhelming favorites and having a considerable talent edge.
The Seminoles fell at N.C. State in 2010 on a fumble on the goal line as time expired. A week later, North Carolina scored 37 points and put up 439 passing yards, and Florida State missed a field goal in the final minute and lost.
In 2011, Florida State fell at Wake Forest, which was the tail end of a three-game slide after losses to No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 21 Clemson. And then there was a homecoming loss to Virginia in November, a game in which Florida State dominated for 55 minutes before falling flat late and missing a field goal at the end.
While the 2012 season opened with a 5-0 start, the Seminoles let a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away at NC State and lost 17-16. After the game, Fisher questioned his playcalling. He seemed to be doing the right thing and taking the heat off his players. But two days later he argued that he wouldn’t have done anything different and found fault in the team’s execution. His reversal was not taken well by fans, who took to social media.
Six ACC losses in three years, and five at the hands of unranked teams, is a disturbing trend. If Florida State wants to again be a national title contender, it can’t allow the trip-up games to continue.
But the bar was set incredibly high during the Bowden Era. From 1987 through 2000, Florida State finished in the top five of the AP poll every year.
Think about this: Nick Saban and Alabama have just two consecutive years of placing in the top five — the Tide didn’t crack it after a 10-3 season in 2010 — so Alabama would need 12 more top-five finishes to achieve what Bowden did.
Here’s the other aspect of Fisher’s first three seasons at Florida State: They stack up well — extremely well — against many other coaches who are replacing a legend. Consider what other programs have gone through:
Florida: Steve Spurrier, like many college coaches, gave it the ol’ pro try in 2002. And the Gators chased Bob Stoops, Mike Shanahan and others before going with Ron Zook. He went just 23-14 and was dismissed during his third season. To Zook’s credit, he recruited well, but he didn’t get the chance to see the success with the national titles that Urban Meyer had after him.
Georgia: After Vince Dooley retired, the Bulldogs turned to Ray Goff, who went just 19-16 in his first three seasons. And Goff was done after seven seasons in 1995, recording just one 10-win season.
Alabama: Ray Perkins was the choice to fill the enormous shoes of Bear Bryant. Perkins had a losing mark (5-6) in 1984 and went 22-12-1 in his first three seasons at Alabama. His best year was a 10-3 mark in Year 4, and then it was off to the NFL.
Nebraska: When Tom Osborne retired following a national title early in 1998, the Cornhuskers turned to longtime assistant Frank Solich. His first three seasons were solid, with a 31-7 mark that edges Fisher’s first three years. But then Solich was dismissed after going 7-7 in 2002 and 9-3 in 2003.
Oklahoma: Gary Gibbs was the man tasked with cleaning up the program after Barry Switzer’s resignation in 1989. Gibbs struggled with sanctions and scholarship limits, and Oklahoma was 24-10 in his first three seasons and 44-23 before he was dismissed after the 1994 season.
Ohio State: After Woody Hayes was fired before the 1979 season, Earl Bruce stepped in and led the Buckeyes to within a victory of the national title. He then added a pair of 9-3 seasons, making him 29-7 in his first three seasons. He was a consistent winner until a 6-4-1 mark in 1987 ended his run in Columbus.
Miami did the best job of replacing coaches, moving from Howard Schnellenberger to Jimmy Johnson to Dennis Erickson to Butch Davis to Larry Coker over three decades. But none was in Coral Gables long enough to be a considered a legend, and Miami’s sustained success generally is not attributed to having an iconic coach.
It’s OK to be quick to criticize and praise in college football. Fans and media alike do it each week. But remembering the struggles elsewhere should make more people appreciate and put into perspective what Fisher has accomplished in his first three seasons at Florida State.