ATLANTA – In the months leading up to Florida State’s season opener against No. 1 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Jimbo Fisher insisted that the contest was just one of 12 on the schedule. That, win or lose, the Seminoles’ season wouldn’t be totally defined by one game.
After a 24-7 defeat in which No. 3 FSU played well in stretches but undermined its cause with a series of special-teams miscues and turnovers, the Seminoles will have a chance to prove their head coach right.
Just how difficult that task will be remains to be seen.
The Seminoles lost the game, and they also lost starting quarterback Deondre Francois to an apparent left knee injury late in the fourth quarter.
The redshirt sophomore went to the locker room on a cart while freshman James Blackman finished the game. Fisher didn’t have specifics on Francois’ injury during his postgame press conference, but did say, “Unfortunately, he’s hurt.”
“I don’t know (the severity) until we diagnose it and see,” Fisher said. “I’m not a doctor. … I don’t know. I’ve learned to wait until they see.”
If Francois is unavailable, Fisher said Blackman would “most likely” be his replacement.
The Seminoles, 0-1 for the first time since 2009, host ULM next week at 7 p.m.
“I saw (Francois) and I hugged him and told him I’m sorry he’s hurt,” Fisher said. “(I told him) we’ll get the diagnosis and I love him and we’ll figure out what we’ve got to do from here.”
“To look on back and see your quarterback on the ground holding his knee, that’s definitely something that’s frightening,” center Alec Eberle added. “But, at the same time, knowing Deondre, knowing he’s a tough guy, knowing he’s a perseverant guy, I think he’s going to be OK.”
While most pundits agreed that a loss to Alabama wouldn’t permanently damage FSU’s College Football Playoff hopes, losing Francois would be a difficult hurdle for the Seminoles to overcome.
He was expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, if not the nation, and he’s by far the most experienced quarterback on FSU’s roster.
On Saturday, Francois threw for 210 yards and a 3-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate that gave the Seminoles a 7-3 lead and had the FSU contingent at Mercedes-Benz Stadium feeling good.
That feeling was short-lived.
On Alabama’s ensuing drive, quarterback Jalen Hurts connected with Calvin Ridley for a 53-yard score that put the Tide back on top for good.
It was the first of 21 unanswered points for Alabama.
“They caught us one time on the safety rotation,” Fisher said. “They got a guy in the middle of the field and made a great play, but other than that our defense did a really nice job.”
Indeed, in Derwin James’ return after nearly a year away, FSU did an admirable job keeping Hurts, Ridley and star running back Bo Scarbrough mostly in check.
The Crimson Tide finished with just 269 yards of offense and 4.9 yards per play – slightly above FSU’s 250 and 4.2 – and Hurts mustered only 96 yards through the air.
FSU, however, did itself no favors by committing a series of special-teams miscues that tilted the field in Alabama’s favor.
It started with a blocked field goal at the end of the second quarter that robbed FSU of a chance to tie the game at halftime.
It continued with a blocked punt that led to a field goal. And a fumbled kickoff return that led to a game-breaking touchdown.
And that’s to say nothing of short returns that led to poor field position. Or a miscommunication that caused Fisher to burn a timeout before a punt return. Or a 15-yard, personal-foul committed after a fair catch.
“Very much,” Fisher said when asked if he was surprised at FSU’s special teams troubles. “Because we work exclusively – and we do over 30, 40, 45 minutes a day on special teams. We work it hard.”
Those self-inflicted wounds were even more painful because, for much of the first half, the Seminoles looked every bit Alabama’s equal.
And they had two great chances to tie or take the lead near the end of the first half – once when a poor Alabama punt gave FSU the ball at UA’s 31-yard line, and again moments later when the Seminoles’ hurry-up offense drove to the Tide’s 20 with under a minute to go.
The first drive ended in a punt, and the other in a blocked field goal.
“We played pretty well, but we didn’t finish when we needed to finish,” Eberle said. “We practiced too hard all summer, practiced too hard in camp, did too much to come out here, play a game, move the ball the whole game and then not finish the game.
“That’s what we did. We didn’t finish. Which was unacceptable.”
The final score belied an encouraging effort from Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles sacked Hurts twice, limited him to 3.7 yards on the ground and surrendered only one touchdown drive that started on their own side of the field.
And Charles Kelly’s unit kept FSU in the game by forcing a field-goal attempt after the Tide blocked a punt and took over at the Seminoles’ 6-yard line.
It might not have been much consolation after a loss, but it could still be something to build on.
“A couple times, Alabama had a chance to put it away, and we kept them to a two-score game,” Fisher said. “At 21-7, that’s only two plays away. You’re one or two drives (away). We just couldn’t make the plays.”
It took more than two years for the FSU-Alabama matchup to finally arrive, but only a few moments for the Seminoles to turn their attention beyond it.
FSU will meet ULM next week, followed by home games against conference foes Miami and North Carolina State.
As frustrating as this loss might have been – the Seminoles were most bothered by the fact that they didn’t give themselves their best chance to win – there’s little time to let it linger.
And even less if there’s a new face under center next week.
“We’ve got to show up Monday ready to practice,” James said. “It’s not just a one-game season. There are still more games to be played.”