TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On their way to the 2016 national championship, the Clemson Tigers survived five one-score games by a combined total of 39 points.
That includes a three-point victory at Florida State, as well as an overtime victory against North Carolina State in which the Wolfpack missed what would have been a game-winning, 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
Not only that, but the Tigers also lost at home to an unranked Pittsburgh team that finished the year 8-5.
Had any of those close games gone the other way, Clemson could have been staring at four or even five losses. Instead, they won a national title.
Such is life in modern college football, where the line between winning and losing can be impossibly thin, and the margin of error smaller than ever.
“There’s no doubt,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “The line you walk when you win and lose, it’s a step or two either way.”
Florida State has learned that lesson in painful fashion through its first four games of 2017.
Thanks to a schedule that stats guru Jeff Sagarin rates as the toughest in the nation, FSU is 1-3 after setbacks against Alabama, North Carolina State and Miami. And, in each loss, the Seminoles feel they could have put themselves in a better position to win.
Special teams hindered the Seminoles after they went toe-to-toe with the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the first half. Against NC State, FSU needed one last stop on third-and-seven to force a punt that likely would’ve led to good field position and the chance for a late, winning touchdown. And the Seminoles led Miami in the game’s final minute before the Canes found the end zone with six seconds to play.
Then again, that dynamic cuts both ways: FSU used a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Wake Forest two weeks ago.
But the Seminoles still maintain that they’re a better team than their record indicates.
“When we look at the film, teams are not just lining up and beating us,” junior safety Derwin James said. “Sometimes it’s us just not lining up right or the little, simple mistakes that we’re making. … No team has really just physically beat us.”
James is right, but he also said that fact is equal parts good and bad news.
Good because those small details are the type that can be fixed, but bad because they haven’t been fixed yet.
“It’s kind of both, because you want to be able to take that next step as a team,” he said. “And it’s the same little things holding us back from getting over the hump.”
Fisher noted that winning close games was one of FSU’s specialties, even during its run of dominance in 2013 and 2014.
While the 2013 Seminoles dominated the regular season, they rallied from an 18-point deficit and beat Auburn on their last drive of the BCS National Championship Game. A year later, FSU had nine come-from-behind victories, including fourth-quarter comebacks against Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville and Miami.
A step or two either way, and that season might have looked much different.
“We always found a way to win those games,” Fisher said. “We’d always found that one extra play. And that’s where we’re (falling) short (this season).”
That process began on Sunday, when James and a few other veteran leaders stood in front of their teammates and delivered a message focused on attitude, accountability and motivation.
Florida State still has high-profile games on its schedule, including a home date against Louisville and reigning Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson, a visit to defending champion Clemson and a rivalry matchup at Florida.
And for the several players with professional aspirations, the next few weeks provide an opportunity to show scouts and front offices that they have what it takes to push through adversity.
Finally, the Seminoles say they’re playing to uphold the standard that’s been set at FSU, both in recent years and by previous generations.
FSU has the longest active streak of winning seasons in the country (40 years, dating back to 1977) as well as a 35-year active bowl streak.
Things may not have started the way the Seminoles pictured they would back in August. But they’re still in control of how they finish.
“I told them that we had seven more games to be played,” James said. “Things didn’t start how we wanted them to start, of course, because were sitting here 1-3. But we’ve still got games scheduled, we’ve still got games to play …
“I think we can pick things up, going forward.”