Florida State -- if you want to address them as a whole, collective personage -- knows. They know. They know you hate them, and their quarterback, and their fans, and their fans on Twitter, and their win streak, and their war chant. They know you hate how, a year after winning a national title with landslide results and obvious dominance at every position on the field, they now escape games like a burglar leaping over the fence with one cheek of his pants in the guard dog's mouth. They know. Oh, they know.
They know, which is why you see garnet-and-gold-themed "haters gonna hate" T-shirts floating around campus on game day, even now, when most fans are shuffling around in hastily purchased ponchos or waterproof fishing jackets. They'll zip down the jacket just to show you: look, we are comfortable with this role. We know it now, we have the dialogue down. After offering me a shot of Fireball and cider, one tailgater tells me, "Listen, if you want to hate, go ahead. We'll keep on winning. That's the bottom line here: winning." It's rehearsed, but the line delivery is perfect and unaffected.
These are the heels, and once you know, you start prejudicially looking for that heel behavior in everything. As it turns out, there's plenty to choose from in Tallahassee. Florida State suffers from the villain's grandiose addiction to statues and trophies: the Bobby Bowden statue pointing forward forever (realistically depicted with Bowden's bowling pin physique); the giant, 31-foot-tall "Unconquered" statue of Chief Osceola holding aloft a gas-burning spear, resting atop several tons of Italian-carved Saudi granite; the Sod Cemetery, containing turf prizes from big wins sitting next to the gates to the Al Dunlap Training Facility for football. The plaque mentions Al Dunlap's high record of achievement, and his obvious generosity to the university. It does not mention his SEC ban on being an officer or director of any public company, part of a $500,000 settlement Dunlap paid to settle charges of fraud and mismanagement as CEO of Scott Paper and Sunbeam.
That's one of Florida State's most generous boosters. Before you ever get past the stained-glass tribute to Bowden, the allegations of extensive cooperation between the Tallahassee Police Department and school administrators in cases involving football players, the giant statues typically only found in Pyongyang, the human lightning rod of a quarterback, or the recurring instances of football players dodging crimes others might not find so elusive, there is that.
If you did not find them camera-ready to play the bad guy for any other reason, the fact that "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap's name is on the practice field at Florida State should have clued you in here. You could not cast a small-town baron with the sheriff in his pocket any more perfectly than Florida State football.
*It feels like an SEC school, right down to the mash-up of "That's My Kind of Night" by Luke Bryan and "Jump Around" by House of Pain booming out of the windows.
Jeff Gammons, Getty Images
But before you just put a black hat on Florida State completely, conduct this experiment. You have a team with abundant young talent, the best quarterback in the nation (albeit one who can be astonishingly streaky), the best kicker in the known universe and a defense featuring a sophomore safety capable of destroying every last plan your opponent wanted to have.
This team wins close games. Yes, they fall behind, but possess an uncanny ability to refuse the three-count, roll out of the pin, and finish games flying off the top rope. They do this with consistency, but also with variety: sometimes it's the safety, sometimes it's the quarterback, and sometimes it's the brilliant combination of dumb luck and a refusal to quit at any point in the game. It takes quantifiable seconds off your life, but in theory should be anything but boring.
This team gets to the end of the season three games shy of a definite appearance in the playoff, all the while secure in the guarantees of youth, continued recruiting success and unquestioned potential down the road. You'd be happy, yes? You'd be taking out outlandish wagers in your favor, and banking for the future like a cocaine baron at the high point of their success in a drug epic. You would be purchasing tigers and mansions. You would be, for lack of a better word, optimistic.
Take that team and give it a name, and call it the 2014 Florida State Seminoles, and then invalidate all that good feeling. "This team is going to kill me" is a common theme among fans. The defense isn't young, but is instead "sloppy," allowing too many yards to Miami in a near-upset in South Florida. The run game isn't maturing, they're "non-existent," and abandoned too quickly by Jimbo Fisher when the team needs it.* Roberto Aguayo is the lone saint on the team, and even he missed one against Louisville.
"You sure that wasn't the Miami game?" I ask.
"IT WAS THE DAMN LOUISVILLE GAME."
They remember the misses most this year, even in a year where they have yet to lose a game to anybody.
The rain never stopped for long. In between royal audiences for Burt Reynolds and a long, cinematic introduction of Nobel Prize chemist Sir Harold Kroto ("Nobel Prize winner...AND SEMINOLE FOOTBALL FAN," the announcer booms), FSU fans watch nervously as their otherwise fantastic football team does things the 2013 team never did. Otherwise reliable receivers drop balls. The defense misses assignments on Boston College's tricky run fits, with the Eagles substituting in linemen and fullbacks and H-backs and whatever other bulk they keep throwing in off the bench. The secondary blows an assignment on a Tyler Murphy scramble, leaving a wideout blazing open for a long passing TD in the second quarter.
*Like all fans, Seminole fans believe the run game is either underutilized or overdone. No coach in the history of football has ever run the ball the correct number of times, and none ever will.
At the half, it's 17-10. BC ties it up in the third quarter on another missed run fit on an option play. In fact, BC has this game in hand in the fourth quarter, thumping right along down the field with their run game and little else. That is all most will see this weekend, since they probably didn't watch the game, and that's kind of an issue here if you're going to say Florida State is playing down to opponents. They'll see 20-17, say the 2014 Florida State team under performed, and move on to the next game.
I sat and watched the whole thing and have the waterlogged jeans to prove it, and would counter with this:
- Boston College is a really good football team, and a horrendous matchup for Florida State's weaknesses. They mobbed the ball, dominated time of possession, ran midline plays against the inexperienced middle of Florida State's defense, and held shape on defense, preventing big plays by the Seminole offense. They even bossed around FSU's offensive line on occasion, and pressured Winston more than any team I can remember. They are good, but in this situation, on the road and against a team it knew how to attack, they were excellent.
- All of this happened to Florida State, and they still managed to win a football game against an opponent they had every last reasonable right to surrender to. Boston College played a better game, and made one key sequencing mistake, calling a trick play that worked against the Seminoles last year in the red zone on their final drive. BC missed the ensuing field goal attempt, and then Roberto Aguayo, gravity and other laws of nature took over from there.
- Florida State only got nine possessions total, lost a defender to a targeting call, played against a really smart, conference rival, power run/option team, turned in a C+ effort in a lot of departments, and still won the game. If Florida State fans say they won't get credit for beating a good team, that's probably the time when their bunker mentality and reality meet. They're right, and Boston College dragging some unsuspecting team in a bowl game will have to change their minds too late for FSU to benefit.
- Oh, and this is not the 2013 Florida State team. Just in case this entire year did not make that clear, or if you missed the calendar. They're something different, and not as dominant, and yet still undefeated.
All that happened, and despite all that for the 27th game in a row, the Seminoles still won. Filing out of Doak Campbell Stadium, in the rain and out towards the bars and tailgate tents and behind a rain-jacketed wall of cops making their way grimly into the night to conduct game traffic and arrest the stray drunk or two, no one seemed as happy with it as they should be except for the stadium security guards doing the chop and smiling in the direction of opposing fans.
I had a moment sitting in the rain, which in the third quarter kicked up with extra energy. Florida rain falls in no fewer than three directions at once: there's down, and then the humid upfall from rain hitting the ground and hugging the ground in a low, impossibly humid fog, and then the random Brownian motion spirals in the air. You can't see the last variation most of the time, but stadium lighting blows it out nicely if you look up, like I did, and see it whirling in curlicues over the lip of the roof of the luxury boxes.
The Florida State band was playing the "Game of Thrones" theme, and it was sometime in the third quarter. FSU was on their heels, football-wise, which happens. No team, no matter how well-suited for the role, no matter how villainous, delivers their lines perfectly and forever. It's all so fragile, even if every opponent meets The Mountain and immediately begins making the mistake of delivering soliloquies and getting fancy and theatrical when what they need most is to finish the fight. Boston College wanted a flourish at the end. They ended up on the pile with the others, but it takes a toll, even on the villain.
And I can't ask you to have sympathy for the Seminoles. But consider the villain for a second, and realize how short that lifespan is in college football. The New York Times, with reporters camped out in Tallahassee for the foreseeable future, turned their softball coaches show into a trend piece about sycophantic idol worship in college football. (Which, yeah.) They played this game after an on-campus shooting that injured three and wound up with the campus police killing the gunman somewhere in the vicinity of the built-in Starbucks on the ground floor. Lineman Derrick Mitchell was in the library when the shooting happened, and was stuck there until 5:00 a.m. as the police searched for a second shooter. I went by the library before the game; only a piece of plywood nailed up over the spot where a floor-to-ceiling window and a few other wary, lingering pedestrians made Strozier library look any different than any other nondescript brick building.
Don't even consider, if possible, the case of their star quarterback, the one who can't ever be cleared in either direction after the Tallahassee Police Department botched an investigation into a sexual assault case since dismissed by the authorities. Ignore him, even if he got into a bizarre shoving match/tussle/episode with a ref trying to allow Boston College to substitute in a no-huddle situation. (By standing not over the ball, but instead like a running back trying to hide perpendicular to the center on a trick play.)
Try to abstract the situation, if you can, and consider both how remarkable this streak is, and how the reaction to it is not. Before Florida State there was Florida, and before Florida there was USC, and before them the Hurricanes, and before them Nebraska, and then Florida State and/or Florida, and swirling back on and on through a cycling of villains doing things the wrong way, all for shorter lifespans than anyone bothers to remember.
With the rain blowing in three directions and the inevitable Red Vipering of Boston College ready to unfold, I just wanted to press pause on it all and remember: this has all happened before. Six years prior on the same field in the same weather, Florida State lost a blowout to Tim Tebow, his face and uniform stained red with the paint from the Seminoles logo in the end zone. That all collapsed with astonishing speed a month and a year later, and hasn't been the same since. Same for all the other villains of yesteryear, all with their own moment of neglected triumph before the inevitable slide into chaos.
I wanted to tell Seminole fans the same -- that no one can properly point to the moment when you gave up on enjoying winning, and began to weigh the present against unattainable, sometimes imaginary pasts. I wanted to, for just a moment with the "Game of Thrones" theme blaring in the background and have some sympathy for the bad guy, or at least those watching the bad guy. That's how the story ends: The Mountain wins, but ends up getting poisoned in the process and dying a prolonged death no one thought he'd ever meet. That's not just a Florida State metaphor here. That's for anyone whose team ends up playing the villain, and who discovers just how dark it gets when you go for the throne.