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Did Alabama break Florida State football?

Since a tough loss in 2017’s ultra-hyped opener, the Seminoles have become unrecognizable.

Florida State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Florida State is bad. The Seminoles will some day be good, because schools with FSU’s history and built-in recruiting advantages never stay down for that long. (My earpiece is now buzzing, and I’m hearing that this is not always correct, but still: FSU should eventually win again because lots of elite recruits will always want to play for FSU.)

The Noles’ first three games of 2018 could have gone worse, but just barely.

All of this misery is building up atop a foundation of sadness that was put in place in 2017, which turned out to be Jimbo Fisher’s last year on the job. FSU went 7-6 and needed a sprint at the end of the regular season (and a win against another, bad FCS team) just for the right to play Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl.

The loss at Syracuse dropped the program to 8-8 in its last 16 games.

The Noles seem poised for a second season in a row that’s no better than mediocre — and one that could still be a lot worse than that.

There are many reasons for FSU’s struggles, but there’s one clear moment where things started going badly on the field: the third quarter of 2017’s blockbuster season opener against Alabama.

Do you remember how big a deal that game was at the time? Bama’s No. 1 national ranking and FSU’s No. 3 made it the biggest opener in the sport’s history, per the polls. The Noles were coming off a 10-3 season that included an Orange Bowl win against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan. Fisher was one offseason removed from not leaving for LSU, and he seemed primed to lead FSU to ACC contention and big bowls for years to come.

FSU scored the first touchdown of that game and led 7-3 early in the second quarter. Alabama answered a few minutes later, but trailing 10-7 at the half was a solid showing.

Alabama v Florida State
The 2017 opener.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Noles were done scoring that night. Alabama won the third quarter 11-0 and the fourth 3-0, slowly bleeding out whatever hopes FSU had of an upset.

In the fourth quarter, QB Deondre Francois got sacked and tore a tendon in his left knee.

He missed the year, and FSU struggled with true freshman James Blackman in his place.

Before the last game of the regular season, when FSU was 5-6, Texas A&M threw $75 million at Fisher. An era was over just like that.

Hypotheticals are unprovable, but if FSU had beaten Alabama and Francois hadn’t gotten hurt, there’s no telling how good FSU would have been.

Francois was good as a freshman in 2016, after all. Perhaps Fisher would still be on the sideline in Tallahassee. Taggart could still be the better long-term choice, and Fisher’s program management had clearly declined, but Francois did appear to be a better fit for Fisher’s offense in 2016 than for Taggart’s in 2018.

FSU’s results before and after playing Alabama are jarringly different.

Florida State, before and after 2017’s Alabama game

Stat 13 games pre-Bama Bama + next 15
Stat 13 games pre-Bama Bama + next 15
Record 10-3 8-8
Record vs. top 25 4-2 0-4
Average points scored 35.1 25.5
Average points allowed 25 22.3
Times almost losing to FCS teams 0 1
Times losing to Syracuse 0 1

Tracking with Francois getting hurt at almost the precise moment FSU started breaking bad, the problems have mostly been on offense. FSU’s not only giving up fewer points per game post-Bama than pre-, it’s playing better defense in general.

More tellingly, the Noles allowed fewer yards per play in ‘17 than they did in ‘16. The defense has struggled some to start this year, but FSU’s offense is what fell off a cliff immediately after the Bama game. That offense has been so bad that it’s dragged down the rest of the program with it.

This all might lead to the end of FSU’s vaunted bowl streak.

The Noles’ S&P+ win projection before getting drubbed at the Carrier Dome was 4.1. The schedule is loaded with games that now appear droppable, maybe even including Week 4’s meeting with the MAC’s NIU. A 3-9 record is a perfectly reasonable prediction.

FSU’s gone bowling 36 years in a row, an NCAA record (even though the NCAA doesn’t recognize it because of some vacated games). That streak’s a significant pride point for the Noles’ fanbase. If (when?) it ends this December, you can put some blame on the Tide.