How FSU rebounded from 'Miracle on Techwood'
Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo didn't fail to notice a particularly meaningful landmark on the way to the Seminoles' practice for Thursday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Houston. Even if he had, his teammates wouldn't have let him. On the way from the hotel to Georgia Tech's practice facility, which FSU has borrowed this week, team buses drove past Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"Some of my specialists were like, Wow, we lost there," Aguayo said Monday.
For Yellow Jackets fans and just about all college football fans not wed to the garnet and gold, the proceedings the night of Oct. 24 at 150 Bobby Dodd Way NW in Atlanta were memorable, euphoric and even miraculous. Tech's 22-16 win over undefeated and then-No. 9 FSU, sealed by a 78-yard touchdown return of Aguayo's blocked field-goal try as time expired, permanently etched Tech defensive back Lance Austin's name into school lore and created a highlight that will help define the 2015 season.
For the Seminoles, after evading the Tech student body rushing the field, the game became a sobering tutorial that has paid dividends on their way to the fifth 10-win season in coach Jimbo Fisher's six-year tenure.
"I felt like, (against) Georgia Tech, we left a lot of plays on the field and we didn't play as well as we could have played," said All-American running back Dalvin Cook, held to 82 rushing yards by the Jackets. "That was a big turning point in our season. It made us re-focus ourselves."
That the Seminoles may have been in need for some grounding is understandable. FSU won the national championship in 2013 at 14-0 and followed it by reaching the College Football Playoff semifinal at 13-0 before losing to Oregon. FSU won its first six games of the 2015 season before rolling into Atlanta for what has turned out to be the first of two visits.
Aguayo said that the Seminoles, who had scored 30 consecutive regular-season wins and 28 in a row over ACC opponents, had developed a bulletproof mindset "where you know we're going to win. At the end of the day, we're going to pull through and we're going to win no matter what."
Perhaps as a result, while undefeated and turnover-free in their first six games, the Seminoles had not played at their peak in wins over Boston College, Wake Forest and Miami.
"I felt like, before the Georgia Tech game, we got too complacent," wide receiver Jesus Wilson said. "We were too relaxed, and we needed that wake-up call."
Stuck in a five-game losing streak, the Jackets obliged with their best performance of the season for what proved to be their only conference win of the season.
Said Wilson, "The five minutes after the game, that's the worst feeling you can feel."
The week after the loss, Cook said that he saw a look on players' faces that said "we aren't ever going to let that happen (again)." He and Aguayo both went so far as to say that players probably needed to lose to realize that they could be beaten.
FSU co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders suggested that coaches' message that a team plays like it practices had stopped hitting home. He saw the loss as the result of the Seminoles not playing their best.
After the Tech game, "I do think a little bit of that sense of urgency, as far as preparing to play, did increase," Sanders said.
FSU took out Syracuse in the following game and the next week trailed No. 1 Clemson on the road by a field goal with under three minutes to play before losing 23-13. Fisher said then that players "put their heart and soul" into the game, giving the College Football Playoff's top seed all it wanted. The Seminoles completed the regular season with a crushing 27-2 road win over then-No. 12 Florida, the Gators' lowest output in the rivalry's 60-game history.
Thursday at the Georgia Dome, less than two miles from the lowest moment of the season, the Seminoles will play for an 11th win and a 50th win for their senior class, which would tie Boise State's 2008 for most wins by a class in NCAA history. Only 17 members of FSU's 116-player roster are seniors, none in the offensive starting 11. If the Seminoles can continue to apply the lesson administered by the Jackets, the material is there for another national title run.
As for Aguayo, he said he laughed when Bobby Dodd Stadium was pointed out to him. He realized there's nothing he can do about it now.
"It's a learning experience; you have to move forward," he said. "For all of us, I guess."