Florida State’s season was teetering. The Seminoles lost for the second time and the calendar had just flipped to October.
It had been five seasons since FSU had three losses it its first five games.
“People ask us at the beginning of the year when we were 3-2, what do you have to play for?” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This is what you have to play for. … Sometimes your greatest accomplishments come when your goals are taken away and you find out what’s inside of you.”
Fisher is referring to Friday’s Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium where No. 11 Florida State (9-3) meets No. 6 Michigan (10-2). Kickoff is at 8 p.m.
Fisher is thrilled that his team worked its way back into a New Year’s Six bowl after the two early losses, including an embarrassing 43-point drumming at Louisville.
But the Seminoles recovered and won all but one of their final seven games, the only loss being by three points to No. 2 Clemson.
“Coach Fisher always told us, ‘just kept playing,”’ FSU receiver Travis Rudolph, the former Cardinal Newman standout, said. “Push forward and win. … regardless of the fact we lost games.”
The Orange was the big winner of the non-playoff bowls this year with this marquee matchup. On one side is a Michigan program that boasts more victories (935) than any in the sport’s history. On the other is a Florida State program that had the most dominant run in the sport’s history of 14 consecutive top 5 finishes (1987-2000) and is one of two teams, joining Alabama, to play in a major bowl/title game in each of the last five years.
Add to that two of the most high-profile coaches in the sport — Fisher and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh — and game with star power on the field — two players who finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting in Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers (fifth) and FSU running back Dalvin Cook (10th), along three other All-Americans — and the game is a bowl committee’s dream.
But to the coaches, this game is important for one reason.
“To win (an Orange Bowl) championship, to win a trophy,” Harbaugh said. “You want to give it your all. You want to have dignity and pride and you’ll have that in doing your very best. But you also want to win. That’s a lot, isn’t it? Don’t you think? I think it is.”
Although the teams took very different paths to the post season, both are on the rise. The Wolverines are an accelerated timeline as Harbaugh has needed just two years to restore the program’s glory and Fisher’s program continues to reload annually.
But while Florida State was working its way back into New Year’s Six bowl contention, Michigan had to settle for the Orange Bowl after a demoralizing 30-27 double-overtime loss to Ohio State that likely knocked the Wolverines out of a playoff spot.
“It was a bummer not making the playoff, but we put ourselves in that position,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said. “We put the ball in other people’s court to determine if we were going or not, and you never want to do that in anything with life.”
Florida State returns to the Orange Bowl for the first time since facing Northern Illinois in January 2013, the game that preceded the Seminoles’ historical 2013 national championship run.
But playing in South Florida is nothing new. FSU has had as much success in the stadium that serves as Miami’s home field as any team in the country, winning its last seven games in South Florida, six of those against the Hurricanes.
Fisher is 5-0 as a head coach at Hard Rock Stadium.
“We call it Doak South,” Cook said.
The Seminoles will lose just nine scholarship seniors (six starters) along with Cook, if the junior running back declares for the NFL as expected.
The Wolverines are laden with experience, which means Harbaugh will be fielding a far different team in 2017. Michigan has more than 40 seniors on the roster including 18 starters not including Peppers, who also is expected to bolt for the NFL.
FSU’s senior class leaves with one national championship, two conference champions and is 46-7, including 8-0 against their two big in-state rivals.
Lawrence Dawsey, the Seminoles’ co-offensive coordinator was ask how exactly this class will be remembered?
“Well,” he said, “you can ask Miami and Florida that.”