PASADENA, Calif. — Jimbo Fisher likes to say the first 39 games were the key to the next 29.
That may be true, with the first three seasons setting the stage for an astounding 29-game run in which the Seminoles didn’t lose a game.
If Fisher’s first 39 was the key to this era of Seminoles football, the next 12 games will be the key to Fisher’s program.
The Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in spectacular fashion, ending their bid to win another national championship. Florida State will soon learn of its place atop the college football world slipped away in the same way Jameis Winston slipped at the Oregon 28 yard line and spit the ball up into the hands of Tony Washington. The linebacker ran it back 58 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
In that moment, Florida State’s chances of pulling the wild second-half comeback, as the Seminoles had done all season, were over.
“It was a great run,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It was an extremely great run. Hopefully, we can put together another one.”
Florida State heads back to Tallahassee not planning for a national championship game. The Seminoles instead begin the process of looking to a 2015 season in which they stand to lose key personnel, both seniors and draft-eligible sophomore and juniors.
In the next 12 games, Florida State will learn if this was simply the Jameis Winston era or the re-start of an era of Seminoles’ dominance.
Can Florida State do what programs like Alabama do, in replacing first-round talent on a year-to-year basis? Or even Oregon, which perennially has replaced offensive personnel and head coaches and remained the West’s top program.
In Fisher’s first 39 games as head coach, Florida State was 29-10 overall and 18-6 in the ACC. That’s great for most programs, but for FSU, it was enough to label the Noles as something of an underachiever.
The 29-game win streak began with a 21-15 against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Dec. 1, 2012, but the era will be remembered for Winston.
“He’s one of the great players in not only college football (today), but in college football history to me,” Fisher said.
For all the baggage that comes with Winston, this one fact is staggering: Thursday was the first time he left a college football field after a loss.
It may be the only time.
Winston said he’s looking forward to next season, pausing ever so briefly before amending his comment with “playing baseball.” Is that indication he may stay in college football? It's foolish to take anyone's draft statements on the last day of the season at face value.
He’s probably a first-round draft pick, and despite the team-wide collapse in the Rose Bowl, Winston showed why he’ll be considered for the No. 1 overall pick — for starters, converting a third-and-21 with a 23-yard pass.
Even if for some unexpected reason Winston stays at Florida State, the Seminoles will incur significant losses.
Four offensive line starters are seniors. So is Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary and prolific and underrated receiver Rashad Greene. Defensive linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could leave early.
The momentum was going to change in 2015 if Florida State lost by 39 in the semifinal or if the Seminoles won the national championship.
The question now is if Fisher has the pieces to sustain the program that’s become accustomed to being on top again.
Teams that stay on top stack elite recruiting class on top of elite recruiting class. In that way, Florida State is there with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world.
The Seminoles have the No. 5 class in the 2015 247Sports Composite. If that holds, FSU will have four top-five classes in the last five recruiting cycles. The exception was a class ranked 10th.
Recruiting rankings can lie, though. Florida State would be better served looking at the current roster.
Safety Jalen Ramsey was arguably the best player on the defense, a disruptor at Florida State’s critical “star” position. He’ll be a junior next season.
Left tackle Roderick Johnson is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound future All-American. He’s a freshman.
And finally there’s Dalvin Cook, perhaps the best sign for the program, though it didn’t always seem that way in the Rose Bowl.
He fumbled twice, stripped by Oregon defenders. The Ducks scored twice off his fumbles, the catalyst for 34 unanswered points.
So many times this season, Cook was Florida State’s most clutch runner. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first Seminoles freshman to do so.
But he’s a freshman and he made two critical gaffes that played a part in ending Florida State’s season. FSU could have protected him. Cook could have protected himself and snuck out of the locker room without comment.
Cook remained in the locker room talking to reporters after the game. He answered each question and left.
Next stop: 2015, ready or not.