Florida State has not only been the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference over the last three years, but the Seminoles have absolutely dominated their league brethren. Since 2012, the 'Noles have governed the ACC to the tune of a 26-1 record – a staggering .962 win percentage.
After losing a record 29 players (and a ball boy) to the NFL Draft over that same span, including a Heisman Trophy winning No. 1 pick, the 2015 season figures to be a bit different for FSU even if Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles still project to be one of the best teams in the ACC.
When FSU's run of dominance began, the team had a much different make up of leaders in the locker room than it does on the current roster. The 2010 recruiting class was particularly influential in recreating a winning culture in Tallahassee with players like Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Terrence Brooks and Bryan Stork not only proving to be play-makers, but also serving as captains of the program by putting in the requisite work on and off the field that commanded respect from teammates.
The leaders of that class showed the way, both vocally and by example, and their mentality permeated the organization.
A major difference between that group and the '15 Seminoles is how that team derived motivation from previous failures. By the time FSU won the 2013 BCS National Championship, much of that roster, behind its core group of leaders, had tried and failed in the quest for an ACC crown.
Even the 2012 team, which started FSU's run of conference titles, had its face-plant in league play with a blown 16-point lead at N.C. State in October. That '12 unit had chipped away season by season, having been beaten by lesser Wake Forest and Virginia squads in 2011 as well. By 2013, with this experience in hand, the upperclassmen spearheading the team never took a conference opponent lightly until the game was well in hand, regardless of whether or not they posed a legitimate threat to FSU.
That team went out with the purpose of obliterating whichever team was unfortunate enough to be standing in its path on that given Saturday, and combined with a big talent advantage, it showed in their 38.8-point average margin of victory in nine league games.
But gone is that group of leaders and other influential presences like Cameron Erving and Rashad Greene, and it remains to be seen if the 2015 Seminoles will have the killer instinct required on a week-to-week basis to avoid familiar pitfalls in ACC play like the losses of old to UVA, N.C. State and Wake.
Even the 2014 Seminoles, who finished 13-1 overall and 9-0 in the ACC, went about their business with seemingly less focus than the previous group. FSU won its league games by an average of 12.5 points last year, often looking unimpressive in doing so, and needed narrow wins of four, three and two points down the stretch against Miami, Boston College and Georgia Tech to get into the College Football Playoff.
That the laissez-faire approach still resulted in an undefeated ACC record in 2014 could prove costly to the 2015 Seminoles – a group with less talent and far less experience.
This year's team of leaders comes in with only one loss under their belts, but the way they often skirted by last season without playing well probably did nothing to reinvigorate the hunger that was on display in 2013, and could have even reinforced bad habits. The Rose Bowl loss to Oregon went down in embarrassing fashion, but it came in a major bowl game against a team much better than any they'll see on a standard Saturday in the ACC.
While the 2010 class and subsequent groups cut their teeth and experienced the pain and resulting motivation that comes with losing, 87 percent of this year's team has never played in an ACC loss. What's more, 80 percent of them have never even been on the sidelines during an ACC loss. Only seven (7!) of FSU's players have ever played a season in which FSU was not the ACC Champion.
They've never experienced the feeling of shock and disappointment after dropping an ACC game they were completely expected to win.
The 2015 team will still be favored in most of its conference games, likely by more than two touchdowns in four or five of those games. Will the 2015 team have to suffer a bad ACC loss in order for the group at large to take all conference games seriously?
This is a challenge facing Jimbo Fisher while he tries to teach a very young team how to win.
Fisher has said before that it's human nature to win and become complacent. If Florida State is to win a run at a fourth consecutive ACC championship, it will take more than getting amped for the annual rivalry clashes like Clemson and Miami in league play; this group, which hasn't experienced much losing at the major college level, will have to fight that tendency to coast off success and ride on prestige.
It will either believe Fisher and the few remaining veterans when they tell them league games are not automatic, or learn it the hard way.