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Column: Disappointing finish can’t overshadow foundation Mike Norvell has built

“There are great days ahead of Florida State football, I promise you that.”

NCAA Football: Miami at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State football’s 2021 season came to a close Saturday afternoon as the Seminoles fell to the Florida Gators 24-21, leaving the ‘Noles (5-7) one win short of bowl eligibility.

With special teams blunders and another poor third quarter against an in-state rival, it was a disappointing finish to the season. But that disappointing finish can’t overshadow the foundation Mike Norvell has built in Tallahassee.

Norvell is 8-13 through two seasons at FSU, but for the first time in a while, there’s belief in the Moore Center that this program’s headed in the right direction. After an unexpected 0-4 start put Norvell’s tenure in question, the Seminoles won five of their last eight games. Two of the losses were one-score games on the road against the Clemson Tigers and Florida Gators, games they were given no chance to win before the season. The other came on a week when 25-30 players missed practice due to the flu and the starting quarterback (Jordan Travis) didn’t play.

That 5-3 finish has given FSU optimism heading into the offseason. More importantly, it showed Florida State’s players what they can do—they truly believe they can win for the first time in years.

“This offseason we’re going to work,” an emotional Jordan Travis said after Saturday’s loss, “We know how it feels to win football games again. We know how it feels to lose, too, and we don’t want this feeling ever again, so I promise you this offseason, we’re going to work really hard.”

FSU was able to bounce back from its 0-4 start because of Norvell’s ability to push the players and get them to believe in what they can do, accomplish and overcome.

“I truly believe that I’m made for this. To help those guys,” Norvell said on Saturday. “More than anything else, inspiring, showing them, giving them opportunities to be challenged, to respond. I’m just grateful for what I get to do.”

Although it was still a season without a bowl, the year one to year two improvements for Norvell were massive. Florida State wasn’t a team that could pull away from its opponents in 2021, but unlike 2020, they were going to be competitive every week. And it wasn’t because of talent, but rather the fight and belief Norvell’s instilled in the program.

FSU’s seven losses came by an average of 8.9 points. In 2020, their six losses were by an average of 22.2 points. The ‘Noles also improved 36 spots in ESPN’s Football Power Index. In Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings (a tempo and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency), the Seminoles improved 37 spots. The defense alone improved 47 spots.

“In my book, this program’s on the right track,” defensive end Jermaine Johnson, a key part of FSU’s step forward this year, said. “The mindset of these guys, it shows in every game we play. Doesn’t matter what happens, we’re still going to fight.”

Look at some of the players that took major leaps in 2021. Linebacker Kalen DeLoach became a true middle linebacker and played his best during the final two games. Travis, a guy who thought about quitting football early in his FSU career, has become a good college quarterback. Darius Washington allowed one sack all season. Jarrett Jackson and Malcolm Ray each became quality depth on the defensive interior. Akeem Dent, who seemed like a lost cause, was one of FSU’s best defenders down the stretch. Players get better under this staff because their coaches believe in them and don’t give up on them.

There are still cracks in the foundation. Special teams were bad all season. The offensive line is still an issue. Wide receiver talent isn’t present and linebacker play is still subpar. But Norvell understands what he needs to do to fill those cracks: recruit. In his post-game presser, Norvell addressed the emphasis on attracting talent to Tallahassee, saying he was getting ready to hit the road first thing Sunday morning.

“I’ve got a 6:00 AM flight. That is something that is critically important, that we continue to find the right fit for Florida State and who we bring in here.”

5-7 isn’t acceptable at Florida State, and Norvell knows that, but it’s part of the process for FSU to return to national prominence. And Norvell’s making sure they do it the right way, without shortcuts. The head coach believes his staff pushes their student-athletes as hard or harder than anyone. Because of that, he believes sustained success will be coming to Florida State.

“The expectation and the challenges and the standard of how we operate, it’s hard. I tell every person that comes into this program, player, coach, there’s probably a lot of other places you can go that will be a little bit easier. We’re going to push because we’re going to do it the right way. Because I promise you success is coming here to Florida State. Because of these young men, because of how they operate, because of what they do. And when we get there, we’re going to stay there because it just becomes who you are. Everything we do, we got to push to be our best.”

Florida State has a lot of holes to fill, but after last year’s portal success, it’s hard not to believe FSU will do that. After a 3-6 season, Norvell was able to pluck Johnson (ACC leader in sacks), Keir Thomas (6.5 sacks, 12 TFL), Jammie Robinson (84 total tackles, 4 INT), Dillan Gibbons (FSU’s most consistent offensive lineman), and some other rotational pieces. With the portal getting bigger every season, there should be optimism that FSU will get impact players and the right fits again.

It hasn’t been pretty, making it tough to watch at times, but FSU has set the foundation to bring winning teams back to Tallahassee. If they can learn from the numerous lessons and challenges, the ‘Noles should be able to build off what they’ve laid.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think the heart of this team, the character of this team, the foundation of what we’re building upon, it’s about the right things. There are great days ahead of Florida State football, I promise you that. And it’s because of those guys in there.”