What If…Florida St. beats Jacksonville St.


(This is Part Two of a series examining how one play in one game changed the trajectory of both programs. For Part One, click here.)

I’m a Florida St. fan, so the start of the 2021 season was rough.
The season began on Labor Day Night against Notre Dame. Expectations were tempered considering the 3-6 pandemic-ridden season the Noles were coming off of in 2020. As long as there was marked improvement, ideally a bowl game, people would be satisfied with the work Mike Norvell was doing. And despite the overtime loss to Notre Dame, Florida St. showed significant signs. There was hope that the Noles would be much better than the year before.
But you know what they say about taking two steps forward. Sometimes what follows is a step back.
And on September 11, 2021, the Florida St. program took a GIANT step back.
Now, letdowns are common. You exert so much energy against a certain opponent that it is common – especially at the college level – to overlook the following opponent if they are a lesser name. Jacksonville St. is certainly a lesser name than Notre Dame, and in their Week One game they were shut out by a very good UAB team. So it stands to reason that the Noles would carry the momentum the program had built, even in a loss, just five nights prior.
Spoiler alert: They did not.
As you probably know, Florida St. lost to Jacksonville St. 20-17 on a walk-off 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Not a Hail Mary mind you, a catch-and-run. Missed tackles were involved. I don’t have the heart to post it, just Google it.
The game left the Noles 0-2 and the fan base back to feeling like we did, frankly, when Willie Taggart was coaching. The next two games, both losses at Wake Forest and against Louisville, put the Noles in an 0-4 hole they could not crawl out of to reach .500.
But what if…What if just one of those missed tackles against Jacksonville St. wasn’t missed? How does that change things?
The truth is, it might have changed the trajectory of Jacksonville St. more than Florida St.
From Jacksonville St.’s perspective: As most of you might be aware, JSU will be joining Conference USA in the not-too-distant future, along with Liberty, New Mexico St., and fellow FCS school Sam Houston St. And leading them into that new frontier is none other than Rich Rodriguez. Jacksonville St. (actually in Alabama and not Jacksonville, Fla. by the way) finished 5-6 last year but has had a decent amount of recent success. Their high water mark was probably in 2015 when they lost to (who else) North Dakota St. in the FCS Title Game. They followed that up with back to back 10-2 seasons, including (Fun Fact!) beating Liberty and Coastal Carolina in 2016. They would be fodder for a Power 5 school here and there over the years, but never really had a game to hang their hat on until this one. It could be incredibly hyperbolic to say, but it also might be true. This win might have been what elevated the status of the Gamecocks to the level of being considered for an FBS school.
From Florida St.’s perspective: It seems small on the surface, but instead of 0-4, Florida State would sit at 1-3 with their one victory against an FCS (for now) team. But keep in mind how the Florida St. season concluded.
Now, we are assuming none of the other outcomes change, just the larger scope of the program. Their game the following week was against a team who won their division. FSU wasn’t on Wake Forest’s level is a sentence I didn’t expect to ever type but here we are. But if they beat JSU, instead of missing bowl season again with a 5-7 record, Florida State ends up 6-6. That’s a huge difference. Getting to a bowl in Norvell’s second year would be a major accomplishment, almost regardless of that game’s outcome, and gives the program full of youth a ton of momentum going into the offseason, with an eye toward a Week One game at the Superdome against LSU. (Yes, I know Florida State has a Week Zero game against Duquesne and I am currently writing a column about how they lost to an FCS opponent they shouldn’t have. Everybody be cool ok?)
As it is, FSU was able to find some major players in the transfer portal, bringing WR Mycah Pittman into the fold from Oregon and DE Jared Verse from Albany. Verse is expected to replace the productivity of 1st round draft pick Jermaine Johnson, and despite him coming from a small school, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to expect him to do so.
Who knows, maybe their upward momentum is enough to entice Travis Hunter to stay committed to FSU instead of Jackson State. (Alright that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.)
On the other hand, looking ahead to the 2022 season, there is no guarantee that a theoretical bowl game last year jumpstarts anything. The schedule includes games against two SEC schools (Week One against the Bayou Bengals and the annual battle against in-state rival Florida Gators.) not to mention games against ACC Favorites Clemson and Wake Forest, and at conference contenders Miami and NC State. Right there are 6 games they are not likely to be favored in. Throw in games against Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse and Louisiana that could swing either way, despite the Noles being demonstrably more talented than all four of those teams.
Ultimately, this year’s success rests on the arm (and legs) of third year-starter Jordan Travis. Travis has not exactly been a model of consistency during his tenure, but the last half of the 2021 season showed significant strides. The Seminoles’ success in 2022 begins and ends with Travis, regardless if they finished 5-7, 6-6 or anything in between.
But if somebody, ANYBODY, tackles that JSU receiver on his way to the end zone as time expired, Florida State goes from “team with a lot of talent that may or may not be able to put it all together” to “darkhorse contender in the ACC”.

Top Candidates: Houston
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