The perfect foil for Florida State’s decline is Wake Forest. The once-awesomely talented and well-coached Seminoles now lose randomly to ACC teams that were well beneath them even as recently as 2005. FSU’s latest 35-30 loss at Wake Forest is yet another signal that this isn’t the Florida State that was so scary-dominant from the mid-nineties through the mid 2000′s
There’s really no reason for the Demon Deacons to ever beat Florida State, and yet they have in four of their last six meetings (2011, 2008, 2007, 2006). Head coach Jim Grobe has done a great job getting talent into his program, which often includes finding players from Florida (one of the “running states,” as Lee Corso likes to say). And yet, Florida State is IN Florida and routinely scores top recruits from the area. What gives?
Some will say that this year’s FSU team wasn’t at full strength on Saturday. Quarterback E.J. Manuel shouldn’t have been playing at all this week, but he was put into the lineup because Clint Trickett couldn’t move the ball on Wake Forest’s defense. Yet this is a Wake Forest defense that gave up 36 points in week one to freaking Syracuse and then another 27 to anemic NC State. Meanwhile, Trickett guided the Seminole offense to 30 points just last week against Clemson. And Wake’s defense isn’t THAT much better than Clemson’s.
Five turnovers later, including two interceptions from Manuel, the Seminoles dropped a gimme on the road.
The one thing I would theorize is actually similar to what I think has happened to Texas recently: they stopped recruiting stud running backs. For Texas, the problem came after Cedric Benson graduated and Vince Young and Colt McCoy became the focus of the offense. For Florida State, I think it’s a little more complex.
From 2006 to 2011, the only true stud running back recruit for FSU is Devonta Freeman from the class of 2011, so he’s a true freshman this year. He also happened to be Florida State’s leading rusher on Saturday with 5 carries for 37 yards. Before that, there isn’t one truly great RB in any of their recruiting classes.
I think it all started, though, with Lorenzo Booker.
It’s not that Booker is a bad guy or anything. He just never produced as expected. Booker graduated high school the year before Reggie Bush and was just as hyped a running back prospect as Bush was a year later. Florida State thought they were recruiting a game-changing running back. Instead, the most FSU got was 887 yards in Booker’s sophomore year and he otherwise spent his entire career splitting carries with Leon Washington, Greg Jones, and Antone Smith.
I should also point out that Booker’s first year as an active player on the FSU roster was Chris Rix’s senior year. You know, the one where the four-year starter sucked so bad he was benched in favor of Wyatt Sexton (who later quit football after Lyme disease essentially made him insane for a time).
By that point, FSU had built its entire program around the enigmatic Rix, who mostly failed to deliver. This was, of course, to the glee of all Florida State haters because they were incredibly dominant at this point (02-03) still. The Seminoles were still making bowl games at the time, but Rix and Co. just couldn’t quite get over the hump back to what FSU had been only a few years earlier. And the coaches had been slowing creating the offense to rely on Rix’s playmaking ability instead of the balanced approach FSU had used in their halcyon days when Travis Minor was a perfect compliment to Chris Weinke’s “experience.”
What’s crazy is Minor’s statistics, while more consistent, aren’t much better than Booker’s career stats. The difference is, teams knew that FSU could run the ball in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. By 2003, teams knew they couldn’t anymore.
Once Rix was gone, Drew Weatherford was left to clean up his mess and Wyatt Sexton’s as well and Florida State was never the same. Teams loaded up on the run, stopping Booker and Washington, and the running backs could never fully recover. Both are NFL veterans, mind you, meaning the talent never really left.
What did leave was Florida State’s ability to run the ball, and it still hasn’t totally come back yet.