Florida State entered the 2012 season with the highest of hopes: this was the year, Seminoles fans could reasonably assume, that the return to glory was actually going to happen. The defense was deep, fierce, and experienced, EJ Manuel was back at the helm of an offense with talent at virtually every position, and Jimbo Fisher seemed to have a handle on what it took to win titles entering his third season as head coach.
After their Saturday loss at N.C. State, all of that is back in question: the vaunted defense gave up a game-winning drive and 14 fourth-quarter points, Manuel was pedestrian just weeks after looking like a Heisman contender against Clemson, and, most of all, Fisher's team lost a game to an inferior ACC foe in a way eerily reminiscent of FSU squads of yesteryear.
That explains Tomahawk Nation calling the loss "unacceptable" and blasting Fisher, who took the time in a Monday press conference to point out that it might actually be hard to go undefeated in college football, for having the audacity to even suggest that. The folks there are also wondering whether Fisher's use of Manuel late against the Wolfpack doomed them to a loss, and discussing a column from Jim Lamar of the Tallahassee Democrat that discusses the power structure at Florida State and paints Fisher as a ruler without a challenger and without the circumspection to see his weaknesses.
This is, to be clear, an overreaction. Florida State hasn't won the ACC since 2005, has one season of 10 wins since 2003, has lost at least three games in every season since 2001, and has lost four games in all but two of those season. That isn't the profile of an elite program, and a 10-2 season regular season would still be FSU's best since 2000.
But this is an overreaction of the magnitude that suggests Florida State's back in at least one important way: fans care very deeply about what is going on with the 'Noles right now. And fans getting hot and bothered about a one-point road loss isn't the problem here; it's the window that was open for Florida State this season slamming shut, possibly for years to come, that has left this fanbase roiling in its own rage.
The 'Noles are in a precarious position with the ACC. It's a conference that has long valued basketball over football, to the serious detriment of the conference's schools (Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, and maybe Clemson) that are both football-first and very good at football. Florida State ebbed in the final Bobby Bowden years, and has only now neared its terrifying pinnacle, Miami's fallen off a cliff in terms of support because it hasn't been great, Virginia Tech has slipped from its peak under Frank Beamer, and Clemson still seems like a rising program that can't get over speed bumps just yet.
The problem that parity, defined in the ACC as having a bunch of good to very good teams and no great ones, presents to a college football conference is that no team stands out as a national power and the best team each year ends up with a loss or two that knocks it out of national title contention. Fortunately for the 'Noles, they were going to overcome that annual concern in 2012: with Clemson and Florida both coming to Tallahassee, and Virginia Tech looking less than elite, the road to a national championship game berth was smooth as it gets for Jimbo's bunch.
And still, the Seminoles stumbled, and stumbled on one of the lower hurdles of the season. This was FSU's first game outside the state of Florida, sure, but these 'Noles have experienced players and coaches; N.C. State is an ACC team with some talent on its roster, but Florida State annihilated Clemson, a much more talented team, just two weeks prior. "Unacceptable" seems like a word that should be reserved for things more important in life than a loss in a football game, but "dream-killing" is probably right, and "devastating" is maybe the most appropriate word for this.
To make matters worse, Florida State fans are looking around and realizing that their reign on the top was, to paraphrase an American scholar, short like leprechauns. FSU was never going to be the lone great team in Florida for very long -- since Steve Spurrier's arrival kick-started the modern era and established the Big Three, single-team dominance of the Sunshine State just hasn't happened for more than a few years at a time at most -- but Florida seems to be way ahead of schedule under Will Muschamp, dominating LSU on the same day that the 'Noles sputtered on the road. And Clemson's recruiting at a high level, and almost put FSU on the canvas at Doak this year; in 2013, when that game heads back to Clemson, South Cack, dealing with Dabo Swinney's rising Tigers may be tougher than any game FSU plays this season.
And who knows about the rest of the ACC? Miami still has the fertile recruiting grounds of South Florida, and if Al Golden can stay, survive the eventual drop of the Sword of Indianapolis in the form of NCAA sanctions, and nurture a team of us-against-the-world kids, the 'Canes probably won't be gone for long. Virginia Tech may need a coaching staff reshuffling, but will always control the Tidewater recruiting scene. Georgia Tech is a perpetual pest. N.C. State could use last weekend's win to ... okay, well, N.C. State's still coached by Tom O'Brien, never mind.
So the anger here is about Florida State squandering its best chance to be a superpower again on a macro level, and about failing to prevent a collapse in a road game in a micro sense. Those things both fall on Jimbo Fisher, whether fans are faulting him for failing to prepare or adjust, and they put him in a tricky predicament: he's not nearly in danger of being fired, not unless Florida State crashes and burns, but he's not going to win back most fans without the 'Noles running the table or coming close.
Would an 11-1 regular season make FSU fans happy? Sure -- as long as the 'Noles win the ACC Championship Game and their BCS bowl game after it. Would 10-2 be okay if the second loss was to Florida and FSU won the ACC and a BCS game? Maybe, because of the lack of a shocking upset, but it'd be an annoying confirmation that the Gators are back to being the Sunshine State's premier program. 11-1 and an ACC title game loss probably isn't going to work, nor 10-2 and another bad conference loss, nor anything worse than 10-2 that might mean FSU missing even a chance to play for the conference crown.
Florida State needed to continue its upward trajectory and end up as high as possible to meet the stratospheric expectations fans had for Jimbo Fisher and his 'Noles this season. Thanks to one bad loss, even 11 wins might not be enough for them. Fisher not getting (or not admitting) that this shaped up as a title-or-bust season for the 'Noles is only going to make fans even more livid with him.
If Florida State returns to its winning ways and Fisher sounds more contrite from here on out, he'll minimize the damage done. But Florida State also being back means expectations are back -- and when expectations aren't met, the boos come back, too.