TALLAHASSEE — Florida State coach Mike Norvell did not see his fans streaming onto the field after the No. 16 Seminoles’ thrilling 45-38 win over Florida on Friday.
“You just felt them all there,” Norvell said.
And so it went for FSU’s third-year coach and his Seminoles (9-3). You didn’t see them coming — nobody did — until you felt their arrival.
Nobody saw quarterback Jordan Travis transforming into a star. He wasn’t a big name when he signed with Louisville as a three-star recruit or when Willie Taggart got him as a transfer. But you felt him arrive Friday, going from underappreciated player to unquestioned star.
“His legs were the difference in the game,” first-year Gators coach Billy Napier said.
Travis’ two rushing touchdowns (including a 29-yard tight-rope run down the sideline) weren’t his best plays. That came in the second quarter on a miraculous third-and-10 scramble where he avoided four would-be tacklers with a spin move, a burst of power and a sprint to the outside. How did he do it?
“I have no idea,” Travis said.
He just felt his way out of it.
Travis moved into 10th in program history with 43 career passing touchdowns (tied with James Blackman) and into ninth with Dayne Williams with 24 career rushing touchdowns. It’s enough to make him an NFL prospect, though he was noncommittal about his future after the game. Not bad for someone who began his FSU career as a major question mark to the fan base.
“They didn’t believe in me too much at the beginning,” Travis said, “but man, they support me hard.”
The same goes for this team, as evidenced by the thousands of FSU fans who stormed the field for the first time since 1996 (also a win over Florida). Norvell entered the season under scrutiny because his 8-13 record through two years was a game worse than what got Taggart fired. A three-game losing streak in October didn’t help.
But FSU ends the regular season on a five-game winning streak, with four victories by at least 25 points. He crushed Miami, beat the Gators (6-6) and has a shot at an Orange Bowl berth. Did anybody see that coming in July?
“We’re now in the national conversation,” Norvell said.
So, too, is this once-great rivalry. From the white-hot ferocity to the white-knuckle finish, the Black Friday meeting had 1990s vibes. No, the stakes were not as high, the teams not as great, the players not as epic. But the hits were hard. The environment was intense, with Doak Campbell Stadium delivering one of its best crowds since the 2011 Oklahoma game.
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The Gators played a major role in it — surprisingly so. The Gators were two-score underdogs and were without five injured receivers, their leading tackler and, for a half, their second-leading tackler. Still, they delivered.
Florida rallied from a two-score deficit through three quarters to tie the score midway in the fourth on a 45-yard breakaway run by Trevor Etienne.
The Gators were not good enough to win. UF quarterback Anthony Richardson started 5-of-7 with three touchdown passes but missed on 16 of his final 20 throws. The Gators made too many mistakes, missed too many tackles and committed too many penalties. But after how bad Florida looked in last week’s loss at Vanderbilt, did you see Friday night’s thriller coming?
Both teams have a long way to go before getting back to where they want to be. The Gators lost to their three primary rivals (FSU, Georgia and Tennessee) in the same season for the first time ever, cranking up the pressure on Napier as he enters this pivotal offseason. Richardson has to figure out whether he’s entering the NFL draft or returning for another year (he, too, was noncommittal).
FSU needs to boost its recruiting and continue developing to smooth out the defensive mistakes and offensive droughts that cost them against Wake Forest, North Carolina State and Clemson. Being back in the national conversation, as Norvell said, is not the same as being back in the national championship conversation. You can’t necessarily see those days coming.
But after Friday’s wild night at Doak Campbell Stadium, FSU feels closer than it has been in a long time.
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