Though it also featured a loss to an unranked opponent at home, the second season was even better, with only three losses, a conference title, and a BCS bowl win. Unfortunately, the third season marked a slight step back, as injuries—most notably at the quarterback position—held the now-resurgeant program back, leading to two more losses to unranked opponents (both on the road) and a disappointing five-loss campaign. Through three years, this new coach had gone 26-12 (15-9 in conference), winning as many games in three years as the program had in the prior four.
The parallels to Jimbo Fisher's first three years at Florida State, another proud program that had fallen on hard times. Florida State had gone 31-21 in the four years prior to Fisher taking over the head coaching position. Like his mentor Saban, Fisher won the same number of games (31-10) in his first three years as had been won in the four seasons prior to his taking over.
Also like Saban, Fisher's Seminoles have lost games to unranked opponents in each of his first three years, a point that has been repeated throughout the offseason by both national and FSU-centered media all offseason. Fisher presently has the unfortunate reputation of an underachiever, a coach who consistently loses games he shouldn't. But a quick comparison to Saban's first three years at equally moribund LSU are instructive.
Saban's first year included a worse loss than any Fisher has had at FSU: 13-10 home loss to UAB. That first campaign also included 35-24 road loss to a mediocre 6-6 Arkansas team. Fisher's last-second losses at NC State on the road and at home against a UNC team that by that time had recovered most of the 12 players it sent to the NFL combine in 2010 look rather good by comparison. Both teams lost two games to highly ranked opponents as well.
Saban's third year was more similar to Fisher's second, each campaign marred by injuries. After losing quarterback Matt Mauck to injury, Saban's Tigers lost on the road against two unranked conference foes, 31-7 at Auburn (who would go on to finish 9-4 and #19) and 20-21 at Arkansas, who finished unranked. Fisher's second campaign involved heavy injuries on the offensive line and to quarterback E.J. Manuel, with two losses to unranked opponents, 30-35 at Wake Forest (with a true freshman quarterback and left tackle) and a last-minute 14-13 defeat at home against 8-5 Virginia. FSU finished 9-4, while LSU finished 8-5, the difference largely due to LSU playing a tougher schedule.
Saban's second year at LSU was very similar to Fisher's third at FSU. Each campaign was marred by a bad loss to an unranked team, however: LSU lost 35-24 at home to a mediocre 7-win Ole Miss team quarterbacked by red-hot future NFL star Eli Manning, while FSU lost on the road to a mediocre 7-win NC State team quarterbacked by red-hot NFL draft pick Mike Glennon. Each program, however, broke through with its first conference title in years (13 for LSU, 7 for FSU), and each won its BCS Bowl game.
Fisher now stands at the threshold of his fourth season at FSU with his most talented team yet and a favorable schedule. It remains to be seen whether his fourth year will parallel that of his mentor's at LSU, a one-loss campaign concluding with a national championship. But this comparison should make it clear that it's simply too early to judge whether Fisher—who inherited quite bare cupboards upon taking over the job—truly deserves the "underachieving" tag, as even Saban, the best coach of this era, had very comparable losses (some even worse) in his first three years at LSU.
Losing to Underdogs
The first thing fans need to realize is just how bare the cupboard was at Florida State, a reality masked by artificially high recruiting rankings padded by recruits who either never made it to campus, immediately washed out, or were simply overrated by scouting services who awarded all FSU commits with higher ratings, assuming that if they were going to FSU, they must be good.
I was on the sideline for Florida State's loss against Wake Forest in 2009 and will never forget being shocked at how small and unimposing Florida State looked. That was no upset. Wake Forest actually had more talent and every bit as much size on the field that day than FSU, something that should never happen given the ceiling of the two programs. Fisher took over that program, not a Florida State program loaded with talent.
In looking at all of the so-called bad losses over the past three years, I think it is wrong to suggest that Fisher has a higher than usual propensity to lose games he shouldn't. There is no doubt that the NC State loss in 2012 was a bad loss (although this site might have been the only media outlet in the USA that anticipated that loss), and there is no need to try to defend it. That said, it was a perfect example of what happens to teams that have not yet learned how to take care of business every week, and Florida State's program had been so far removed from success that its players have needed to learn how to manage it. (I happen to suspect that the second half of the season marked getting over that hump, despite the home loss to Florida.)
The entire 2011 season is a bad year to use as an example of anything due to the horrible rash of injuries, especially on the offensive side of the ball. As bad as it is for FSU to ever lose to Wake Forest, that game featured a patchwork offensive line with a 17-year-old true freshman Bobby Hart starting at left tackle, protecting a green true freshman quarterback who was simply not up to Wake Forest's complex defensive schemes. No surprise that a rash of turnovers cost FSU that game.
Likewise the Virginia game, which featured yet another patchwork offensive line against a team that actually had strong lines on both sides of the ball. The game certainly could have been managed better down the stretch, but the fact is that when you play games on the margin, sometimes you lose them.
The two "bad losses" in 2010 were perhaps the most defensible of all, as one was on the road at night against a Russell Wilson-led NC State team with three 6'2+ senior wide receivers (though again the fact that the game was lost on a fumble on the goal line in the last seconds makes it more painful) and the other was on a missed kick at the gun against the most talented ACC team of the previous five years, a North Carolina squad that was a Marvin Austin tweet away from national title contention. That UNC team was a dropped pass in the end zone from beating LSU in the opening game without thirteen of its best players, who had been suspended for the opening part of the season. Carolina had just gotten several of its best players back from suspension when they managed a last-second win against FSU.
None of these losses is as bad as Saban's LSU home loss to UAB (2001) and even more shocking home loss to Louisiana Monroe at Alabama (2007) or Pete Carroll inexplicably losing twice as 40+ point favorites with USC teams at their very pinnacle of talent and success. If Fisher deserves the underachiever tag after his first three years rebuilding Florida State, Saban deserved it after his first three years at LSU. Given what we know now about Saban, that of course would have been patently absurd.
The only explanation I have for the way Fisher has consistently been maligned for losing games he shouldn't is that many also associate him with lean years prior to taking over in 2010. Because he was the head coach in waiting, it seems like he has been responsible longer than he has. But the reality is that the Florida State program has taken a step forward every year since Fisher took over after a long decline, taking the Seminoles from 42nd in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings in 2009 to 18th in 2010, 10th in 2011 (despite the injuries), and fifth in 2012. Should that trend continue, Fisher may well wind up repeating the pattern of his mentor.
I am not suggesting that Fisher has reached Saban status at this point. But I do think it's clear that the underachiever tag is undeserved and premature, that the program is on the right track, and that the 2013 season is setting up to be a very exciting one for Seminole fans.