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FSU overpowers Northern Illinois, but Seminoles were underwhelming

MIAMI -- Nothing is ever easy for the Florida State football team. It's the toddler who throws a blood-curdling tantrum every night before bed, the tropical vacation that rains every day and has the flight get marooned on the tarmac before takeoff.

Sure, Florida State beat Northern Illinois 31-10 in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night, the program's first BCS victory since 1999. But the Seminoles turned a walk-in-the-park matchup into a cement-boot slog through quicksand. Florida State led 17-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, and NIU had a chance to tie the game late in the third.

If Florida State played up to its talent level instead of down to its level of competition, the Seminoles could have used this fortuitous matchup to springboard to a top-five ranking in the 2013 preseason. Instead, FSU remains stuck in the gulf between the program it was in its halcyon days under Bobby Bowden and the program everyone feels it should become under Jimbo Fisher.

Fisher insisted after the game that the Seminoles are "knocking on the door" of national title contention and "right there" to be in the conversation of the sport's elite teams. He talked about the significance of snapping the BCS drought and how many yards the Seminoles gained in the first three quarters despite their inability to score. (The fact that kicker Dustin Hopkins set an NCAA record with 88 field goals in his career says as much about FSU's red zone consistency as Hopkins' tremendous talent.)

And while the program is stocked with high-caliber players, this performance in the Orange Bowl should serve as a searing reminder to all the poll voters, magazine editors and bloggers tempted christen Seminoles as a national title contenders: Please don't. If you do, you watched this game blindfolded.

Especially through the first three quarters, these Seminoles were the same uninspired, underwhelming and underachieving crew they've been throughout the past three years. They were the same group that lost to NC State this October, Wake Forest last season and both NC State and North Carolina the year before.

Don't let the helmet stickers, Rivals.com recruiting ratings or NFL draft projections fool you. When its boils down to simple performance, Florida State has yet to prove in the Fisher era that it's of the caliber of the national elite.

Funny things happen in the months when games aren't played. And that's when Florida State has dominated the most in the last decade.

National Signing Day comes, pundits analyze how many starters return and perennial underachievers like FSU earn preseason rankings based on brand and 40 times instead of blocking and tackling. (And, yes, the media is at fault too.) Florida State is stuck in a vortex of what it once was and what it should become; while it still may emerge as a premier team under Fisher, it hasn't shown enough consistency to prove that it's capable of doing that. This is a program that struggled with Northern Illinois, a school it could've paid $800,000 to come to Tallahassee in September and beat by 21 without notice. We'd have taken this final score with a shoulder shrug.

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But this is Florida State. And on New Year's night in primetime, it was hard to glean optimism from this performance.

This Florida State team made multiplication tables look like Will Hunting-level calculus. It's the hotel patron who can't figure out how to use the key card, the diner in the restaurant who fails to realize a cellphone conversation doesn't necessitate screaming. It leaves people confused and shaking their head, especially on the biggest stages. The only thing consistent about the Seminoles in recent years: They've been totally inconsistent.

It narrowly beat Georgia Tech in this season's ACC title game. It lost at home to Virginia in 2011. It suffered a pair of lopsided losses to Oklahoma in Fisher's first two years at the helm.

Tuesday night's problems included impatient play-calling, where FSU refused to consistently take advantage of Northern Illinois's soft coverages by exploiting underneath routes. The issues included the sleepwalking special teams, which fell victim to a fake punt, an onside kick and a pooch punt. Perhaps most noticeably, there was the baffling lack of use of fullback Lonnie Pryor; he exploded for 134 yards and two touchdowns on five carries, leaving everyone wondering why Fisher didn't call his number more.

The most telling moment of the night came in the fourth quarter, when Florida State fans actually mustered up the gall to chant, "Overrated" at Northern Illinois. After years of seeing high rankings turn into subsequent disappointments, FSU fans managed to become more inexplicable than the team itself.

In the last nine seasons, Florida State has finished worse in the final AP Poll than its preseason ranking seven times. (That includes this season's Week 15 ranking instead of the final one.) It's been ranked an average of seven slots too high ever year.

So let's forget the haunting chants, the golden years under Bobby Bowden and all the Signing Day victories. Florida State is a chronically underachieving team that despite a middling league and boundless inherent advantages -- history, location and bank account -- has failed to emerge as a dominant national player.

Fisher smiled this week and said, "that's a great question" when I asked about what Florida State's appearance here meant for his program from the macro view. It gave Fisher a chance to lay out the progress of the program since he inherited a six-loss group from Bowden. He pointed out that this is the second time in school history that Florida State has won 12 games.

"I mean, we have came a long way in a short period of time," he said. "Am I disappointed in our seasons? No, I'm very excited about what we've done and how we've won a championship. Am I satisfied? No, you're never satisfied until you win a national championship. But those things are hard to win. You have to keep progressing."

Fisher is right. FSU has come a long way. Bowden left a program that had neglected recruiting and lacked leadership and direction. FSU is on a positive trajectory when it comes to wins. But with a new quarterback starting next year and a host of elite defensive players leaving to the NFL, it's going to be hard to imagine the Seminoles rebuilding into a national title contender in 2013.

FSU's victory improved the ACC to 3-13 in BCS games. And while FSU will likely be the preseason favorite to win the ACC next year, the Seminoles simply haven't shown enough to be in the national title conversation with programs such as Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon and Ohio State.

Making that final step into the national elite is hard. And Florida State has too much difficulty with the simple things to make anyone believe it can achieve the difficult ones. If anyone is tempted to put FSU in the top five next year, please check your DVR from New Year's night.

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