TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP)Robert Cooper has an appreciation for change that few of his Florida State teammates can match.
The defensive tackle committed to coach Jimbo Fisher. He outlasted Willie Taggart. He made it through Mike Norvell’s early struggles.
Now, he’s enjoying the payoff. Cooper and the 16th-ranked Seminoles (8-3) have won four consecutive games by 25 or more points and have a chance to put an exclamation point on their regular season when they host reeling rival Florida (6-5) on Friday night.
Cooper, a 6-foot-2, 335-pound senior from Lilburn, Georgia, said Monday the team has come ”a long way” since he first committed to Fisher and FSU in 2016.
”It’s a huge difference,” he said. ”I can’t even put a finger on it, but it’s a lot of things that changed with this program. I’m definitely proud to be a part of it.”
His journey could get better with a victory against the Gators, who are coming off their first loss at Vanderbilt since 1988.
Florida State is looking to beat archrivals Miami and Florida in the same season for the first time since 2016. It would be a significant milestone for Norvell, who went 3-6 in his first season and has a chance to climb above .500 (16-16 currently) for the first time in his three seasons in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles’ 42-point rout of Miami generated a new level of enthusiasm for a fan base with a history of celebrating wins as well as Atlantic Coast Conference titles and national championships, with the last coming under Fisher in 2013. But the program’s struggles included coaching transitions and missing bowl games in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
Norvell takes pride in how his teams have finished. He is 19-5 in November in seven seasons at Memphis and Florida State, including a 3-0 mark this year.
”That’s one of those core things to our identity that we want to be remembered by,” he said. ”I think I said this the other day: It’s so easy to say it at the beginning, `Oh, we’re going to finish.’ Are you willing to do things day to day to put yourself in a position to grow consistently throughout the course of the season so that you can? It’s not easy.”
Norvell and the Seminoles have shown progress during their winning streak and enter the first Friday night game in series lore as 10-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
The Gators have Norvell’s attention and respect, but don’t ask him to call Florida by name.
”I just don’t do it,” he said. ”This is a talented team. Great size, speed, athleticism. You’ve seen them play at a very high level at different spots of the year. It’s one that is very capable. They’re in the first year of a new staff, new schemes, different things like that.”
The Gators have ranged from awesome to awful. They upset then-No. 7 Utah to open the year and were in one-score games late against Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia but lost them all.
They appeared to be gaining momentum in November until last weekend’s stunning loss at Vanderbilt. Coach Billy Napier acknowledged it was a setback but remains confident there’s been progress.
Nonetheless, Napier needs a victory in Tallahassee to avoid becoming the first Florida coach to lose to the program’s three biggest rivals – Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State – in the same season.
”I think we’ve got a lot of young players that have developed confidence as the season’s went on,” Napier said. ”I also think we’re a team that can be very average and we’re a team that can be elite. I think that it comes down to doing it when it counts, right? Put the ball down to go execute and go do your job.”
That’s exactly what Cooper has done to help the Seminoles turn things around.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25