Florida State’s season could turn on Deondre Francois’ injured knee

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A look at some of the highlights from the first full Saturday of the 2017 college football season.
USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The doors opened. Deondre Francois emerged on crutches. Wearing an enormous black brace on his left leg, he slowly hobbled a few feet, then heaved himself onto a cart, where he sat, head in hand, and waited for a ride back to the Florida State locker room.

Alabama’s 24-7 victory against Florida State lived up to the pregame billing. It finally turned, as matchups of elite teams often do, on a couple of plays. But Florida State’s season might have turned with Francois’ knee.

There was no announced diagnosis by Sunday afternoon. But the Tallahassee Democrat reported Sunday evening that Francois will have season-ending surgery to repair the patella tendon. 

And n the wee hours early Sunday morning in the corridor beneath Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the overall vibe from the Seminoles matched the quarterback’s demeanor as he emerged from that X-ray room.

It wasn’t so much the loss. One of the best things about this matchup, No. 1 vs. No. 3 in the season opener at a brand-new stadium, was that neither team needed to be overly concerned about the outcome.

WOLKEN COLUMN: The FSU-Alabama showdown paid off big for college football

SHOWDOWN: What we learned from Alabama’s win against Florida State

WHAT HAPPENED: Special teams mistakes doom the Seminoles

Florida State made a few incredibly costly mistakes on special teams — or from Alabama’s perspective, the Crimson Tide made a few huge plays — but that was essentially all that separated the teams Saturday. They both looked worthy of preseason expectations. The game pretty much lived up to the hype.

The Seminoles’ offense sputtered against ‘Bama. But probably everyone will. As usual. Florida State showed enough flashes to suggest it might routinely score 40 points on every other opponent.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense struggled at least as much. There were two elite defenses out there, and talent at every position, which is why even as Alabama stretched the lead, it seemed more than reasonable to think they could rematch four months from now in the College Football Playoff.

That is, until Francois went down.

On third-and-4 with just less than six minutes left, he took a snap and rolled right. Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison blitzed and chased him down. Francois rolled over and clutched that left knee in obvious pain.

“To look back and see your quarterback holding his knee, it’s definitely frightening,” Florida State center Alec Eberle said. “But we know Deondre is a tough, persevering guy.”

Francois is not an elite quarterback. Although he’d been effective at times Saturday, he’d also made several critical mistakes, including two third-quarter interceptions as the Seminoles were trying to come back. But he has been a solid leader, and as Eberle noted, a very tough one. Saturday night as he did for much of last season, he took big hit after big hit and popped up, seemingly unaffected.

But after getting his legs tangled up with Harrison, he had to be carried off the field. And then, a few moments later, carted away into the tunnel.

“Sad, man — it’s just sad,” said Florida State’s star safety Derwin James, who knows season-ending injuries — his knee buckled in the second game last season. “I feel like as a team all we’ve got to do is just stay together and we’ll be where we want to be.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher didn’t know the diagnosis after the game, but he clearly feared the news would be bad.

“I hugged him and told him I’m sorry he’s hurt, we’ll get the diagnosis and I love him and we’ll figure out what we’ve got to do from here,” Fisher said, adding later: “I’m definitely concerned because that’s your starting quarterback and the kind of player he is and what he has. But we’ll get the guys behind him and we’ll rep those guys and play and we’ll go on.”

But the guys behind Francois — well, that could be an issue. Florida State doesn’t have much depth at the position. The Seminoles will apparently go with true freshman James Blackman, who came in after the injury. He’s a 6-5, 185-pounder with talent who won the backup job during preseason practices over fourth-year junior J.J. Cosentino, but he’s only been on campus and in the program since June.

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“He can move, he can run, he can throw, he’s got great presence,” Eberle said of Blackman.

Blackman will need all of the above after a potentially season-reconfiguring moment.

In that moment beneath the new stadium when Francois hobbled, clearly discouraged, out of that room — the telltale sign over the door read “X-RAY IN USE” — he was consoled by a family member. Pat Julmiste was wearing a Seminoles jersey, No. 12 like Francois, only the nameplate on the back read: “UNCLE.”

“He’s doing all right,” Julmiste said of his nephew. “He’s discouraged because he left his team out there.”

And then the cart started. Francois rolled away, toward the visitors’ locker room. But from there, no one was really sure of the destination.

“We’ve got a long season ahead of us,” Eberle said. “We’re gonna work our tails off.”

‘Bigger than the game’

The best moment of the opening weekend came after an unusual correspondence last week between opposing coaches. Last Thursday, USC’s Clay Helton called Western Michigan’s Tim Lester. And then Lester followed up with an email. That happens during game week, well …

“Never,” Lester told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday, chuckling.

But when Helton outlined his idea — he wanted to get Jake Olson, who is blind, into the game to snap for an extra point — Lester was all for it.

That wasn’t all. When Lester agreed, Helton told him, “OK, here’s my email address.” Before allowing Olson to play, USC’s doctors needed to know Lester was on board with the plan.

“I give him all the credit,” Lester said. “That’s not an easy conversation. He was just being honest about a player he really cared for. He said he was gonna call every coach and just hope he gets it done. … He was just very nice in asking and he said he understood if I didn’t want to do it. He wasn’t forcing it down my throat, by any means.

“I didn’t think it was a hard decision at all. It was bigger than the game. I was happy to be a part of it.”

Before the game Saturday when the coaches spoke at midfield, they hammered out the details, including the parameters of when and if it would be appropriate.

“It was a weird conversation to have,” Lester said, “but when you’re having this weird conversation for a good reason? We were talking about what’s out of hand, what’s not out of hand, but it was for a good purpose, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a young man.”

As part of the deal, when Western Michigan scored its first touchdown, USC didn’t rush the extra point.

“Our first PAT was on air, basically,” Lester said. “And if the situation ever arose, he was gonna call timeout and look over at me. The officials were in on it. Then I could bring our guys over and explain what was going on.”

For a long while, though, it appeared the opportunity wouldn’t occur. In the final minute of the third quarter, Western Michigan led by a touchdown; the score was tied at 28 midway through the fourth quarter. It wasn’t until USC’s Marvell Tell returned an interception for a touchdown with 3:13 that the game was finally “out of hand,” as the coaches had defined it.

Helton called timeout. Lester gathered the Broncos. He hadn’t said anything to them before the game about the deal, not wanting them to countenance the possibility the game might get away from them.

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“I told my guys, ‘This opportunity for Jake is bigger than the game, you know?’ … I told them, ‘Don’t even take a step,’” Lester said. “They were just doing what their coach told them to. But afterward and as it was happening, I think they realized how special a moment it was.

“It was cool just to watch it happen. Just to watch the reaction of their sideline. You could see how big it was for them.”

We all could. Kudos to Lester and the Broncos, even on a day when they’d come so close to a huge upset, for allowing the best moment of the weekend to occur.

FCS teams make ’em pay

The payday was $600,000 but Howard came away with so much more — and others possibly came away with a nice haul, too.

Led by Caylin Newton, younger brother of NFL star Cam Newton, the Bison stunned UNLV 43-40. And at least as measured by point spreads, it might have been the largest upset in college football history.

Howard, an FCS team, was a 45-point underdog — at least, at places where a betting line for the matchup could even be found.

Newton, a freshman, ran for 190 yards and two touchdowns and threw a TD pass. He scored the clinching TD on a 4-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.

“We expect to win games like this,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said afterward.

Well, yes. But while Howard was easily the most unexpected, two other FCS teams beat FBS opponents Saturday.

Liberty (a 33-point underdog) beat Baylor 48-45 and James Madison beat East Carolina 34-14. None of the upsets was as big as, say, Appalachian State’s win against Michigan, which was 10 years ago this weekend. But it was a pretty good day for the FCS.

“It’s still a challenge to be competitive as an FCS team to play an FBS team and beat them,” Liberty coach Turner Gill said. “It’s not gonna happen on no consistent basis, I can tell you that. But I think the 85 scholarships (limit at the FBS level) … that kind of made it an even field, because everybody can’t get all the good players. You can’t get them all.”

One more for Week 1 on Monday

Among the best things about college football’s annual kickoff weekend — other than the fact that it’s college football again, finally — is how the games are spread across several days. Which means we’re not quite finished with Week 1.

Labor Day offers a prime-time matchup between Tennessee and Georgia Tech (8 p.m., ESPN). It’s billed as a neutral site, the second game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it’s only a few miles from Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus.

Neither team had named a starting quarterback as of Sunday — we’ll know when someone trots onto the field — but especially in Tennessee’s case, that’s essentially a subplot. The Vols went 9-4 in 2016 but fell short of expectations in the mediocre SEC East. Butch Jones has taken grief for saying his players would win “the biggest championship — the championship of life” (last November), and talking about wanting recruits who have “four- and five-star hearts.” He’s not on the hot seat, but he could get there.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson has never been shy about his opinion that his program and the ACC are underrated — and that correspondingly, the SEC is routinely overhyped.

This could be a fun way to wrap up the weekend.

The Football Four

Each week, we’ll pick the Playoff bracket as if the season was over. There’s not much body of work yet — not nearly enough data points — so it’s mostly just the eye test right now. And game control. And sadly, injuries.

Alabama — Same as it ever was. The Tide rolls on. Florida State was a challenge; Alabama was better.

Ohio State — Took a while to get going, but pulled away for an impressive Big Ten road win.

Clemson — A dominant defense. Quarterback Kelly Bryant was good in his debut. Next up, Auburn.

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Oklahoma — Baker Mayfield was 19 of 20 in the first half, then took the second half off. It was only UTEP, but Oklahoma looked good in a tuneup for this week’s matchup at Ohio State.

Four more:

Penn State

Oklahoma State

Michigan

USC

A few more after that:

Florida State

LSU

Auburn

Three to watch

Oklahoma at Ohio State (7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC): A nonconference matchup of perennial powers could have big implications for the College Football Playoff. It’s a rematch of last year, when Ohio State’s 21-point victory on the road in Norman turned into a key resume point with the selection committee.

Auburn at Clemson (7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Jarrett Stidham leads Auburn into Death Valley, where a fierce defense awaits. Kelly Bryant started off well as Deshaun Watson’s successor, but Auburn will pose a much stiffer challenge.

Georgia at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC): Is Georgia ready to take the next step under Kirby Smart? Is Notre Dame ready to rebound after a 4-8 season? We’ll learn more about both.

Others: Pittsburgh at Penn State (3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC); TCU at Arkansas (3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS); Nebraska at Oregon (4:30 p.m. Saturday, FOX).

Quotable

“Their guys were bigger and stronger. They whooped us. I mean, plain and simple.” — Florida’s Jim McElwain after a 33-17 loss to Michigan

“You know, plain and simple, take your whooping. And I’m taking it.” — McElwain, a few minutes later

Quick kicks

► If you were concerned about whether Clemson would take a step back after losing dynamo quarterback Deshaun Watson, the debut of Kelly Bryant should have been soothing. It was only Kent State, but Bryan was solid: 16 of 22 for 236 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 77 yards and two TDs. Clemson’s strength this season is its defense — but at least in Week 1, quarterback wasn’t a weakness.

► Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Florida’s offense is, well, not good. The Gators appear to have significant issues at quarterback.

Michigan’s 33-17 victory included two pick-sixes by the Gators. Their offense managed 192 yards and a field goal. Feleipe Franks, who was named the starting quarterback, was ineffective. Malik Zaire, the graduate transfer from Notre Dame, wasn’t a difference-maker in relief. Yeah, Florida receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett were suspended. Not sure it would’ve mattered much. Uh oh.

Let’s remember Michigan’s defense replaced 10 starters. Not a bad performance.

► Alabama defensive tackle Raekwon Davis, who was shot in the leg Aug. 27, played Saturday and got a sack. According to reports, Davis was standing in the parking lot of a bar when hit by what was apparently a stray bullet. He was briefly hospitalized; the injury was described as minor. Apparently so.

► Saint John’s and St. Scholastica combined for 98 points, the most scored in a NCAA Division III game in 40 years. And Saint John’s scored all of them. That’s right, the final from Collegeville, Minn., was 98-0.

► Last Thursday, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph went 20-for-24 for 303 yards and three touchdowns in about three quarters of work during a win against Tulsa. Saturday, his Bedlam rival was at least as good. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield was 19-for-20 for 329 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of a win against UTEP.

► Another much-hyped quarterback debut went well. Brandon Wimbush took over as Notre Dame’s starter. In a 49-16 win over Temple, he threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score.

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