ATLANTA—Deondre Francois hobbled out of the sideline tent, crutches under his arms, a brace running from mid-thigh to ankle of his left knee. He backed onto the cart’s edge, and then covered his face with his left hand before clasping his hands in apparent prayer. All around him, his shellshocked Florida State teammates avoided looking his way, instead focusing on the carnage Alabama continued to deal out on the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf.
Something clearly wasn’t right in Francois’ left leg, and Florida State’s season could hinge on what doctors discover within it this week.
With just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a season opener already out of reach at 24-7, Francois took a third-down snap and began rolling toward his right. But Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison streaked through a hole wide enough for an oil tanker, diving at Francois and rolling up his leg as the quarterback fell.
Francois immediately grabbed at his left knee, writhing in pain. He disappeared into the medical tent on Florida State’s sideline, and whatever hope remained on the Florida State sideline evaporated into the night.
“To look back and see your quarterback holding his knee, it’s frightening,” said FSU o-lineman Alec Eberle. “But at the same time, we know DeAndre is a tough and persevering guy.”
It’s the right thing to say, but everyone in garnet and gold knows just how serious this could be. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher did his best I’m-not-a-doctor dodge, but he’s been around this game long enough to know what might be at stake.
“I saw him and I hugged him and told him I’m sorry he’s hurt,” Fisher said after the game. “We’ll get the diagnosis and I love him and we’ll figure out what we’ve got to do from here.”
Florida State came into the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff ranked a defensible third, and proceeded to demonstrate just how wide the gap is between Alabama and everyone else. Alabama trotted out a lackluster offensive game and a downright cringeworthy kicking game, and still the final result was never really in doubt. Florida State turned over the ball three times, and managed only 37 passing yards in the entire second half. Special-teams misfires and interceptions helped shorten the field for Alabama, which swallows up any and all opportunities to score without an instant’s hesitation.
“We need to rebound, get back, fix the things that we had wrong, and go,” Fisher said. “I still think we’ve got a great football team … We’ve got to clean some things up, not make those momentum swings. When you play great people, you can’t have those.”
As Fisher spoke to a packed press conference room, several members of Francois’s family exited the Florida State locker room, their eyes downcast, their faces in shock. “We don’t know what to think right now,” Barry White, Francois’s first coach and a longtime father figure, told Yahoo Sports. “He had an x-ray and he’ll have an MRI tomorrow, and then we’ll know more.” White indicated that Francois was “doing fine” as far as his spirits went, but all that could change with a grim diagnosis.
That leaves the hopes of the nation’s No. 3 team in the hands of a true freshman: James Blackman, a six-foot-five, 195-pound rail who was in high school just three months ago. Blackman is a pro-style quarterback who put himself on Florida State’s radar with a strong performance at Fisher’s camp last summer. Every scouting report projected him as a QB who would require several years to develop into a starter, but then again every scouting report also predicted Francois would be running the show all season.
“We’ll get the guys behind him and we’ll rep those guys and play and we’ll go on,” Fisher said. “We have great people around him and do the things we’ve got to do.”
Florida State’s schedule could leave the Noles in an early hole. The Seminoles get a relatively easy tuneup game against the University of Louisiana-Monroe next week, but then draw potential Coastal Division champion Miami afterward, followed by N.C. State and Wake Forest heading into the bye week. All of those games save the Deacons matchup are at home, but a rocky stretch—not inconceivable with a Class of 2021 quarterback—could leave Florida State below .500 heading into October.
Granted, Florida State has fielded a freshman quarterback before with some success, a guy who happened to be in attendance at the game. Jameis Winston won the Heisman and led Florida State to a national championship as a freshman, albeit a redshirt one, and had returned to the sidelines as an honorary captain. He ended up being much more, counseling distraught freshman running back Khalan Laborn on the field after the game. (“Don’t worry about it,” Winston repeated, over and over, patting Laborn’s helmet.) Later, Winston stood outside the Seminoles’ locker room for more than half an hour, shaking hands and slapping the shoulders of old teammates as they headed for the team bus.
Florida State could use Winston under center right about now. But since he can’t play, they’ll need someone to step up the same way he once did.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.