After routing Duke for ACC title, Florida State has one test remaining
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They stood on a stage moments after accepting the trophy for winning the ACC championship. But Florida State's head coach and quarterback already had their minds on a different prize. First, Jimbo Fisher said something inaudible, but then Jameis Winston shouted for all of his teammates to hear and repeat.
"WE AIN'T CHAMPS YET."
Following a 45-7 drubbing of 10-2 Duke on Saturday night, top-ranked Florida State is heading back to the BCS National Championship Game, an event it frequented annually during the system's first three seasons (1998-2000) before descending into a dark era that lasted for more than a decade. Next month in Pasadena, the Seminoles will become the latest in a line of challengers to the SEC's seven-year stranglehold on the sport, as they'll face off with soon-to-be No. 2 Auburn.
But make no mistake: This is not the same thing as pesky Notre Dame trying to upset Alabama, or overmatched Ohio State attempting to hang with LSU. Florida State, not Auburn, will be the considerable favorite when the teams meet on Jan. 6. After all, the 'Noles just finished pummeling all 13 opponents in their path.
"I hope whoever plays then in the national championship [game] is ready to play them," said Duke tight end Braxton Deaver, "because the completeness of that team is pretty unbelievable."
Four years after Fisher succeeded legendary but eventually deposed Florida State patriarch Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles are back in the familiar role they once held throughout the '90s and early 2000s. They're the talent-laden, swagger-spilling juggernaut that enters every game they play with an expectation to win.
That will be the case again in the BCS championship, even against an Auburn squad that just defeated consecutive top-five foes.
"It's a big game," said running back Karlos Williams, whose cousin, Brandon Fulse, plays for the Tigers. "It's two teams that have been at the top before, now they're back to where we used to be. It's going to be, prove yourself that you're the most dominant team in the country."
The 'Noles in 2013 are what Alabama has been the past several years, and what USC was before that. That doesn't mean they're unbeatable. No one is. (Ask Alabama.) But through 13 games, at least, no one has come remotely close to them.
If the season ended today, Florida State would be the first team since Utah in 2004 to win every one of its games by at least 14 points. In fact, the 'Noles won just one game by a margin that slim (a 48-34 victory over Boston College on Sept. 28). The next closest opponent came within 27 (Florida State beat Miami 41-14 on Nov. 2), and the team's average margin of victory was 42.3 points.
Simply put, Florida State just turned in the most dominant regular season of any team in the BCS era, albeit playing in the decidedly mediocre ACC. Next month in Pasadena, it will face what over the past seven years has become the sport's ultimate measuring stick -- the SEC champion. Not that the 'Noles view the matchup through the same prism as most fans.
"We're not looking at them and saying, oh, they're Auburn, or oh, they come from the SEC," said linebacker Telvin Smith. "We go out there and compete against ourselves."
On Saturday, it took roughly a half for Florida State to look like itself against the Blue Devils, who became the first team in more than a year to hold the 'Noles scoreless in the first quarter. Running back Devonta Freeman fumbled at the Duke three-yard line following a long gain. Winston -- playing just two days after state attorney Willie Meggs announced that he would not face charges in a sexual assault investigation dating to December 2012 -- misfired on five of his first six passes and threw a second-quarter interception. Duke speedster Jamison Crowder returned a punt 40 yards.
But the outcome was never in doubt, primarily because Florida State has too many great players. Three plays after Crowder's return, with Duke trailing just 7-0, All-America cornerback Lamarcus Joyner picked off an Anthony Boone pass. Winston, struggling through the air early (he said afterward he came in "overhyped"), promptly led the 'Noles to their second touchdown behind a couple of designed runs. Williams ultimately plowed through the Blue Devils for a punishing 12-yard score.
The score was 17-0 at the half, despite Winston going a modest 12-of-21 for 171 yards with a touchdown and an interception. By midway through the third quarter, however, he'd thrown touchdowns of 11 yards to Kenny Shaw and 54 yards to Kelvin Benjamin, respectively, and the rout was on. Late in the third, in a play that might have ended with a stiff-arm pose if it went more smoothly, Winston took off running 17 yards, hurdled into the air and basically spiked a Duke defender in the shoulder after crossing the goal line for yet another touchdown.
The redshirt freshman tied the ACC championship game record by accounting for four total touchdowns. He finished 19-of-32 for 330 yards with three scores and two picks and rushed for 59 yards on 10 carries. And this was not one of his finer games.
If a certain trophy in New York isn't already bronzed with his name, it will be by Monday.
"Even though he wasn't on his 'A' game today he was able to come back," said Fisher. "To me, he's a tremendous, tremendous player."
Florida State has tremendous, tremendous players all across the field. It has for a couple of years now, but previous Fisher teams always managed to drop a game or two they had no business losing. This year's 'Noles made it their business to not even broach the possibility of falling victim to an upset.
"We play every game like it's the national championship," said Williams.
Fisher was asked afterward for presumably the 800th time about carrying on Bowden's legacy. He spoke with the expected deference for the program's two-time national championship coach; Bowden built the history that set the stage for the 'Noles to return to national prominence.
Since ascending to head coach in 2010 after three seasons as offensive coordinator, Fisher, a former Auburn assistant, has recruited at a higher level than any program this side of Alabama and LSU. There are elite athletes at every position, most notably Winston and his skill players, but also defensive studs like nose tackle Timmy Jernigan (10 tackles), Smith (eight tackles, a sack and an interception), Joyner and freshman safety Jalen Ramsey. They took turns harassing Duke's quarterback and blowing up its ball-carriers. The Blue Devils managed just 239 total yards.
Auburn, with dynamic quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Tre Mason and the rest of an offense that racked up a staggering 544 rushing yards against Missouri on Saturday, will obviously pose a much greater test. With all due respect to Clemson, the 'Noles haven't faced anyone of their caliber.
"We're not going to get involved in all this SEC-ACC stuff," said Winston, "because we done made it to where we are and we're not done yet. "
The ACC championship was a mere prelude. Florida State's return to dominance won't be complete until it adds an SEC head to its mantle.