GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL scouts were the first outsiders to see the layers of talent being added. They would show up for spring practice and another prospect was in bloom at Florida State. It was a receiver here, a defensive end there, a cornerback here, a defensive lineman there. It was speed and size. It was Alabama to some, Florida State of the 90s to others.
FSU grew teeth, even as it lost players to the NFL. The scouts saw it. It really did resemble Alabama’s stock-piling of talent, which has produced three national champions in the last four years. Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State coach, followed the height-weight-speed matrix of Bama. Get the big, fast ones. Run them over, then run away.
Just look at the Seminoles. A quarterback who throws deep and short. Three running backs, four wide receivers, a good offensive line, and a quality tight end to boot. Marauders in the front seven on defense, man-to-man guys in the secondary who can blitz. The kicker, Robert Aguayo, has outscored FSU’s opponents this season (138 to 132).
So while the scenarios were being kicked around throughout college football the last month—Oregon’s offense vs. Alabama’s defense, Stanford’s run game this, Ohio State’s versatile offense, Baylor’s wow! Offense—Florida State just built its case as the best team in the country. Others could play the ‘What if,’ but Florida State’s backers could shrug and say, “You still have to go through us.”
The Seminoles are the best team in the country—no matter who they play, no matter if they had played Alabama at its best, or undefeated Ohio State, or upstart Auburn. The oddsmakers are contemplating just how many points the Noles should be favored by in Pasadena….10. 12, 14?...in the national championship game.
“I promise you if we keep getting better and do what we have to do it’s going to be hard to beat us,” said Jameis Winston, the quarterback, following a 37-7 road win over Florida.
Impossible, I would say, to beat this team without Florida State helping to beat itself. Florida State is going to have to fumble a ball, throw an interception, or two, or three.
Everyone wanted to see what Florida State would do against something other than Air. That was what defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference were being referred to. Empty space for FSU receivers and runners. Easy throws for Winston. Summer camp stretching.
Florida was 4-7, but this was not Air. This was an SEC defense. The Gators were having a miserable season because of problems on offense, not defense. They had hitters galore.
So when FSU scored just a field goal with its first three possessions, it brought a few people to the edge of their seats.
This was different.
“I do feel like the SEC is more physical. You could tell the difference at the beginning. They hadn’t really seen a team that was as physical as we was,” said Jonathan Bullard, the Florida defensive end.
Then, in a slow, methodical charge, and a one chunk play at the end, FSU showed its stuff. It put together a 96-yard drive in 12 plays and 5 minutes and 51 seconds.
Winston actually said, “We matriculate the ball down the field.”
FSU actually matriculated the ball to the Florida 45 where Winston threw a slant pass to the 6-foot-5 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who bowled through defenders for a touchdown. On Florida State’s next possession, Benjamin showed his stuff with an outside move that left a defender flat-footed on the sideline and Winston threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to the wide open Benjamin.
“What Coach Fisher says, every week is a faceless opponent. We don’t care who we’re playing,” Winston said. “We believe that we prepare the way we’re supposed to play, we don’t turn the ball over, we take care of the ball, we can always be in a good predicament to win.”
He probably meant Florida State can put teams in a predicament, but whatever. The Seminoles are mashing teams and not just teams from Air.
The offensive line is composed of all upperclassman, three and four-year veterans. Cameron Erving, the left tackle, is a redshirt junior. Left guard Josue Matias is a junior. Center Bryan Stork is a redshirt junior. Right guard Tre Jackson is a junior. Right tackle Bobby Hart is a junior.
The tight end Nick O’Leary is a 6-foot-3, 248-pound junior. Winston laughed when he talked about how Florida tried to cover O’Leary with a linebacker. Well, isn’t what you do sometimes? Not with this tight end apparently.
Benjamin is the third-leading receiver on the team, yet he caught nine passes against the Gators, three for touchdowns. Stand next to him and he is a defensive end for most teams. At FSU he is a wide receiver and one of the reasons the Noles have a ridiculous red zone conversion rate and have scored 62 of 64 times when they get inside the opponents’ 20.
“It definitely was fun to play another team outside of the conference, especially a team as talented as Florida, an SEC team,” said defensive lineman Tim Jernigan. “It was a good deal for us. Just a chance for us to come out and prove our point playing the run.”
It would have been a spectacularly smooth season, one free of ruts and hiccups and blemishes, a glorious ride to a title, if not for the messy business around Winston. The quarterback has been accused of sexual battery and, recently, saw his image stained a little more with police reports that he defied a worker at a fast food restaurant by taking soda without paying for it and for being part of hijinks at an apartment complex where damage was done with a BB gun.
Florida State tries to squash all mention of the controversy by warning reporters not to ask about it in post-game press conferences, but Winston seems perfectly capable of handling the cauldron by himself. He has completed 52 of 77 passes since the allegations came out. He looks at ease, on the field and off.
Florida State is doing it because it has stockpiled talent. Fisher is in his fourth season and he has FSU at 12-0, the first time since the 1999 season the Seminoles have been 12-0, which is when they won their last national title.
Imagine all the scenarios you want: Ohio State beating Michigan State to claim No. 2 and playing FSU for the title. Miracle Men Auburn leaping past Ohio State in the BCS to claim No. 2 and playing FSU. Ohio State losing, Missouri beating Auburn, and Alabama suddenly in the mix for No. 2, instead of Mizzou, and the Tide playing FSU for the crown.
It doesn’t matter. Florida State has the best team. Line up the contenders and the Seminoles will make them all look like pretenders.