Jan. 8, 2014
PASADENA, Calif. — The No. 1 ‘Noles flipped a month-long narrative on its ear Monday night and in the process ended a seven-year streak of SEC dominance.
In thrilling fashion, Florida State’s come-from-behind triumph over then-No. 2 Auburn silenced a nation of critics, who cited the Seminoles’ lack of close games in 2013 as being a significant weakness in the highly anticipated California clash of southern football powers. From the time the ‘Noles-Tigers duel was decided in early December, the running dialogue about the final BCS National Championship Game was that the ACC Champions weren’t battle tested and therefore vulnerable to the grittier SEC Champions, who had made magic in close games all year long.
Prior to the Rose Bowl, FSU’s version of adversity had been a 17-3 deficit in late September at Boston College in which they skillfully navigated and emerged victorious in Chestnut Hill, Mass. FSU hadn’t trailed in a ballgame since that trek to New England — a whopping 538 minutes of consecutive game action — before Auburn raced to a 21-3 lead in front of 94,000-plus fans and an entire nation watching via ESPN’s “Megacast.”
Looking doomed defensively and uncharacteristically uncoordinated offensively, the ’Noles naysayers seemed to be well on their way to an accurate prediction.
But while the Seminoles hadn’t experienced the pressures of battling from an 18-point hole during the season, that didn’t mean that they hadn’t prepared for such a scenario.
“We were down but we practice that situation every day in practice to end off practice,” FSU tailback James Wilder, Jr. said. “It wasn’t nothing we weren’t actually prepared for so I mean we just came out there [and] everybody still loved each other and still believed in each other and we came out victorious.”
After Tre Mason recaptured Auburn’s lead it had relinquished to the second-half surging ‘Noles, FSU maintained its composure. Despite there being just 1:19 separating them from a title-game loss, Jameis Winston and the offense calmly orchestrated what would turn out to be the game-winning scoring drive that was highighted by Kelvin Benjamin’s leaping touchdown grab.
Playing like a redshirt freshman for the first time all season, Winston capped off one of the greatest seasons by any player ever with that defining drive, locating his open receivers, traversing the dwindling clock and ultimately making the perfect throw to the perfect person in that particular situation for the win.
“You’ve got to be ‘G.U.M.P.’ — great under major pressure — and that’s what I love about him,” FSU tailback Devonta Freeman said about his quarterback.
Were the Seminoles battle tested before Monday night? Certainly not. But their ability to handle adversity and conquer it helped them win Monday’s fight and ultimately the war against the SEC’s seven-season championship streak.
“We heard what was being said about us all week,” FSU defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel said. “Nobody thought we could win if we had to fight to do it. We always knew what we were capable of and now everybody else knows.”
Added Wilder: “We were calm man. That’s the thing that really separates teams. If you’re one of those guys like, ‘man, there’s a minute left and we lost’ and pouting and stuff, those are the teams that lose. We up there and we crunk.
“We believed and we won."
Becoming the first team in the BCS era to win a championship after trailing at halftime doesn’t happen by accident.
So, what’s next?
It’s going to be an interesting off-season for the champs.
Before FSU will ever get a chance to officially begin its title defense in Arlington, Texas later this year, it first has to get past the NFL Draft process. The ‘Noles are definitely losing standout seniors Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Terrence Brooks, Christian Jones, Chad Abram and Bryan Stork to the next level but there is a handful of draft-eligible players that have important decisions to make in the very near future.
Timmy Jernigan, Cameron Erving, Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, Freeman and Wilder are all potential early-entrants into the professional selection process. Wilder posted to his Instagram account Wednesday morning that he had already decided to forgo his final year of eligibility. The deadline to officially declare early is Jan. 15.
That’s how FSU coach Jimbo Fisher likes the process to go. If these players receive positive feedback from the NFL and trusted sources that they will be high selections, Fisher encourages all of his players to seize that opportunity. But if there is legitimate thought that returning to school would help their draft stock, they would be wise to stay in Tallahassee.
Depending on what each of these players ultimately decide, the ‘Noles have the opportunity to bring back some elite, high-level players and therefore further bolster their chances at a repeat next year.
In addition to this so-called “recruiting” process of current players, Fisher and his ace staff will now devote their time to finalizing the 2014 signing class and the continued evaluation of the 2015 class. FSU already has star running back prospect Dalvin Cook in the fold and scheduled to take part in spring classes and practices when they start up in March.
Bringing in some offensive line for increased depth, another quarterback or two, some receivers and defensive defensive tackles are especially critical points of emphasis in this year’s signing class.