CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Elsewhere, there was debate. Here, there was only domination.
Florida State blew by another mile marker in one of the most resounding seasons in recent college football history Saturday by demolishing Duke in the ACC title game, 45-7. How resounding was it? Kicker Roberto Aguayo outscored the Blue Devils by himself, 9-7, and he alone has outscored all of Florida State’s opponents this season.
“I’ve always thought we were the No. 1 team of all-time,” said Miami running back Clinton Portis, of the famed 2001 Miami Hurricanes, who placed 38 players in the NFL draft. “I would say this is No. 2.”
The key to that Miami team is the same key to this Seminoles team: depth. Florida State sends wave after wave of talent at every opponent, and has pounded every one into submission on offense and on defense. Florida State lost 11 players to the NFL draft after last season – two more than Alabama and LSU – and still has the No. 1 team in the country. “It’s years and years of four- and five-star recruits,” said Duke tight end Braxton Deaver. “The fastest, biggest, strongest recruits. They fly to the ball and they’re just blowing guys out of the water.”
Quarterback Jameis Winston has received most of the national headlines this season, both because of what he’s done on the field and because of a sexual assault allegation in which he was not charged. But what’s lost in the twisting Winston storyline is the unending development of talent gathered in Tallahassee over four years by head coach Jimbo Fisher. Florida State may not have an SEC résumé, but they sure have SEC strength, speed, stamina and swagger. One of the season’s “highlights,” at least on social media, was the image of the Seminoles playing hangman on the sideline during one of the many blowout wins.
To understand what Fisher has built, start at quarterback: the former quarterbacks coach at Auburn sent Christian Ponder to the NFL's first round two years ago. He then sent E.J. Manuel to the first round earlier this year. Now he has Winston, the runaway favorite for the Heisman trophy. It’s hard to find anyone who would choose the prior first-rounders over this freshman. “You know how gods got chosen ones?” running back Davonte Freeman said of Winston. “He’s a chosen one."
Now go to running back: the Seminoles have three rushers with NFL talent in Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams. And by the way, Winston can run as well. “They have three guys who could be 1,000-yard gainers if they were able to get their hands on the ball,” said former Heisman winner Charlie Ward. “They could have 1,500 yards at another program.”
At wide receiver, there are three more stars, in Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, an emerging giant who has nearly identical dimensions as Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5, 242) and five touchdowns and more than 300 yards in his last two games. “When the ball is in the air,” Benjamin said Saturday, “at its highest point, the DB has no chance of getting it.”
On defense, Florida State has allowed fewer than 10 points in more than half its games, including Saturday’s game. “They are two and three deep at every position,” Portis said, “and there’s no dropoff.”
The most telling example might actually be at kicker, where Dustin Hopkins set all kinds of school and conference records before moving onto the NFL, only to have Aguayo, a redshirt freshman, break one record after the other in his first season. Fisher has been able to not only bring in NFL-caliber talent, but he's been able to continually replace it with better talent.
“We’re becoming a program,” he said Saturday. “Teams come and go. Programs last. We want to be a program, not a team.”
A “program” has different ways of winning games. Highly touted teams falter when their best option falters. Florida State has several options. Winston struggled in the first half Saturday, admitting he was more pumped up for this game than he’s been for any other matchup this season save for maybe the Miami game. He threw high on several occasions, and left his team in bad field position. No matter. The running game and the defense bailed him out until he settled down to lead a second-half rout. “When things aren’t working,” Ward said, “you can always go to something else.”
So the BCS title game is not just one team against another or one conference against another, but a litmus test for a rising power. The Seminoles want to beat Auburn and then keep going into next season and beyond. They want to crash the party and then hold the party.
“It doesn’t matter who these guys play,” Portis said. “After they dominate [Ohio State] or Auburn, they’ll all say bring on someone else.”
The tradition is there: the Seminoles played in the first three BCS title games before the decline of the Bobby Bowden era. To many, Florida State is a fresh face in the final game of the year; to the Seminoles themselves, this is the way it should be.
After the chants of “Heisman! Heisman!” died down, Winston jogged off the field and then stopped when he saw a friend in a Florida State jacket. He reached out a hand and pulled the friend in for a hug. “This isn’t over yet,” he said. “Believe that.”
If you believe in these Seminoles, the only thing up for discussion is where they rank among the best in the BCS era.