Source: USA TODAY
In their pursuit of perfection, the Florida State Seminoles say the opponent really didn’t matter. According to coachspeak, the opponent is always faceless; the real battle is against a standard of excellence, and so — no, sorry, never mind, check all of that.
No. 1 Florida State will face No. 2 Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
“Whoever we would have played in the game, we would want to win against,” said Florida State senior receiver Kenny Shaw in the moments after the Seminoles beat Duke in the ACC championship game Saturday. “But it is good that we’re playing an SEC team.”
And just maybe, for so many reasons, it’s a good and fitting finish for the BCS. The dysfunctional postseason system will be replaced next year by the four-team College Football Playoff.
But first, we get a controversy-free ending.
Florida State, which was last dominant when the BCS was born — the Seminoles played in the first BCS championship game after the 1998 season — is back for the finish. And after one final BCS upset (goodbye Ohio State, it was fun while it lasted), the SEC gets its shot at winning its eighth consecutive crystal football.
“It’s kind of funny that it did come full-circle like that,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Sunday. “I do appreciate the history of college football that way. We all complained about the BCS and everything that goes on, but it’s funny how many times they get it right, and how the history keeps repeating itself.”
Asked to state Auburn’s case after beating Missouri 59-42 in the SEC championship game (and before Michigan State upset then-No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship), first-year coach Gus Malzahn simply noted:
“We’re the SEC champ. I believe we won it the last seven years. We play the toughest schedule of any of the teams there, and we’re playing our best football.”
This outcome is probably best for everybody. No need for politicking — a “very refreshing” development, Malzahn admitted Sunday, adding: “It’s been a very relaxing day” — and no controversy. Whether anyone loves the SEC, hates it or maybe is just wearied by all of the chest-thumping, all of the time, there’s no denying its dominance in the second half of the BCS era.
Florida State, which rolled unbeaten through the regular season, then throttled Duke, looks like a formidable opponent; oddsmakers have installed the Seminoles as a slight favorite. It is very possible the SEC’s run of national titles will end, anyway — though that’s discounting Auburn as a team of destiny fused with dramatic improvement.
But for the streak to end without a shot at the title would have felt somehow lacking. Even after Auburn’s victory over Missouri — the Tigers’ ninth consecutive and second in as many weeks against a team ranked in the top five — it appeared that’s how it would happen. But then Michigan State beat Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten championship, and the SEC champion moved back into its customary position in the race: the inside track. Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer designed the system, and if his teams came to dominate it, it’s only right one gets a chance to finish the thing off. The only thing more apt might have been an Iron Bowl rematch.
But with Florida State, this might be the next-closest thing to an all-SEC affair. Florida State (13-0) plays in the ACC, but its location is in SEC country. Its players — several years’ worth of highly touted recruiting classes since Fisher took over the program — were recruited by SEC powers, too. And with a powerful offense led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Jameis Winston and the nation’s No. 1-rated scoring defense (10.7 points per game), the Seminoles look like nothing so much as, well, an SEC team.
“Overall, the completeness of that team is completely unbelievable,” Duke tight end Braxton Deaver said.
It has become fashionable during the course of the season to say Fisher has built Florida State in the mold of the SEC’s powers — he is, after all, one of Nick Saban’s former assistants. It’s just as true that these Seminoles greatly resemble those Seminoles of the 1990s, back when Bobby Bowden’s teams bristled with future NFL talent and beat opponents with power and speed. If anything, the SEC’s teams might well have mimicked those Florida State teams.
“I built our program like I thought we needed to build it to win a championship,” Fisher said. “We don’t model ourselves after nobody. We’re Florida State. We do things the way we do them and the way I think you have to play to win a championship and the kind of team you have to have to win a championship.”
And at long last, Florida State has returned to the top — ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1999 — and seems built to win the championship.
Fisher’s turnaround of Florida State has been a four-year building by increments: from the Chick-fil-A Bowl to the Champs Sports Bowl to the Orange Bowl to the BCS title game. This year’s success came despite losing 11 players to the NFL draft.
“We haven’t gone to where we want to go yet,” said Fisher, who was the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator for three seasons before replacing Bowden. “But what I love about what we’re doing right now, we’re becoming a program.”
Meanwhile, with a high-scoring offense based from Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle spread, Auburn (12-1) looks less like an SEC team than a video game imported from the Big 12.
The highest-scoring SEC championship game in history served as another illustration of the rapid makeover of the SEC from a league known for grinding against great defenses into shootouts from the spread.
But Malzahn’s newfangled style produces old-fashioned results. The Tigers lead the nation in rushing, averaging 335.7 yards. Against Missouri, they piled up 607 total yards and 545 rushing. That, and a couple of miraculous finishes in November, have been enough to offset a defense that has been middling at best.
“There’s been times, especially early in the year when our offense didn’t play well and our defense helped us win,” Malzahn said. “The unique thing has been the way they’ve complemented each other. But offensively right now, we’re playing very good. Any time you can run the football, especially in this league, good things are going to happen.
“Right now we can run the football on anybody.”
The result: In Malzahn’s first year, Auburn executed a dramatic turnaround from 3-9 in 2012 — and 0-8 in SEC play — to 12-1. Now the Tigers have a shot at their second national championship in four seasons.
“Our players have found a way to improve,” said Malzahn, who was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator when they won it all in 2010. “… We’re playing our best football right now. I don’t know if a lot of teams around the country could say that.”
Florida State might be able to. Together, the Seminoles and Tigers make for a fitting showdown for the final BCS title.
“We’ve gotten it right way more times than we’ve created controversy,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock said. “I find it interesting people prefer to focus on the times we had debates. We know there have been but we’ve gotten it right far more times, and we have this year. We’ve gotten the matchup everybody wants to see.”