On Jan. 4, 1999, Florida State lost the first-ever BCS Championship Game, to Tennessee. The Seminoles were without Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke, who had gone down several weeks earlier with a neck injury.
Florida State would go on to win the 2000 title game and lose it in 2001.
On Jan. 6, 2014, Florida State claimed the last-ever crystal football, with another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston.
Florida State opened and closed the BCS era playing in championship games. But it is the 12 years between, and the rebuilding job done by Jimbo Fisher that made the win so satisfying for Florida State fans.
The lost decade
In 2001, legendary coach Bobby Bowden named his son Jeff the replacement for outgoing offensive coordinator Mark Richt, Georgia's new head coach. The move did not work.
On Sep. 22, 2001, Florida State was blasted, 41-9, by a North Carolina team that would finish the season 8-5. Sure, the Seminoles had been blown out a few times during the dynasty run that saw them finish in the Associated Press Poll top five a record 14 straight times between 1987 and 2000. But FSU dropped three other games, by margins of 24, 22, and 14. It was the first time in 20 seasons that Florida State had lost four games by two touchdowns or more.
Considering the team's freshman quarterback, new offensive coordinator and turnover at several key positions, many, including the media, gave the program a pass for 2001. The AP pegged the Seminoles at No. 3 to open the 2002 campaign, and the Coaches' Poll had them at No. 4.
The voters' faith would not be rewarded. While Florida State did face a brutal schedule featuring seven teams that finished the year ranked in the Coaches' Poll, it lost five games on the season, including a double-digit loss to Richt's Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl and an embarrassing loss to Louisville in a Thursday night ESPN game. All was not right in Tallahassee.
The program was being lapped by many in the SEC. Bowden was asleep at the wheel.
The next seven seasons would bring 33 losses, more than the Seminoles suffered in the dynasty run that spanned twice that time. They also brought an embarrassing academic cheating scandal, sanctions, probation, complacency, a lack of qualified coaches, poor recruiting and a disinterested fanbase.
The program was being lapped by many in the SEC. Bowden was asleep at the wheel.
In 2007, Bowden hired offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, a Nick Saban protege who won a ring as LSU's OC in 2003. Fisher was able to make major improvements to one of the ACC's worst offenses. In 2008, behind the youngest offensive line in the country, Florida State produced one of the ACC's best rushing offenses. In 2009, the offense was the best in the league, dragging the worst Florida State defense in a quarter-century to Bowden's final game, a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia.
Fisher had been named head coach in waiting, an arrangement that did not go as smoothly as anticipated. Bowden did not want to leave. But legends rarely get to both hang on too long and exit gracefully, and at 80 years old, there was little hope that Bowden could right the ship.
The relationship between Fisher and Bowden was complicated, but at its core, was one of respect and friendship. Fisher had coached for Bowden's son Terry at Auburn in the ‘90s and had spent quite a bit of time with the family. His coaching style might be more similar to Saban's, but he has personable qualities that are distinctly Bowden.
As he'd waited for the head coaching position, Fisher made the most of his opportunities. He took stock of all the areas where the program had fallen behind the program he had left in Baton Rouge -- the one Saban and he had had modernized just a few years earlier. Fisher learned which people inside the program he could trust. Having already brought in an offensive staff that was heavily focused on recruiting, with South Florida recruiting aces in Eddie Gran and James Coley, he evaluated the coaches on the defensive side of the ball, choosing to keep only one -- defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins, an FSU legend with major ties to the program. Underscoring the issues on the previous staff, the coaches Fisher did not retain have not since coached another game in a BCS conference.
Knowing Florida State's defense needed a confidence boost and a rebuild of fundamentals, Fisher brought in defensive coordinator Mark Stoops of Arizona, whose defenses were renowned for disciplined play. Fisher was showing he would not fit the stereotype of an offensive guru head coach, one who regards defense as an afterthought. Having coached under Saban and seen how Bowden's dynasty teams were built, Fisher is the rare coach with an offensive background who emphasizes defense just as much.
Also important was the trust that Fisher had established with his offensive players, who sold the defenders on his abilities as a coach. He won defenders over by eliminating things like team buses grouped by offense and defense. One team, one heartbeat, he said.
Fisher also had to reach out to the boosters and the administration. To catch back up to the SEC, Fisher needed a football army of nutritionists, strength coaches, non-designated football staffers, mental conditioning coaches, sports psychologists, and so on.
"Empowered, confident athletes are winners," he said. "My goal is to get the structure, the staff and the support resources in place to facilitate a winning plan and get players into the structure and start effecting change. Now."
And that took money. The message was clear: Want to compete with the SEC teams for whom your co-workers root and bring Florida State back to the forefront of college football? Pony up the cash. The Saban plan doesn't come cheap.
That took some adjusting for Florida State, which had done things the Bowden way for three decades. But it also took an adjustment for Fisher, who seemed to expect supporters to shell out whatever was needed just because he said so.
Florida State is a unique program: one with incredible success in its 67 years, but also one with just 67 years of football. Having been a women's school until 1947 -- and for a long time lacking colleges and majors like the University of Florida's, which have churned out generations of rich doctors, lawyers and businesspeople -- it simply does not have the booster structure of older programs.
Eventually, the support came, and the plan began to come together. Florida State hired its staffing. Players changed immediately, particularly on defense, where Fisher had declared the need for "grown-ass men." In just one year, Florida State's front seven was nearly 100 pounds heavier.
But that wasn't all about the weightlifting done under the direction of strength coach Vic Viloria.
The return of the recruiting juggernaut
When Fisher was the head coach-in-waiting, he could have contact with recruits just like any other assistant coach (in 2014, NCAA rules prevent coaches-in-waiting from doing this). And of course, he could let them know that he would soon be the head coach of Florida State. This was a big advantage, because Fisher is one of the best recruiters in college football. It allowed Fisher to hit the ground running like almost no other first-time head coach.
It allowed Fisher to hit the ground running like almost no other first-time head coach.
Just four days after Bowden announced in December 2009 that he would be stepping down, Fisher landed his first big fish: Jeff Luc, a menacing five-star linebacker out of Port St. Lucie, Fla., with a highlight tape that recruiting analysts discuss to this day. Four days after that, Fisher landed five-star defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, who would go on to become one of the best defensive backs in Florida State history.
While Luc would eventually transfer to Cincinnati, his importance is undeniable. Elite players were committing to the new coach who had never coached a game, and to a program that had not been nationally relevant since those players were in second grade. It made other recruits pay attention to what was happening in Tallahassee. It suggested that it was OK to pick the Seminoles over the Gators, who had owned the state for these recruits' middle and high school careers, winning two national titles and six straight games over the Seminoles.
Four-star receiver Kenny Shaw of Orlando pledged to FSU just after the Gator Bowl. And a pair of Seminole legacies, five-star linebacker Christian Jones of Orlando and four-star receiver Christian Green of Tampa, joined the fold on National Signing Day, as did defensive end Bjoern Werner, who was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts after the 2012 season.
There was a sense that the blue-chip recruits Florida State was landing this time around were somehow different than those blue-chips the Seminoles signed in the Lost Decade. These were true four- and five-stars, both in the eyes of recruiting services and in the eyes of elite college programs. Florida State was beating out elite programs that really wanted some of these athletes, which had been common in the dynasty years.
And keep in mind that Fisher, an offensive coach, used 14 of his first 25 scholarships on defensive players in order to quickly fix the defense.
The buzz from National Signing Day rolled into the 2010 season, Fisher's first on the field.
Fisher's first class begins
A strong offense and a defense that improved from 90th to 37th nationally resulted in a 10-win season, the first since 2003.
FSU reached the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2005, but was soundly beaten by Virginia Tech. The Seminoles were also not competitive in a 47-17 blowout at Oklahoma, which was not anywhere as close as the final score indicated. Much work remained.
Still, there was progress -- and importantly for the fans, wins over rivals Florida and Miami with a combined score of 86-24.
With that momentum and an intact staff of dynamite recruiters, Fisher's state champion Seminoles signed one of the best classes in program history. ESPN's recruiting page led with the headline "SECond to FSU," naming Florida State's class as 2011's best and outlining just how many top SEC programs Florida State beat for the incredible 18 four- or five-stars it signed.
Florida State hit the jackpot, as 13 of the 18 went on to be starters or key reserves.
Florida State hit the jackpot, as 13 of the 18 went on to be starters or key reserves, including Timmy Jernigan, Kelvin Benjamin, Nick O'Leary, Karlos Williams, Bobby Hart, James Wilder Jr., Rashad Greene, Devonta Freeman and Josue Matias. And FSU's eye continued to find less-heralded players, including future starting right guard Tre' Jackson, who was underrated because a knee injury that had limited his high school career. In all, eight of the 22 starters on the 2013 title team were from the 2011 class.
But before any title could be won, Florida State would have to experience a 2011 season marred by the reminder that football is a collision sport. Key offensive linemen Andrew Datko, Bryan Stork, Jacob Fahrenkrug and David Spurlock all missed significant time with injuries. So did junior quarterback EJ Manuel, who missed much of a three-game losing streak.
Florida State would win seven of its last eight games, but a loss to Virginia in the final home game of the year saw Fisher's sideline demeanor resemble a coordinator's more than a head coach's. Even the most casual of observers could tell that Fisher was under great stress, and insiders privately said that he was far too negative and combustible toward his players, coaches and other staff. It also didn't help that his offense dropped to 50th nationally, squandering an excellent defense that ranked third in the country.
Fisher's record in his first 19 games as head coach was an awful 12-7. Fans and media decried the unwatchable offense and the perceived lack of progress. They wondered if Fisher was anything more than a great recruiter. And fans either did not know or did not want to hear that Florida State was considerably better in 2011 than it was in 2010, thanks almost entirely due to its improved defense, despite winning one fewer game and not playing for the conference title.
The Champs Sports Bowl win over Notre Dame, in which Florida State started four freshmen offensive linemen, offered promise for 2012. The Seminoles had gone 9-4, again beating the Gators and Hurricanes. The year would have been one of the better ones in the Lost Decade, but Fisher's offenses and recruiting had raised the bar. Questions lingered about his head coaching.
The questions had little to no effect on the 2012 class signed just five weeks later. Florida State signed a small group that was heavy on star power. Four starters on the defense of the 2013 team came from this class, including Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards, Ronald Darby, and P.J. Williams, plus reserve Chris Casher. All were highly coveted by the SEC.
"The way Coach Jimbo and Coach [Dameyune] Craig stuck by me through my academic issues in high school. They were committed to me, so I stayed committed to them," defensive end Chris Casher, a Mobile, Ala., native, said of remaining with Florida State despite strong efforts from Alabama and Auburn to keep him in state.
But by far the most important was a quarterback by the name of Jameis Winston, a five-star prospect out of Hueytown (Ala.) High School, just up the interstate where the Crimson Tide plays its football. Winston chose Florida State over Stanford and Alabama.
While all schools in the running said Winston could play both football and baseball, Florida State laid out a plan for him to do so, presenting a genuine, unified front on the matter. This was easy for FSU because Winston's baseball recruiter was hitting coach Mike Martin Jr., son of legendary head baseball coach Mike. Martin Jr. also happens to be one of Fisher's best friends in Tallahassee. Winston believed the two Seminole head coaches would not end up fighting over him, as both were on board with the plan. That Fisher has a true love for baseball and initially went to Clemson on a baseball scholarship, and that Florida State's baseball program is significantly better than Alabama's, probably didn't hurt either.
Quarterback coach Craig was equally important in signing Winston. Craig played for Fisher at Auburn when Fisher was the offensive coordinator for Terry Bowden. He has a unique insight into what it is like to go through the demanding and rewarding (three first-round quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, and counting) experience that is playing quarterback for Fisher. Craig connected with Winston's family and challenged him to blaze his own path, to not just go to Alabama like so many other players from Birmingham have done.
Not back yet
In 2012, Florida State still had Manuel, then a redshirt senior and returning starter. He was a good college quarterback with physical tools, but one of the rare quarterbacks whose production Fisher wasn't able to maximize. Based on those tools, he would go on to be the first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
It was by far the most successful Florida State season since the dynasty days. But it felt a bit hollow.
And based on those tools, a nasty returning defense and a much more veteran offensive line that was unlikely to suffer from the same afflictions as 2011, Florida State went into 2012 with a lot of hype. The home schedule was friendly, as both Clemson and Florida had to visit Doak Campbell Stadium. Many national experts picked Florida State to win the BCS Championship,
It was by far the most successful Florida State season since the dynasty days. The Seminoles won 12 games, the ACC and the Orange Bowl. But it felt a bit hollow. Florida State dropped a game as a heavy favorite at NC State, blowing a 16-point lead and being shut out in the second half while the Wolfpack ran the same plays over and over. Given FSU's schedule, which featured two FCS teams, the loss effectively knocked Florida State out of the title race. And even if it had not, the loss to the Gators in the final home game of the year certainly would have.
And even some of the wins, outside of the great comeback over Clemson, were unsatisfying. Some vocal fans called for Fisher to give up play-calling and hand over offensive coordinator duties, so that he could focus more on being a complete head coach.
The 2013 offseason brought more uncertainty. Florida State lost six coaches, including both coordinators, as defensive coordinator Stoops left for the head coaching position at Kentucky and offensive coordinator Coley left for a three-year contract and a chance to call plays at Miami. Defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot followed Stoops to Kentucky. Running backs coach and ace South Florida recruiter Gran left to be offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and reunite with head coach Tommy Tuberville. Linebackers coach Greg Hudson left to become the defensive coordinator at Purdue. Craig left for a raise at Auburn as an offensive assistant.
Somehow, he managed to upgrade a staff that had seen five coaches take coordinator or head coach jobs at other schools.
While all six coaches left for raises or promotions, the undertone was that Fisher was abrasive and difficult to work for. Candidates for the vacant positions were not immediately obvious. Head coaches rarely have to replace nearly an entire staff all at once. Fisher had to get the hires right.
Somehow, he managed to upgrade a staff that had seen five coaches take coordinator or head coach jobs at other schools.
The new staff had some commonalities. On the offensive side of the football, it was clear that Fisher wanted to bring in someone with experience coaching quarterbacks and experience running an offense. He achieved that with new quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, former Kentucky offensive coordinator. At the time, Sanders was not a popular hire. Fans wanted Fisher to bring in a new and exciting coordinator. Sanders had directed some abysmal offenses at Kentucky. But, he was also a key assistant on the 1998 Tennessee team that beat Florida State for the first BCS title and the offensive coordinator at Tennessee the following seven seasons.
With Sanders came running backs coach Jay Graham, with whom Sanders had coached at Tennessee. Graham proved to be an excellent recruiter and coach. His running backs at Florida State would pass-protect better than any FSU group in recent memory, allowing for the offense to throw down the field with a clean pocket.
The final piece on the offensive side of the football was tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Brewster, a man with head coaching experience and NFL experience.
"I coached nine years at the University of North Carolina, so I understood what Florida State was all about," Brewster said at BCS Media Day leading up to the 2014 championship game. "The only team we never beat at North Carolina was Florida State. I recruited against Florida State. We knew that a monster once lived in Tallahassee. Jimbo has done a great job of bringing Florida State football back to where it was when I knew it."
There's that word again. Back.
"I still to this day think about Derrick Brooks, Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn. The ferociousness of how Florida State played defense under Mickey Andrews. It was amazing. It really was," Brewster said. "At this point, with what Jimbo is doing, we're back to being the Florida State people once knew.
"Jimbo has done a great job of collecting thoughts and ideas. I'm a veteran coach. I have a lot of thoughts and ideas. Randy Sanders is the same way. Jimbo does a great job of sitting back and listening to our ideas, and then picking what he thinks are best. It's been like that from Day 1. He knows he has a hell of a staff -- veteran, experienced guys. And Jimbo is very bright, sharp, extremely intelligent. He's been smart enough to utilize the ideas of others if he thinks it will help us win."
But Fisher wanted more. He wanted the system he used to face every day in practice at LSU. He wanted Saban's defense. And to get it, he took a big risk in hiring Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama's defensive backs coach. The 38-year-old Pruitt came to Tallahassee with no experience as a coordinator and only three seasons as a position coach at the FBS level. Further, since Saban coaches defensive backs as his specialty, many wondered just how much Pruitt had been involved in the excellent Alabama defensive attack.
"His knowledge of the game, his experience in how he has handled some things when he got on the [whiteboard] and his answers to playing spread things," Fisher said in 2012 of his hire. "He's had great success against the open teams that have been out there, from [Gus] Malzahn and all those guys in that league, and the way they've played and done those things. We have a great rapport, and he is no doubt ready to be a coordinator."
The new coordinator had been on Fisher's radar for years. Fisher said he'd been excited as a coach at LSU by Birmingham high school coach Pruitt's blitz packages for defensive backs.
Fisher indicated that the interview process was intense, consisting of him grilling Pruitt on the whiteboard for hours about any number of schematic situations involving teams Florida State has to face on a yearly basis. He was not concerned with Pruitt's experience, but with his intelligence, answers to questions, and instincts.
"How much pro experience did Jim Harbaugh have?" Fisher asked, rhetorically. "If you can coach, you can coach."
He'd also wanted a defensive coordinator with a background in defensive backs, like Saban.
"In today's game, being able to go back to front is very critical, because of the spread," Fisher said. "You have to be able to match your secondary coverages to your fronts. Who's going to fit, how they're going to fit, how you're going to handle certain play actions, how you're going to handle certain coverages. And I think it is much easier to go back to front than it is front to back. I think that knowledge is [crucial], especially the way the game is being played today, with such a spread dynamic to it."
Even so, Fisher made sure to secure the front as well, bringing on Sal Sunseri to coach defensive ends. Sunseri had been on Saban's staff for several years and was on the Carolina Panthers' Super Bowl staff. The brilliance in the hire was in recognizing that Sunseri's failure as a one-year defensive coordinator at Tennessee did not diminish his excellent track record of coaching defensive linemen and linebackers.
"That's another guy that knows [the Nick Saban defense] system," Fisher said. "So you have a front guy as well who knows it, to bridge the gap."
Fisher added Charles Kelly to coach linebackers, another coach with experience in the defensive system Saban uses. Kelly had been at Georgia Tech under Al Groh, a defensive coach who had previously been with Saban and Bill Belichick at other stops in his career. And like Sunseri, Kelly also had defensive coordinator experience at the BCS level.
"We are all off the same tree," Fisher said. "The intensity with which we coach, how hard we coach, the time we put into the game, how guys are done. And we've all had success doing it our way and winning championships. When you believe those same things, you don't have those controversies. It goes back to chemistry of staff."
"It's the most unselfish bunch of coaches I have ever been around."
"I think [coming from the same background has] been a big-time advantage," Sunseri told me, noting that there is still a lot more of the defense that will be installed in Year 2. "Jeremy has done a great job, and he knew what he wanted to do, but all of us being part of the Belichick tree, because that's where this defense is all coming from, it's been pretty darn good. The experience definitely helped."
"The one thing that I was familiar with was the terminology that Jeremy uses with his coverages, and some of the pressures. Al [Groh] and I visited Alabama several times, so that gave me more insight," Kelly told me. "It's the most unselfish bunch of coaches I have ever been around. And Jeremy is a very good teacher. I know how it is being a coordinator. When something tears up, you gotta fix it within your system. But us all understanding that system helps. We had never worked together, but I knew him. I would call him and ask about the secondary when I was coaching the secondary at Georgia Tech. He can see what is coming and adjust in a game."
The coaches quickly got to work and signed another excellent class of recruits, though it was not quite on par with Fisher's first three hauls. After all, it takes time for new coaches to form relationships.
The 2013 class did include defensive back Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Matthew Thomas, both rated among the best nationally at their respective positions. It did not, however, include enough offensive linemen. Florida State had held a commitment from four-star tackle Austin Golson for almost a year, but there is no prize for second place in recruiting, and the lineman chose Ole Miss. Other offensive line recruits showed little interest in the Seminoles, so FSU signed only two. Fisher wanted more like four or five. Still, it was another top-10 class for Florida State.
After four years of recruiting under Fisher, Florida State had signed more players rated four- and five-stars than two- and three-stars, being one of just nine teams to do so entering the 2013 season. That's an important benchmark in the BCS era, as almost every team to win a national title had loaded its roster in such a fashion.
With the massive coaching turnover and National Signing Day resolved, Florida State faced its next problem: It had lost 11 players to the NFL Draft, more than any team in the country. This was part of the reason Florida State was expected to compete for a national title in 2012, not 2013.
The losses to the draft were heavy, including five players in the first two rounds, but they weren't quite as bad as some outsiders thought. Some of the players were drafted based on potential (Manuel, offensive tackle Menelik Watson). Another two (linebacker Brandon Jenkins, running back Chris Thompson) had been unavailable for much of the year anyway. Some losses, like cornerback Xavier Rhodes, were mitigated by Florida State's depth.
In addition to questions at running back, receiver, cornerback and so on, the biggest question was quarterback.
The big loss was at defensive end, where Florida State had to replace the best defensive end tandem in the country. With Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine went 24 of Florida State's 36 sacks, and its tremendous rush defense on the edges. FSU was going to have to blitz a lot more regardless of whom Fisher hired, meaning Pruitt would have to arrive fully aggressive.
In addition to questions at running back, receiver, cornerback and so on, the biggest question was quarterback. Would it be Winston, redshirt junior Clint Trickett or redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker? The latter was a 6'5, 230-pound gem with one of the strongest arms to ever come through Tallahassee.
With Coker battling a foot injury in spring, Winston gained the early edge. I heard he was making some incredible throws and that his understanding of the offense was advanced for a redshirt freshman. In the spring game, he was ridiculously good, going 12-of-15 for 205 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. From the outset, he did it big. His first pass was a 58-yarder for a touchdown.
I was covering the Elite 11 quarterback camp in Atlanta during the spring game. So I was with Trent Dilfer, one of the advisors of the camp in which Winston had previously participated. I told him about Winston's pass. I remember his response like it was yesterday.
"That's Jameis. That's what he does," Dilfer said. "He can be as good as anyone to ever play the position."
That may be, but Fisher did not name Winston as the starter after spring camp. The writing appeared to be on the wall, however, as Trickett took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to go play for West Virginia.
Over the summer, Winston and Coker worked with the first-team offense -- a battle that would extend into fall camp. And Coker, by all accounts, had an excellent fall. Winston had great days and bad days, and the battle was legitimately close between the pair. The concern with Winston was his propensity to try to make the big play too often and not play within the confines of the offense.
The staff was legitimately torn on which should start, but after consulting with some trusted advisors and coaches, Fisher settled on Winston.
Florida State had made the right decisions all offseason long. But four big things still had to break right.
Nobody could get hurt on offense
In June, receiver Greg Dent was arrested for sexual assault and suspended indefinitely. In fall camp, receiver Jared Haggins was injured and lost for the year. Florida State entered the year with just four veteran receivers -- Greene, Shaw, Green, and Benjamin -- and there were quite a few questions about Green and Benjamin entering the year. Behind them was nothing but freshmen who were nowhere near ready to play at a championship level.
Over the summer, starting tight end O'Leary miraculously survived a horrendous motorcycle crash into a bus. But Nos. 2 and 3, Kevin Haplea and Jeremy Kerr, were lost to leg injuries before the year began. Florida State tried moving Giorgio Newberry from defensive end to tight end, but saw less-than-inspiring returns, effectively leaving the Seminoles with just one player at the position.
The situation along the offensive line seemed more precarious than ever. It was so questionable that it was dominating the comment section of every Florida State article I wrote, even if that article had nothing to do with the offense. In response, I drew up a contingency depth chart to show that walk-ons would not be playing except in the most dire of situations. It was minimally encouraging. Florida State could have a nice 2013 if it lost a lineman or two, but it would not be hoisting a crystal trophy. The lack of depth on offense was enough to decrease expectations in the preseason.
The lack of depth on offense was enough to decrease expectations in the preseason.
But hope remained. The starters FSU had on offense, albeit with an unknown at quarterback, would rival any in the country. What if? What if Florida State could somehow go through the season without suffering any injuries on offense? Some extremely optimistic Seminoles fans wondered, but alas, life is not a video game. There is no option to toggle injuries to "Off."
Those issues -- combined with all of the losses on defense, the transitioning coaching staff, the redshirt freshman quarterback and road games at Clemson and Florida -- had most predicting a season in the neighborhood of 10-2, rather than 12-0. ACC media picked a veteran Clemson squad to win the Atlantic Division and the conference.
But once in a while, a team will catch injury luck. Phil Steele annually mentions the 2000 Oklahoma Sooners winning a BCS Championship over the Seminoles after not losing a single starter to injury all year. And would you believe it? That is what happened to Florida State's offense in 2013. The eggshells never broke. Starters missed a quarter or two here or there, and some veterans were held out of practice to nurse injuries, but they showed up on game day, week after week, destroying the opposition.
If Florida State had lost a couple of starters to injury on offense, the season could have been drastically different, as FSU fans saw when the second-team offense often struggled when it was so frequently inserted in the second half of blowout after blowout.
But the lack of depth also was a blessing, as it created a level of chemistry between quarterback and receivers unseen since 2009, when Christian Ponder had four veteran receivers he trusted. After Florida State blew out Clemson, Benjamin told me the lack of rotation helped the relationship between Winston and the receiving corps.
And the offensive line was stellar all year, as the starting group stayed together for essentially the entire season.
It would be hard to imagine a better group with which to develop a prodigy of a quarterback. And Winston was the second key to Florida State's season.
Winston had to be special
Behind that line and throwing to those receivers, Winston was fantastic. He made every throw in the book, putting together the best season for any redshirt freshman quarterback in the BCS era, at least. On the year, he was 257-of-384 for 4,057 yards, with 10.6 yards per attempt, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an incredible 184.9 quarterback rating.
It was obvious that Winston was special from his first game. After his virtuoso performance against Pitt -- 25-of-27, 356 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions -- I invoked the late Georgia announcer Larry Munson's call of Herschel Walker: "My God, a freshman."
Based on one game, expectations in Tallahassee were immediately adjusted upwards.
But how in the world did Winston blow away expectations by such a margin? After all, Winston's selection as the starter was not a slam dunk.
As it turns out, Winston's play in the season was more like what he had done in spring ball than he had in the fall. Could it be that Winston was bored with practice and tried to force some footballs deep against the best secondary in the country, leading to those interceptions our sources told us about in fall camp? Or is Winston the type of player who needs the adrenaline of game day to give his play the sharpness it has on Saturdays?
If Winston had kept on progressing in fall camp like he had in the spring, expectations would have been higher. Maybe not to the level of an undefeated season, but still.
It takes a certain mentality to handle Fisher's approach.
Or maybe it was that Winston was actually progressing in fall, but progressing by failing. You might not have agreed before 2013 that Fisher was a great head coach or offensive coordinator, but you would have been hard-pressed to claim he wasn't a fantastic quarterback coach. Soon, I'll have to start using my toes to count the quarterbacks he has sent to the NFL -- quarterbacks from which he often coaxed better performances than the NFL could.
Fisher is an intense coach. Just like Saban is hardest on his personal position, defensive backs, Fisher is with his quarterbacks. It takes a certain mentality to handle Fisher's approach. Not all quarterbacks who have played for Fisher have had the personality to handle him, and he has not always been good at adapting his coaching style to fit quarterbacks who are not of that ilk.
Exiting spring, Fisher suspected he had a player with amazing talent, both physical and mental, in Winston. Most everything came easy. So he set out to break Winston down and see how he would handle failure, via practice and scrimmage situations that were extremely disadvantageous to the redshirt freshman. An odd approach for a coach with a young quarterback? Perhaps, but Fisher did not need to build Winston's confidence. Rarely could Fisher break Winston with his traps, and Winston actually seemed to struggle more with routine plays. Some of my sources, in hindsight, think that Winston might have been bored with the long camp.
Winston has the perfect personality to handle Fisher's tough coaching. He sees through Fisher's tone and volume, then digests the advice within. Still, you never know how a young player will perform until the bright lights come on.
"I would say the Pittsburgh game," receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey said on when he knew the offense could be outstanding under Winston. "Going into the season with a freshman quarterback, not really knowing what to expect -- yeah, seen some good things in practice -- but actually going into that game and seeing the performance, seeing how well that not only the quarterback played but the receivers, the backs, special teams, just everything. We felt right now if they continued to just work hard to get better each and every week, we had a chance to have something special."
But offense is only half of the game, which brings me to the third key to Florida State's magical season.
The defense had to click
Saban's defense is a complicated beast, and with all of the turnover in defensive talent and coaching, a dropoff was to be expected. Instead, Florida State finished with the best defense in the country.
A major lack of injuries played a big role on this side of the football, but depth was much better, since Fisher had allocated so many scholarships early on in his tenure as head coach to quickly get the defense right. In the third game of the year, starting safety Tyler Hunter went down with a neck injury against Bethune-Cookman, costing him his season. Five-star freshman Jalen Ramsey moved from a reserve cornerback role to take over, and he performed tremendously. It was just that type of season.
But a lack of injuries was not the reason for the defensive excellence. That would be the job done by the coaching staff with the great talent it inherited.
Before the season, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was explaining how he installs his defense. The audio was captured by ESPN Radio in Tallahassee, and in his thick country accent, Pruitt sounded like he was saying "ho, pawr, ho." Local radio host Jeff Cameron could not figure out what Pruitt was saying. The answer? "Whole, part, whole." It became a popular sound clip played on the show.
Pruitt wanted fast, physical play, and he got it with the perfect blend of old and new schemes.
Basically, Pruitt would throw the whole defense at the players, dial it back and work on parts, and then see how much of the whole the group could handle. This was done masterfully.
FSU did not run the complete Saban defense in 2013. It did run much more pattern-matching zone defense than it had under Stoops, but Pruitt was careful not to install stuff that made his players act slowly and think too much. Injected into a secondary that will eventually produce six or seven NFL defensive backs, this was extremely effective. Pruitt wanted fast, physical play, and he got it with the perfect blend of old and new schemes.
While that happened from the first game, other parts of the defense were works in progress. The pass rush from the defensive ends was as lacking as feared, and it was clear that Florida State would have to blitz early and often. With a secondary as good in single coverage as Florida State's, that was not a big problem. FSU made it work with fantastic blitz packages.
In the season's fifth game, without superstar run-stopping defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., the crown jewel of the 2012 class on the defensive side, 4-0 Florida State allowed 2-1 Boston College to run up and down the field. The Seminoles trailed by multiple touchdowns for the first time all season, but Winston and the offense came back to take the lead before the half and won, 48-34.
After that game, one thing was clear: Senior Christian Jones was not getting it done at middle linebacker. Inside, Jones was slow to react, and his great size was negated.
"I think we saw a little bit of it in spring when we worked him on the edge some in pass rush," linebackers coach Kelly later told me of Jones' success on the edge. "Our job is to put our guys where they best fit, and while Christian did some good things inside, he was a bit limited in maximizing his ability, and that was done on the edge."
Jones was moved back to the outside, a spot that he told me fit him better. Moving him was a tremendous decision, one that changed the course of the season.
Jones replaced senior defensive end Dan Hicks, who was struggling a bit with playing in a two-point stance. And in place of Jones in the middle went Terrance Smith, a sophomore out of Atlanta. Smith is undersized but has good speed. Jones went on to prove himself fantastic against rush and spread teams at his hybrid defensive end position.
In the next game, Edwards returned, Jones ruled the outside, and the defense came together, crushing a then-undefeated Maryland team by a score of 63-0, setting up a bye week and an Oct. 19 date with Clemson, then the No. 3 team in the country.
It wasn't just a win. It was 51-14, a complete and total demolition.
If ever Clemson was supposed to have a year in the post-Danny Ford era of Tigers football, it was 2013. Clemson returned a ton of talent and was off a bowl win over LSU. And it had defeated Georgia -- before Georgia was wrecked with injuries -- in the season opener. Additionally, the game against Florida State being played so early in the year gave Clemson a bit of an advantage because of all of FSU's new pieces. Had it been set for later in the year, FSU fans said, maybe the Seminoles would have a better shot.
But as had happened so often in the dynasty days under Bowden, Florida State crashed Clemson's party, winning for the first time in a decade in Death Valley.
Only it wasn't just a win. It was 51-14, a complete and total demolition. It was more than doubling Clemson's yards per play and destroying Tajh Boyd's Heisman chances in one of the toughest places to play in college football.
"Good luck with that, Clemson," Lamarcus Joyner had said at ACC Media Day when asked about Clemson being picked to take the conference title away from Florida State.
The new defensive staff answered the question of whether it could get the defense ready in time for Clemson with an emphatic "yes." The offense was impressive, but the defense forced five turnovers and was a fast, physical, aggressive force.
The Clemson win was pulling the starters with a six-touchdown lead. It was physicality and brutality. And it was precision. It was damn close to perfection. Brian Fremeau's rating system called it the most fantastic performance of the year.
The defense would not suffer a letdown for the rest of the year, seemingly getting better and better. Freakish athletes gained confidence as a new staff found great chemistry.
This was a total team effort, one orchestrated by a newer, calmer Fisher. And that is the fourth reason Florida State wildly exceeded expectations in 2014.
Fisher had to grow
Things were different during fall camp this year. The energy was high, but it was a bit less tense. The reason, Lamarcus Joyner thought, was his coach.
When camp ended, and the team gathered together, Joyner decided to take note of Jimbo Fisher's more subdued approach. He stood up and told his teammates to offer Fisher a round of applause.
"For the most improved person in the program," Joyner said. "He's changed tremendously." (SOURCE)
It would be easy to dismiss this and say, "Fisher had Jameis Winston and a ton of talent. Of course he was cool, calm, and collected."
But that would be overlooking his previously loaded teams, like the 2012 squad that sent 11 players to the NFL Draft. During one 2012 practice, a receiver missed a route adjustment early in practice, and it set Fisher off. He just wouldn't let it go. It ruined the whole day, because Fisher dwelled on it the entire time and remained in a bad mood. Everyone was on pins and needles.
Also, there was that time he collapsed on the field in disbelief during a loss to Virginia in 2011.
many remained skeptical, wondering how the intense perfectionist would act on game day.
I had heard that Fisher had been counseled to calm down a bit, balance out his negativity and positivity, treat his fellow coaches better, trust others more, and to not treat every mistake like it was the end of the world. I was told that he was indeed showing change in spring practice. But the pressure is not really on in spring practice, and many remained skeptical, wondering how the intense perfectionist would act on game day.
And just as players can improve, apparently coaches can, as well. This really happened. I'd still receive word of Fisher getting hot in practice, but it was much less frequent. He learned to use more positive encouragement with players who required such, and his Seminoles responded by no longer playing in fear of their mistakes being met with wrath. Instead, they focused on their jobs and the process, with the confidence that big plays would result. They were a loose, confident bunch.
Fisher still pushed his squad extremely hard. But it was a different type of pushing.
Fisher would never admit this on the record, but it is strongly believed by many in the program that he trusts his second staff at Florida State much more than his first, due to their experience. Fisher is still a bit of a control freak and a micro-manager, but not quite in the same way he used to be. A lot of this had to do with Randy Sanders.
Fisher did not find a true offensive coordinator in Sanders, having kept the title and the duties for himself. What he did find in Sanders was someone who could coach quarterbacks and help game plan, and someone whom Fisher had to respect because of his experience. That is not to say that Fisher did not trust or respect former offensive coordinator Coley, but several good sources within the program have talked about how much trust and respect Fisher has for Sanders. The two can be seen discussing options on the sidelines during games, and it seems that Sanders has an excellent feel for Fisher's offense and for anticipating and understanding what Fisher is thinking.
Days before the BCS Championship Game, Winston spoke about Sanders' value to the team:
Well, Coach Sanders is the main guy. What people don't understand is how much he actually does behind closed doors. Just the other day me and him were sitting down one-on-one, watching film. He helped me so much, and I've lacked to give him credit through this whole process, what he really has taught me. Every single day, Coach Sanders asks me, ‘what can I help you do to get better?' And usually I say, ‘nothing,' and then he ends up giving me a reason why he can.
What he's done for us to develop a relationship, it's hard because I had a good relationship with Coach Craig, but for him to come in Day 1 and just me to have that automatic bond, this guy is hilarious.
And just the way I look forward to coming to practice to get close by him, and you can see that with his past quarterbacks. We had [former Tennessee quarterback] Tee Martin at practice the other day, and you just see the genuine love that his players have for him. And he's coached Peyton Manning. And hopefully I'll be close to him one day. And just his résumé, he stacks up with the best.
Center Stork offered similar thoughts:
I think Coach Sanders is the man. I'm very glad he came here. He keeps Jimbo calm at times when Jimbo gets all tense. Because Jimbo is a very intelligent guy, got a lot of things going on in his head, and Randy kind of keeps him calmed down. He can think like Jimbo does in a football sense, and he sees a lot of things that Jimbo might not see. It's a very - it works together well with those two.
Still, after dominating Clemson, many expected Florida State to have a letdown. After all, that is what Florida State had done in recent years -- a perception perhaps furthered by a media that kept picking Florida State to be back before it was ready to be in the Lost Decade.
Instead, FSU went out and smashed NC State on Bobby Bowden Day, the first time the legendary coach had returned to Florida State for a game since his retirement. Bodwen planted the spear before the game, and it felt right, as at no time since the dynasty days had the program he built been in such a good place. Florida State whipped the Wolfpack by a score of 42-0 in the first half, and at the time it pulled its starters, it was on pace to outgain NC State by about 600 yards. FSU even faked a punt in what seemed like a tribute to the old riverboat gambler in Bowden. It worked, of course, because it was that kind of day, a day Fisher had built toward for four years.
(Photo by Bud Elliot)
The man who built Florida State football let Fisher do it his way.
To Bowden's credit, despite having to leave before he was ready, the man who built Florida State football let Fisher do it his way. Bowden always said that when he did retire, he would not stay around the program and meddle in the affairs of the new head coach. And he kept his word, busying himself with speaking engagements, travel and time with his family.
"Tremendous, tremendous, and to me it speaks to who the man is," Fisher said of the importance of Bowden letting him do it his way. "Like I say, he's as quality of a person that's ever walked the sideline in college football, the winningest coach ever, but the class which he exemplifies himself with and what he represents is tremendous. It's funny, I say this story all the time, back in the late ‘80s when I was a [graduate assistant] and learning to coach, and I used to sit around at the Bowden Academy, I was a senior advisor for the quarterbacks at that Academy. Sitting out back, and just talking by the pool at night and whatever, and every word they would say I would stand on just to try and learn and get a grasp of something. He'd always say, you know, whenever he left he was going to get out of town and leave whoever the head coach - he said this 25 years ago, because it happened to him one time in his career, and he saw what happened to Terry a little bit at Auburn, when the old coaches hang around, and they're always doubting and questioning -- and he said, no matter who it was. And it just happened to be me. "
But while Bowden's lack of involvement helped Fisher once the new coach took over, the ridiculous success Bowden had for such a long stretch meant that Fisher wasn't trying to do something new. He had been tasked with bringing Florida State back.
"I'd like to thank Coach Bowden for his relationship which I have with him, and like I say, that's one special man that I learned a lot from for many, many years," Fisher said the morning after winning the 2013 title. "I hope my relationship with him will stay strong. I'm glad he was able to be here and be a part of it, because he branded Florida State University to be able to do the things we're able to do right now."
"But I was very blessed with the folks I was around as a college player to be exposed to doing things right," Fisher continued. "and like I say, I was around Coach Bowden a lot as a young guy, as a young player, and very blessed from that.
The final three months of the season were easier on the field than off. Miami, Florida, and Duke challenged Florida State for about 20 minutes each, but Florida State would not trail again until January.
Off the field, however, a sexual battery claim from December 2012 against Winston re-emerged and was reinvestigated, this time by State Attorney Willie Meggs' office instead of the Tallahassee Police Department. Meggs declined to pursue charges, finding that the evidence did not meet his charging standard of being "likely to result in a reasonable chance of conviction trial."
Adhering to Florida State University policy that mandates suspension for any athlete charged with a felony until adjudication of the matter, Winston continued to play because he was never charged.
The story was about more than football, but it was also about football. And from all indications, Fisher handled this unique test of leadership well, being there for Winston when he needed it and not involving himself in the circus that played out in the media. It was the right approach and tone for a football coach to take with such a delicate situation.
Fisher, surrounded by staffers holding up towels, and the Florida State offense had 1:11 seconds to go 80 yards.
"I don't think we have ever seen a more competitive two-minute drill than the one in Tallahassee," Kirk Herbstreit remarked to Brent Musburger during the ESPN broadcast.
Winston understood what Fisher needed from him.
In the final practice before the title game, Fisher had kicked Winston out of practice during the two-minute drill portion. The two had it out over a long conversation after, and Winston understood what Fisher needed from him, the head coach said.
Florida State had defended Auburn's offense better than any team in the last three months of the season had, overcame one of the most impressive punting displays in the history of the BCS, and returned a kickoff for a score. And Winston's yards-per-attempt had almost tripled since Florida State figured out that Auburn had its play call signals and began using towels on the sidelines to block them off.
Yet it still trailed by four deep in the fourth quarter. This was supposedly when Auburn would rise up and Florida State would crumble, having not faced a tough fourth quarter all year.
The redshirt freshman was calm.
He hit Greene for eight on a curl, and the receiver managed to get out of bounds. He hit Greene on a perfect slant between two Auburn defenders, who collided a step too late. The precision, timing, and spacing looked like Montana to Rice. And 49 yards later, Fisher pulled his hamstring while running down the sideline in protest of an uncalled horse-collar.
The offensive line was blocking well. Receivers were getting to their spots. Nobody was panicking. Florida State was in business.
From the Auburn 23, Winston found Freeman on a great screen call to the 17. A lone Auburn defender recognized it early and prevented what likely would have been a touchdown.
Fisher used a timeout with 46 seconds left. With the tackles cut-blocking defensive linemen to clear a path for a quick pass, Winston threw to Shaw as the senior got just past the line of scrimmage. First down at the 12.
After an incompletion, Winston made an exact throw to Freeman, who got eight yards and out of bounds. The throw looked easy, but precision was crucial. Auburn defended the play well, with the linebacker running around an attempt at a rub route. Many times, this play is a walk-in touchdown. But on this night, it required excellence just to gain a few yards. If Winston put the ball on the other shoulder, it could have been defended, or Freeman would have been tackled inbounds, which would have caused FSU to burn its final timeout.
After a delay-of-game penalty in which it looked like Winston tried to audible too late, it was third-and-eight on Auburn's 10.
Auburn played Cover 1 press man with a quarterback spy. Greene got an inside release on cornerback Chris Davis on a skinny post. Davis had good coverage for much of the route, but Winston put it on Greene with a strike. Davis had no choice but to tackle him before the catch, as the safety did not get over in time to help. Pass interference was the call, from both refs who threw flags.
First-and-goal from the two, with a timeout and 17 seconds to use.
This had been a rather painful scenario for Fisher's Florida State offense in previous years.
A favorable position? Absolutely. But this had been a rather painful scenario for Fisher's Florida State offense in previous years.
In 2008 at Georgia Tech, Florida State was down 11. The Seminoles pulled within four, then drove the length of the field. From the three, on second-and-goal and with 50 seconds left, Marcus Sims was about to score, but Georgia Tech popped the ball out. Florida State lost at the goal line.
In 2009, Florida State's horrid defense allowed a touchdown to Miami with 1:54 left, putting the Seminoles down by four. Greg Reid returned the ball to the Miami 49. Florida State had three shots at the win from Miami's two. The game came down to third down. Christian Ponder rolled out, finding receiver Jarmon Fortson in the end zone. The throw was low but catchable, and Fortson didn't hang on. The clock might have had a second remaining for a fourth down, but it was not reviewed. Due to failed execution, Florida State lost at the goal line.
In 2010 at NC State, the Seminoles again surrendered the late lead after having just taken it, then got the ball with less than two minutes to go. FSU easily drove the field, and with 50 seconds left had a second-and-goal from the Wolfpack four. But it was not to be, as running back Ty Jones took the wrong angle on a play-action fake, knocking the ball out of Ponder's hand before he could throw to an open tight end in the end zone. Florida State lost at the goal line.
So you can forgive Florida State fans if they lacked confidence in getting two yards.
Florida State went heavy package. Auburn had no choice but to match personnel, as FSU had the option to call a run because it saved the timeout. And that left Benjamin one-on-one with Davis.
"I saw that he was pressed, one-on-one, 6'6 vs. 5'10. I'll take Kelvin all day," Greene said of watching his fellow receiver from the sideline.
Because Winston and Benjamin had been so deadly on the fade route, Davis had to respect it and could not overplay the inside as much as one normally would in that situation.
Auburn's backers pursued the run fake hard, clearing the area to the middle. Benjamin beat Davis for his inside release. Winston threw the ball to where Fisher had told him to put it for Benjamin every day in practice: "tall." Davis' coverage wasn't bad, but with a perfect throw and all that space against a 6'6 player with a great vertical, the cornerback had no shot.
The final drive showed everything that the Florida State passing game had been. It used Benjamin's physicality, Greene's precision and speed, Shaw's hands and route running, and the versatility of Freeman, who forced the linebackers to cover him. And it had Jameis Winston, when the pressure was the highest, throwing dimes all over the field, with the defense not allowing him to scramble. Just as Dilfer had predicted he would, two years earlier.
Auburn had the Seminoles right where it told the media and itself that it wanted them: the fourth quarter. FSU couldn't hang with the battle-tested SEC team. Iron sharpens iron. Etc.
In the money quarter, it was the Seminoles who weren't denied.
But in the money quarter, the one that Florida State had yet to need, and the one in which Auburn cemented its 6-0 record in one-score games, it was the Seminoles who weren't denied.
Florida State scored the final three times it touched the ball, averaging 11.3 yards per play and adding in a kick return of 100 yards. Auburn's excellent red-zone defense crumbled twice, and Florida State took it to a level Auburn could not match. Defensively, FSU held Auburn to 6.6 yards per play, intercepted the Tigers, and forced a red-zone stop before Auburn scored its lone touchdown of the second half.
It was Florida State's best fourth-quarter of the year. Be careful what you ask for.
"It's politics, man, can't get caught up in it," defensive tackle Jernigan said after owning the line of scrimmage despite a fever and a bad reaction to some pregame medicine. "It's what Fisher likes to call clutter. That's something we don't like to pay attention to. We've played in some tough games, man. I don't understand why people say we haven't. We're fighters. We're Seminoles. At the end of the day, we're going to fight to the end. If you're going to beat us, you better fight every play."
"No, we were down [14-0] to Boston College. I guess everybody forgot about that, "Jernigan said sarcastically when asked about the new experience of being down in a game.
"[Auburn] plays football the same way we do. They put their pants on the same way we do. They had the Heisman finalist, Boston College had the Heisman finalist too. What's the difference? Nothing," Jernigan said. "Boston College's offensive line is just as good as theirs, maybe even better. Nobody ever talks about that."
"Tired of hearing it," Jernigan said of the SEC and the fourth quarter. "Tired of hearing it, and we just came to prove, that those guys aren't gods. They're human."
This class of seniors, a group of recruits Fisher beat the SEC for, had to constantly hear how FSU could not compete with the SEC. It leaves with a 45-10 record overall; a 10-2 record over Florida, Miami and Clemson; a 4-0 mark in bowl games; a 5-1 mark against the SEC; three Atlantic Division championships; two ACC championships; and a national title.
"We put Florida State back on the map," Benjamin said after his catch. "I knew Florida State was going to be back on top."