The prevailing narrative of this 2014 BCS National Championship Game, the last hurrah of the BCS, is Florida State vs. the SEC. How could it not be? Florida State being BACK is new and fun — but Notre Dame being BACK was part of last year's narrative, and Alabama eliminated that.
Florida State's the best (and last?) chance for the rest of college football to knock King Kong off the podium, and not just because this FSU team is facing an Auburn team that is arguably the weakest of the SEC's nine BCS title game participants in the run since 2006.
After all, it's Florida State, not Auburn, that looks more like the SEC team in this ring. And it's Florida State, not the SEC, that taught the world the formula that has made the SEC so successful of late.
And it's Florida State that could add something to that formula that differentiates its program from the SEC in the best way possible. Hell, it's possible that FSU has already done it.
Florida State's talent drought.
Paul Myerberg of USA Today wrote Sunday about the conundrum that is Florida State's so-called "SEC blueprint" actually being based on the Seminoles of the late 1980s and 1990s, Bobby Bowden's heyday. Those teams were stocked with oodles of skill-position talent — Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn and Peter Warrick and so on — but they also had linemen, linebackers, and good players virtually everywhere.
What's the simplest way to measure a program's talent output over time? The NFL Draft.
Florida State's Draft history is prolific, but the stretch from the 1988 Draft to 2001, which coincided with the program's 15 consecutive finishes in the top 10 of the final AP Poll, was the program's finest period, with at least four players selected each year and first-round picks in all but four of those drafts.
2002 broke the former streak, with just Javon Walker and Chris Hope meriting picks, and while FSU would continue churning out NFL talent in the 2000s, the talent ebbed slightly, then evaporated.
From 2007 to 2012, just 19 'Noles were drafted — a gaudy number for many college programs over a six-year span, sure, but fewer than FSU had over any four-year period from 1988 to 2006. From 2008 to 2012, FSU had just 14 players selected, producing in five years of Bowden's twilight and the first stages of Jimbo Fisher's rebuild what the Seminoles had routinely done in three years.
The return to dominance.
The 2013 NFL Draft provided the best evidence that Florida State is back, or at least that its cupboards were once again stocked. Eleven Seminoles were picked, nearly matching the last five years in one weekend and leading all college programs. Three (EJ Manuel, Xavier Rhodes, and Bjoern Werner) went in the first round; three others (Tank Carradine, Chris Thompson, and Brandon Jenkins) were taken despite serious injuries in 2012.
The problem with declaring FSU BACK after 2012, though, was a pair of stubborn facts. That team was clearly the best group of Seminoles since at least the 2000 team that played for a national title, but had still lost twice.
Yes, that team outscored its opponents by 344 points, well in line with great FSU squads of yesteryear (1993's national champions set the standard at 407; 1999's champs made it to 355; 2000's national runner-up 'Noles reached 375), but choking against NC State and failing to stop a Florida team that had been quite stoppable played into FSU's narrative: it could never be BACK, just "back."
Thirteen phenomenal performances in the fall of 2013, however, suggest that Florida State is not just BACK, but that these Noles have taken vengeance by being more dominant than any other bunch in program history.
Florida State has eviscerated every team it has seen, thrashing each by at least two touchdowns. Had Boston College not hung with FSU for a half or scored a garbage-time touchdown, FSU could have won all of its 13 games by at least 27 points. These Noles are threatening 2008 Oklahoma's all-time record for points scored by an FBS team, needing just 28 points in Pasadena to break it. They are also No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, like Alabama was in back-to-back national title campaigns in 2011 and 2012, and have allowed more than 17 points just once, in that 48-34 win over Boston College.
That's good for an average margin of victory of 42.3 points. It's almost unfathomably great when put in context: to not break that 1993 championship FSU team's record for gross margin of victory, Florida State would have to lose to Auburn by 144 points. (Destiny is not that good.)
The Noles combine SEC-grade monsters like defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan with the country's best quarterback. Kim Klement, USA Today.
This looks like an SEC champion ...
Much about this FSU team is familiar to SEC fans.
The lines are each very good, enabling control of the line of scrimmage, but the defensive line is tremendous, with five or six players ticketed for NFL futures. The defense as a whole is outstanding because of its size and speed, with athletes who can hawk down big plays before they happen and stymie horizontal spread attacks with ease. Playmakers abound on both sides of the ball. When things are clicking, the advantage is total on both sides of the ball.
And FSU seems even more overwhelming than the great SEC teams of the last seven years, partly because of its competition. Obliterating teams to the degree that Florida State has is impressive no matter who those teams are, but even FSU fans will quietly admit that it has had the good fortune of playing in the top-heavy ACC, where the best teams it sees annually are a Clemson squad that is very capable of being blown out by FSU, a Miami program still on its way back from rock bottom, and a Florida program that has yo-yoed from mediocre to excellent to wretched over the last three years.
... but the SEC doesn't have Jameis Winston.
The new and frightening element of Florida State's run boils down to one thing: a curve-breaking quarterback.
During that streak of top-10 seasons, FSU had good quarterbacks routinely, but none approached Ward, who combined accuracy and arm strength with athleticism on the hoof, was an ideal triggerman for a Bowden offense built around blazing speed, and was clearly the best player in college football in 1993. That's not really a knock on the rest: Peter Tom Willis, Danny Kanell, and Chris Weinke lacked Ward's fleet feet, Marcus Outzen and Thad Busby lacked consistency, and Dan Kendra lacked ... well, a lot, but all of them were flanked by talent on all sides, and all helped FSU win many, many games. Weinke was very good, good enough to lead FSU to one title and get a shot at another, and even Outzen got the Noles a title shot as Weinke's injury replacement.
But the quality of quarterback play in Tallahassee has been on the rise since Fisher came to town, and is now, in Winston, staggering. Both Christian Ponder and Manuel were occasionally brilliant for the Seminoles, and both merited first-round picks despite significant flaws. Winston eclipses both in almost every respect and has come along at the perfect time for a quarterback to be great at FSU.
Football as a whole has been shading toward offense, specifically passing offense, for much of the 21st century. But the advent of targeting rules and the (welcomed) greater attention to safety has made defense harder, by preventing big hitters from disrupting vertical passing games, and cocooning quarterbacks in the pocket. This eliminates strategies like the one Florida State used against Florida's Danny Wuerffel back in the day: hitting the quarterback hard on every play to defuse a high-flying offense.
Winston's grown up as a quarterback with a lot of these conditions as his defaults, has been a student of the game for much of his young life, and pairs an understanding that makes grasping Fisher's offense easy with physical tools that fill the coach's playcall sheet with choices. He's as close to a prototypical quarterback as there is in 2013, and he's got a tremendous amount of seasoned talent around him, with his four primary targets — Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary, and Kenny Shaw — all very likely to play on Sundays after they get finished catching passes in garnet and gold.
Winston's incredible talent and FSU's offense complement each other, but so do other things, like Winston's talent for ball placement and Benjamin's fantastic ability to go up and catch high throws, or the fearlessness FSU's receivers have collectively developed to match the confidence that both permits and compels Winston to try difficult throws. Devonta Freeman's ability to chip pass-rushers makes him an excellent back for this offense, even if he's not yet at the 1,000-yard plateau.
And Winston's already broken FSU's curve, maybe irreparably. Most fans thought the Noles would take a step or two back from their 2012 campaign in 2013, what with 11 NFL players removed from the roster, including a first-round quarterback. Winston, from that thrilling debut on a Monday night against Pittsburgh, made it clear that the most important position on the field was not going to be a liability for Florida State, and he's now gotten FSU to a title game in his first season as a starter.
While that may have unintended consequences down the road if future Noles QBs can't match Winston's phenomenality, there's no doubt Tomahawk Nation and #FSUTwitter will take it.
And FSU's next quarterback could be better than the SEC's, too.
Jimbo Fisher's best player ever ... and his best recruiting advantage yet. Adam Hunger, USA Today.
Winston is the right player in the right place at the right time with the right team. Fortunately for everyone else in college football, Winston is nearly irreplicable, and should only spend one more year in Tallahassee, barring a sudden onset of allergies to money.
Unfortunately for everyone else, FSU is best-equipped to make another Famous Jameis.
Maybe Jacob Coker, who was involved in a legitimate quarterback competition with Winston as recently as this spring, is FSU's next stud QB. Maybe it's incoming freshman Treon Harris, a Miami kid with some parallels to Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson, or incoming freshman J.J. Cosentino, the latest in the long lineage of excellent prep quarterbacks from Pennsylvania.
No matter who eventually succeeds Winston, Fisher's proven that he can churn out star pupils, and Winston having success now and in the future is only going to make persuading recruits to let him teach them easier.
That's a trump card that Florida State wouldn't have if not for Winston, but one it now holds for as long as Fisher stays in Tallahassee. It's one no school in the SEC can match. There is no comparable quarterback whisperer among the 14 SEC staffs, and, after a season of stellar quarterback play in the SEC, the only SEC quarterback likely to go in the top 10 of a loaded 2014 NFL Draft is Johnny Manziel, whose talents appear as sui generis as any in recent memory.
And there has been no quarterback better than Winston on any of the seven teams to win SEC titles. Tim Tebow and Cam Newton may both still be slightly better football players than Winston, but it's arguable that neither player has as nuanced an understanding of playing quarterback right now as Winston does, and those are the gold standards for QB play during the SEC's run. Running down the rest, one finds the savvy but physically lacking Chris Leak, the Fisher-tutored Matt Flynn, the perfunctory Greg McIlroy, and the perfunctory-plus AJ McCarron.
Alabama, for all the glories of its recent dynasty, hasn't produced a better quarterback than McCarron, whom no one of sane mind would argue is as good as Winston. And Alabama, which has mastered modern recruiting, now has a perennial threat to that throne in FSU, which snagged Winston out of the Tide's backyard, can recruit SEC territory almost on par with SEC powers, and draws most of its players from the extraordinarily fertile pool of talent that is Florida high school football.
The value proposition Florida State presents to a high school recruit is clearly a strong one. "Come to FSU," Fisher can say, "and join one of the most dominant teams in the country, compete for national titles on a yearly basis, prepare for the NFL, and live in the sun."
It's little different from any other elite program's pitch — except that Fisher's system is now more compelling than any other for five-star quarterbacks who dream of having Winstonesque success. And those quarterbacks are the assets most valuable for college football programs.
And that pitch will only get stronger with a win over Auburn, the likely outcome of Monday night's game.
It's a shame that the game, thanks to its primetime kickoff, won't end during a Pasadena sunset. Surely, some would have written of how, under garnet and gold skies, the birth of another potential dynasty ended the SEC's reign of terror.