Strong, then: On Florida State winning a national title, and Auburn coming so close

This picture is hilarious. - Jeff Gross

How awful is it that FSU is on top again? How hard is it to hate FSU for legitimate reasons beyond making fun of how Jameis Winston talks? How much does Gus Malzahn hate fake punts at this point? And how can Florida learn from the end to 2013?

Monday night was not ideal.

Florida State won the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, and the 2013 national championship, and tied Florida for BCS title game wins and all-time national titles, and did so in stirring fashion, and we all had to watch it out of morbid curiosity and/or dread-based hope against hope that Auburn's destiny-drunk season would culminate in a win over the best team in the country this year.

That did not happen, though Auburn at least had the courtesy to flirt with the possibility of another stunning upset for the entire game — before dumping one last cylinder of Morton's on Florida fans' raw wounds.

The end to an awful season for Gators

Florida came into 2013 looking like maybe the best team in the state. There was plenty of talent returning from the 2012 team that went 11-2 and made it to the Sugar Bowl, and legitimate hope in some corners that Florida would be able to make a run at another BCS bowl — at least, that is, until all of the injuries came. Those injuries weren't the reason that Florida lost to Miami — the Gators did that while being as close to full health as they got all year¹, alas — but the big ones, like season-enders for Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley, started almost immediately afterward. Driskel played nine quarters for Florida this year; Easley, by far the team's most talented player, got 12.

Florida did well enough with Tyler Murphy at the over the 11 quarters immediately following Driskel's injury to make fans believe that good things could still have been in the offing for the Gators this year, but Murphy got hurt — badly enough to eventually end his season — against LSU, and Florida's offense was never the same after that. Coaching compounded the effect of the injuries, but Florida had an offense that moved the ball well under Driskel, and an offense that controlled the game well with a healthy Murphy, and neither the ailing Murphy nor Skyler Mornhinweg could match the play we saw over the first five games of the year.

But that's not to say that Florida didn't rage like hell against the dying of the light. Florida fought all day at LSU against a very good team (LSU beat Auburn by more points than it beat Florida), and stayed in a game at Missouri with a skeletal defense and a flat-lining offense into the second half, despite playing against an excellent team that caught all of the breaks. A reeling Florida team got off the mat against Georgia and roared almost all the way back in the second half, then threw it all over the place to little avail against Vanderbilt. Mornhinweg got deployed against South Carolina, but so did Kelvin Taylor, and he showed flashes of greatness in a fantastic first half against the Gamecocks, but when Florida failed to throw anything except its best punch over and over in the second half in Columbia, South Carolina finished the Gators late.

"Florida lost to Georgia Southern" hurts more than any context can comfort.

Then came the Georgia Southern game, and a loss that will serve as two-word auto-win in arguments about Will Muschamp's future (and Florida's) for the near term. Georgia Southern's identity as an option team never needing to change was an advantage; Georgia Southern having more time to react to its season-ending injuries than Florida did to the ones that happened before and during the game — ones that left a walk-on in the front seven during critical plays was an advantage; Georgia Southern nulling Florida's greatest strength, pass defense, by throwing just three times was an advantage; Georgia Southern getting Mornhinweg's first game in The Swamp, which was jittery as a post-Sanka crossword, was an advantage — but Florida lost, and losing to an FCS team went from unthinkable to unforgettable to unforgivable in a matter of hours. It took a red zone stand from Georgia Southern to get that win, but, hey: Florida lost to Georgia Southern hurts way more than any context can comfort.

But that was the theme of this Florida season: Pain that no salve of context could heal. Florida should've won in Miami, and with three or four turnovers instead of five, it might have — but Florida lost to a Miami team that went on to play vaporous defense for much of the rest of the year. Florida nearly beat Georgia despite an awful start — but that hole was too big, and Florida's deficiencies on special teams were never truly marginal this year. Florida handed Vanderbilt its first win against the Gators in decades because Murphy was probably too injured to go, and was horrible in that game — but it was Vandy's first win over Florida in decades. Florida played South Carolina tougher in Williams-Brice Stadium than any other team this year² — but the Gators just didn't have enough to finish the job. And, again: Georgia Southern — Georgia Southern.

The finale was sort of the reverse of all the other games: A date with the Florida State team that looked unstoppable, and proved to be. For about a quarter and a half, though, Florida battered Jameis Winston, and stayed within radio distance, which was enough for me. Trey Burton got hurt immediately after making Florida's biggest play of the game, which was par for the course³, but Florida scored, keeping its impressive streak of games without being shut out intact, and held FSU to its fewest points of the season — until it saw Auburn, a team with SEC talent on defense and an offense that could actually play keepaway.

As someone who was at almost all of those games — I went to every home game, and to Miami and South Carolina, so I saw Florida go 3-5 in person this year, which was just wonderful — I speak from experience when I say that it hurt.

Something else magnified it.

Florida State is back — and fun as hell

If the Florida State roster were transplanted to, I dunno, Northwestern, or Texas, or Boston College, or some other program that has little conflict with Florida, I would love it, and I promise you that you would probably love it, too.

The Seminoles score a lot of points and have a lot of speed and do the fun things that 2008 Florida or Florida or Chip Kelly Oregon teams or the great Miami teams do. They played fine defense all year, too, so there's something there for the balance connoisseur who isn't merely pleased with offensive excellence. And, schedule aside, they won in dominant fashion in every game but one, and were responsible for winning that last game, not merely bystanders lucky to be handed a victory.

And, also, they have Jameis Winston.

Winston: The funnest recent football player not named Manziel or Tebow?

For my money, Winston is the funnest football player not named Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow we've seen in a long time — and how he works with and relates to his teammates makes him more fun. He's goofy and funny, but he's a leader on the field, and his means of motivation, like his speech at the end of the night last night can only be read as not appealing through uncharitable prisms, like fealty to a rival school or, on a totally different level, racism.

Here's what Winston said in the first part of his interview with Tom Rinaldi, verbatim:

Rinaldi: "Jameis, with 1:15 to go, final drive ... what did you tell your teammates around you?"

Winston: "I said, 'Guys, we didn't come here for no reason.' I said, 'Guys, this is ours, man. This is ou — all the adversity we went through, the first few quarters, it was ours to take. And like I been saying, we control our own destiny.'

And those men looked me in my eye, and they said, 'We got this, Jameis.'

And I said — we said — or, I said, 'You strong?'

They said, 'I'm strong if you strong.'

And I said, 'We strong, then.'

Not many men, by their 20th birthday, are eloquent, fluid public speakers, but watching Jameis Winston in that moment, I'm pretty sure he was telling Rinaldi (almost) exactly what he said to his teammates, and stumbling over his words in an effort to do so. And if you imagine yourself as Winston's teammate, hearing that on the sideline, or in the huddle, I can't imagine you thinking that's anything other than a leader leading.

Winston's soliloquies are not that much different on a substantive basis from Tebow's "Promise" speech, or his breathless, full-throated halftime speech from the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. How you view them partly depends on your allegiance as a fan: 'Noles find Tebow corny like Gators find Winston corny.

But it partly depends on some other things, too.

Winston's narrative, and being charitable

Winston's career and life will forever be tainted by the allegation that he raped a young woman on one night in December 2012. But if he did not rape that woman — which is the conclusion I have come to after reading the police report, and listening to witness interviews, and talking extensively to Tomahawk Nation's Bud Elliott, and which is a conclusion supported by the State of Florida choosing not to charge him — then it is a shame that that rape allegation, and not the subsequent investigation of it and psuedo-clearance of his name, will be the defining note on his off-the-field life.

Winston wouldn't be alone in this purgatory of police choosing not to press charges but not fully clearing him, as Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger can attest, and frankly, I think erring on the side of believing rape victims and alleged rape victims is probably a better approach in a world that does pitifully little to stamp out rape and sexual assault. But an alleged rapist should not be presumed guilty, either — there are mitigating factors in nearly every case, sure, but people accused of crimes are guaranteed a presumption of innocence in courts of law in America, though the court of public opinion is decidely different.

And let's step on the hot coals: One of the mitigating factors in Winston's case is race.

He is a black man, and a very visible one, and that brings with it scrutiny that is not identical in every way to the scrutiny other comparable figures — for example, Tebow — gets. Winston's interview with Rinaldi was perfectly understandable English, if a bit unusual in its syntax, but it prompted thousands of tweets from people "wondering" if they were listening to English, or stating outright that he can't speak English. At best, those tweets are sincere confusion from people unused to hearing the rhythms of African American Vernacular English, or bitter shots from fans of other teams; at worst — and more likely, I think — they're racist thoughts about a black man's apparent lack of intelligence spoken out loud.

One of the complicating factors in how we view Winston is race.

Winston is no less smart because he didn't conjugate "is" to put between "I," "you," "we," and "strong," and he wouldn't be any "smarter" if he did, but the perception of a famous figure like Winston depends on what happens when the national spotlight is on, and tiny imperfections are picked to death.

Likewise, supporting details spun to buttress a perception have a habit of appearing when it is most convenient for the narrative being sold. Winston being investigated produced a host of such details, like the one about him getting soda in water cups (after getting it in ketchup cups) at a Tallahassee Burger King and having a BB gun battle on campus. If you're inclined to like Winston, these are silly, juvenile things; if you're not, they're evidence of his lack of respect for authority, or entitlement, or general scofflaw approach to life.

Florida fans should know this Law of Little Details well, given how Thom Brenneman's hours-long paean to Tebow in that 2009 BCS title game poisoned the well for Tebow's perception going forward, and how little ominous details about Aaron Hernandez's life — he owned a gun, punched a guy at Swamp, was identified in a shooting (before that identification was rescinded), etc. — kept coming up in the wake of him being charged with murder last summer. In American mass media, narratives are the Maypoles that all the streamers are attached to, and it's always May Day, with everyone happy to gather around one.

But I fear we, Gators fans burned by a poor 2013 season that coincided with a sensational year for Florida State, are going to be among the worst at dealing with Winston, just like we were among the worst at dealing with Cam Newton — who actually did a criminal thing, though he got charges dropped thanks to a pre-trial agreement, and was actually struggling with his education at Florida. I fear we're going to let rivalry and/or racism and/or a lack of familiarity with all of the publicly available facts of Winston's case prevent us from appreciating him and giving him the fair, honest appraisal that he deserves.

It's a long offseason, though. There's time to prove me right, and time to prove me wrong.

Florida State is still eminently easy to dislike for many, many reasons

One reason why mocking Winston for stupid reasons is so disappointing? It's really easy to make fun of Florida State for good reasons.

For example: THAT DAMN CHANT. Not only is it beyond excruciating to hear it over the three hours of a football game, and not only does it limit FSU's (very good!) band to about seven notes, calling it the "War Chant" reduces the traditions of Native American song to, essentially, a single letter stretched out for multiple syllables, which thousands of non-Native Americans move their hands to, perfoming a motion that looks like a demonstration of angles more than a tomahawk being chopped.

For another example: Using "Unconquered" in a football context as often as Florida State does cheapens the Seminole Tribe of Florida's ability to remain unconquered by the United States. No, not losing a football game is not equivalent to surviving attempted conquest and the threat of extinction.

There are many more reasons to hate Florida State, from the fans who have come out of the woodwork to root for FSU this year after being pretty quiet about their allegiance for the last decade — if Miami's fanbase is an e-fanbase, I'm fine with calling out FSU's fanbase as one full of car flag fans — to the frustration of having 'Noles brag about winning their three national titles in half as many years of playing football as Florida as if a) Florida State would've been winning national titles prior to World War II, when teams from north of the Mason-Dixon line were still dominating the sport or b) FSU could actually have fielded a football team for most of those years, which it spent as a college for women.

And they are almost all better ones than hating FSU because Winston talks funny.

Florida State would probably have lost a game or two in the SEC

Hey, here's another reason to hate FSU: It is better-positioned than any other team in America to compete for national titles for years and years to come, because the gap between FSU and the rest of the ACC is back to 1990s levels — thanks, this time, to other programs mismanaging themselves.

I thought, entering Monday night, that Florida State was the best team in the country, and poised to be considered among the all-time great teams in college football history. I still think Florida State is the best team in the country, obviously, and that it might have a spot on the fringe of the discussion about the best teams in college football history.

But I think a lot of the historic dominance we ascribed to Florida State had to do with how much better it was than all the teams on its schedule, and I doubt it would have survived the SEC unscathed this year.

That's a really, really good team that beat Auburn on Monday night, but Auburn proved that it, too, is a really, really good team. Alabama played Auburn almost evenly. (FSU would have made a 50+-yarder to win a game with the same basic script as Auburn-Alabama because Roberto Aguayo is excellent, but whatever.) Missouri played Auburn close for most of the SEC Championship Game. LSU beat Auburn, and by a larger margin than Florida State did, and that margin wasn't even all that indicative of how well LSU played in that game.

Florida State's toughest regular season game this year was a trip to Clemson that began with the 'Noles going up 17-0 on a couple of turnovers and snowballed from there. Georgia couldn't beat Clemson in Clemson at full strength (minus a couple injuries and suspensions), so FSU probably beats Georgia — but Nebraska beat Georgia, so FSU probably could've, too. South Carolina beat Clemson, though, and has as much top-line defensive line talent as Auburn, which saw Dee Ford whip FSU right tackle Bobby Hart repeatedly, prompting an amusing tweet of respect from Hart. Texas A&M has an offense better than any Florida State faced this season, too, and it may well have beaten Auburn if not for a no-call on a potential horse-collar tackle of Johnny Manziel.

And Florida State's remarkable injury luck this year might not have been replicable in the SEC, where almost every team was beset by one malady or another.

I'm not saying FSU wouldn't have won a national title in the SEC; that's still very much possible, even probable. But I don't think this FSU team was so good as to have survived the SEC unscathed. Even the best SEC teams of the seven-year streak of national champions needed a lot of luck to do that.

You need luck, like Auburn got ... but it can only take you so far

Auburn was lucky, very lucky, to get to Pasadena. And it wasn't just about stringing together a pair of miracles.

The Tigers could have done all they did in the run-up to the national title game, and still would not have made it to Pasadena if Oregon had gone underfeated, or if Ohio State had remained undefeated, or if Stanford had remained a one-loss team.

They would not have made it if A&M had finished off its potential comeback, and that near horse-collar was a pivotal call in that game. (Also, Manziel was hurt for the final throes of that game.) They would not have made it if their narrow wins over Washington State and Missisippi State early on had been losses.

They might not have made it had they faced South Carolina and not Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. South Carolina's offense did a better job of playing keepaway this year than Missouri's did, and the game might not have devolved into a track meet because of that — but South Carolina also had a bit more familiarity with the Auburn defense than any other team, what with Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson serving in the same role at South Carolina from 2008 to 2011.

And Auburn even got pretty lucky in Pasadena. Two muffed punts stayed with Auburn, most importantly, but Winston being off and his receivers dropping passes early had less to do with the Tigers than the 'Noles, and the referees' inclination to swallow their whistles mostly helped Auburn — until, of course, the final series.

Luck can get you a lot of things in college football, but, contrary to the axiom, it's always better to be good than lucky.

Still, Auburn should probably have won

You know how Auburn led the game 21-3 in the second quarter, then forced a fourth and four in FSU's own end? Had the Tigers stopped that brilliant fake punt that FSU ran, they would probably have won the game. You know how Auburn missed a 33-yard field goal and made a 22-yarder? Swap either of those outcomes for a touchdown and Auburn probably wins; add the 33-yarder, and it's probably different at the end. You know how Auburn scored a touchdown with 1:19 to play, instead of milking the clock? Whoops.

Auburn made its fair share of mistakes, like the missed tackle that turned Rashad Greene loose on FSU's game-winning drive, but it had some luck go against it — a player on kick coverage coming up lame on Kermit Whitfield's touchdown blaze, a bunch of holding going uncalled, P.J. Williams having his fumble on an interception scooped up by the fortuitously-positioned Lamarcus Joyner — seemingly for the first time in eons, and still lost by just three points.

And then there was the dropped pass on Auburn's first drive, and the roughing the kicker penalty that cost Auburn time that might have come in handy at the end of the second quarter, and the 1:28 at the end of the first half, typically the time when Florida State went for the jugular in every game this year, that it spent on just three futile plays. Auburn had its chances to put away Florida State. It didn't.

Gus Malzahn must really hate fake punts

The fake punt Florida State ran was in almost the perfect situation for a fake punt, to the point that the room full of coaches ESPN had watching the game sort of felt it out4.

The fake itself isn't something that Auburn appears not to have anticipated — three Tigers pursue the 'Nole that receives the snap — but the reverse to Karlos Williams is a surprise, because only one man has an actual shot at him (another player streaks across the formation, but has no shot), and he's shaded out of position by the time the handoff happens. It's a brilliant call and a brilliant play design, and I doubt anyone's going to have a problem calling that the moment the game turned around for Florida State in five years, because it just fits the school that invented the Puntrooskie5 so well.

But one of the few other times I remember a fake punt working so well in an enormous game was in 2006, when Florida ran its fake punt against Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game.

It's the same basic idea on the play design, with a Florida player getting the ball and moving right before flipping it to a man reversing field and heading left, and it came in a similar situation (trailing, with a the clock ticking down in the second quarter, and in one's own territory) as the one we gaped at on Monday night.

And you know who saw that fake in person on that day? Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

FSU, Auburn show ways forward for Florida

Finally, because I know this post has far too many words about things that are not the Gators for most Florida fans, it should be noted that both of these teams have been built on blueprints that Florida could follow under Will Muschamp (or a future coach) with relative ease.

Florida State's blueprint, which I wrote about at length on Monday at the mothership, is a familiar one: Recruit the hell out of Florida, stock a team with talent, and wait for an excellent quarterback to elevate that talent from perennial contender to front-runner. It's hard to get a quarterback with the raw-clay talent Jameis Winston has, to be sure, but Jeff Driskel and Will Grier aren't that inferior to Winston in terms of their physical tools, especially Driskel; most of the edge Winston enjoys on both is based on his understanding of the game. Kurt Roper is a better quarterback teacher than Brent Pease was, by most accounts, too.

But there are lessons beyond the obvious "If you are the best team in Florida, you're gonna be pretty good" one. Part of Florida State's edge on Florida is based on Jimbo Fisher's head start on Will Muschamp, too: Fisher was at FSU, and making in-roads in Florida recruiting, way back in 2007. He was a welcome successor to a legend FSU fans wanted gone for a while, which left him far less noise in the system to drown out, and he got a great house-warming gift in the form of Florida's agonizing 2009 season and mediocre 2010 tribute to a 2007 Bob Dylan biopic season, which helped Florida State sign a very good 2010 recruiting class and the fantastic 2011 recruiting class that served as the spine of this team. Florida State built a foundation for Fisher's future early on, something Muschamp is still trying to do, and FSU is ahead of Florida on the curve right now.

And in Florida, if any one of the Big Three schools in the state is down, it's a major opportunity for the other two6. Florida State took advantage of the cracks in Meyer's empire at its end just like Florida took advantage of Pax Bowdena in the mid-2000s, and it has a national title to show for it. Florida tried to do that this year in raiding Miami's backyard for elite talent, but injuries scuttled a season to the point that that plan appears likely to fall through.

Auburn's lesson is different: Play to your strengths.

I've thought all year that an underrated part of the reason Malzahn had so much success with these Tigers is that they were his Tigers as recently as 2011, when he was the offensive coordinator on the plains. Much of this Auburn team, at least on offense, was recruited to fit Malzahn's system, and the players that weren't, like Nick Marshall, have been molded as well as could be expected in a single year. Auburn didn't try to change its Tigers' stripes by making Tre Mason a receiving running back or throwing it all over the lot; it just pounded away with the basics of Malzahn's offense.

Florida tried mightily to stick with its identity this year. The Gators thought, coming into the fall, that they had an offense they could open up, so they played wide open football early on under Driskel. When Driskel went down, they tried to play defense and win low-scoring games under Tyler Murphy, but the loss of Dominique Easley made that a lot harder. Then they tried to avoid passing at all with Skyler Mornhinweg, probably not a terrible decision, but didn't have enough in the tank to win games entirely on the ground. Florida's strengths, thanks to a variety of reasons, were not nearly as strong as Auburn's in 2013, and the Gators suffered for it.

Still, I think that was a better strategy than zagging for the sake of zagging. Florida was playing to its strengths throughout 2012, and that worked out because the strengths were stronger. Florida could rely on that defense not just to keep games close, but to snag turnovers. It could rely on Caleb Sturgis and Kyle Christy to win games on the margins with great kicking. It could use terrific coverage units to terrorize South Carolina in the game with the specialest teams I've ever seen.

And it never put all of its strengths together better than it did against Florida State that November. Remember: The last team to beat the reigning national champions was the Florida Gators.

If Florida can identify its strengths and avoid injuries that force on-the-fly re-evaluations of those strengths in 2014, I believe that Florida can bounce back from its most painful season in decades to make Gators fans happy again.

And if not, well, there's one more lesson to learn from both teams that played Monday night: Sometimes, the best move is a fresh start.

Star-divide


  1. You know, while working a mono-weakened Matt Jones back into action, dealing with little injuries that sent offensive linemen to the sideline all day, watching Driskel tweak something on a run in the first half, and playing without Andre Debose and Chaz Green. "Full strength."

  2. Five points was South Carolina's smallest margin of victory at home, where it went undefeated. The second-smallest margin of victory? Seven points ... over Kentucky.

  3. It is also par for the course that Florida would have most of its game plan scrapped by an injury midway through the first quarter of its final game. The best-laid plans, man...

  4. I think saying that they "all" "called" it is a little wrong, because it sounds more like one guy — Steve Addazio! — sniffs it out, and everyone agrees, but I digress.

  5. If you're looking for a name for this one, 'Noles: Puntreverskie.

  6. Or for UCF!

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