Florida State’s come-from-behind, 31-27 win over Notre Dame was the best game of 2014 and a firm answer to one of the season’s most pressing questions: No, these most definitely are not the same old Seminoles. As stewards of a 23-game win streak, the defending champs may be good enough to survive every game they play this year and pull off a repeat in January. But they’re a fundamentally different outfit than the one that claimed last season’s crown — and the one we expected to see this year.
Remember, before the season FSU was billed as a monolithically talented juggernaut destined to mow down every opponent behind Übermensch quarterback Jameis Winston, just as it did last year. Instead, the Noles have turned out to be scrappy comeback artists who relish walking a tightrope without a net. After six games of waiting for the real Florida State to show up, sky-high potential intact, Saturday night brought the moment of truth: This is the real Florida State. And in a season in which only three other undefeated teams are still standing in mid-October, that may be good enough.
Naturally, the deeper we descend into the season, the more tempting it is to lapse into lazy pablum about heart and toughness and the “it” factor, which at least have the virtue of remaining unaccountable to any objective reality aside from the final score. Because, objectively speaking, the Seminoles’ deficiencies in many of the areas we can count are more difficult to reconcile.
On Saturday, no. 2 FSU was outgained by 147 yards of total offense and finished with fewer total yards (323) and yards per play (5.7) than in all but one of Winston’s previous 19 career starts.1 The offense was 2-of-8 on third down, went three-and-out five times, and generated just 18 first downs, another low with Winston in the lineup; the running backs averaged 2.1 yards per carry, with a long gain of 10. Winston spent most of the night under heavy assault from the Irish pass rush, at one point lobbing a ghastly interception under pressure that set up a short field for Notre Dame’s second touchdown. The defense, which didn’t allow a single opponent to surpass 400 total yards last year prior to the BCS title game, yielded 470 to the Irish, the fourth time an opposing offense has breached the 400-yard barrier in the last five games.
Wake Forest held FSU to 296 yards on 4.1 per play last November in a 59-3 massacre fueled by seven Wake Forest turnovers.
For the season, Florida State ranks 45th in total offense, 53rd in total defense, and tied for 61st in turnover margin; in the same categories last year, it finished sixth, third, and third. The 2013 edition won its regular-season games (including the ACC championship game) by an average margin of 42.3 points, never allowing an opponent closer than 11 points in the fourth quarter. Halfway through the 2014 campaign, this iteration has already been forced to rally from fourth-quarter deficits in three contests, two of which have turned on a single, improbable play that salvaged victory from the jaws of a season-destroying defeat: a fumble that prevented Clemson from attempting a game-winning field goal at close range and an offensive pass interference penalty that negated the game-winning touchdown by no. 5 Notre Dame (more on the penalty in a bit).
Those two plays seem to define the 2014 Noles, just as last year’s team expressed its essential character with an uninterrupted series of ritual sacrifices. But what meaning, precisely, are we supposed to take away? Even if we agree that the narrow escapes are the most important thing about this team, the interpretation remains entirely in the eye of the beholder.
Admittedly, for a team that carried (and continues to carry) such high expectations, I see more vulnerability than virtue: Florida State has consistently failed to establish the run on offense, consistently struggled to protect the quarterback, and consistently yielded too many yards on defense. Moving forward, what is the blueprint for an outfit that has yet to put together a complete game on either side of the ball? The offensive line was beaten up by the front sevens of both Clemson and Notre Dame; the secondary has already allowed as many completions of 20 yards or more as it did all of last season. If those trends continue — whether at Louisville in 10 days, or at Miami on November 15, or in a playoff semifinal — the Seminoles are eventually going to find themselves facing a close call that doesn’t break their way.
On the other hand, there’s Winston, who has yet to lose as a starter and who remains the most irrepressible, indispensable passer in the college game. After a subdued, occasionally disoriented first half on Saturday, Winston solved the Irish blitz in the second, finishing 15-of-16 passing after halftime on extended touchdown drives covering 70, 75, and 75 yards.2
Arguably the biggest mistake of the night was coach Jimbo Fisher’s decision to take the ball out of his quarterback’s red-hot hands in the final five minutes, opting to keep the ball on the ground instead in an effort to milk the clock; the result was a three-and-out, followed by a punt that set up Notre Dame’s offense at the FSU 49-yard line with nearly three minutes to mount its final drive.
The turnaround was in keeping with FSU’s wild, come-from-behind win at NC State on September 27, when Winston brushed off a pair of earlier turnovers to lead five touchdown drives in the Seminoles’ last six full possessions. Of course, it also invoked January’s championship-clinching comeback against Auburn, in which the Seminoles completed a rally from a 21-3 deficit behind a pair of Winston touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Even more so now than during last year’s Heisman/BCS run, Winston is the sun around which the entire program orbits. As long as Winston remains healthy, eligible, and in good standing with his coaches, the Seminoles will still gain an undeniable edge from fielding one of the two or three best players in the nation at the center of an attack that otherwise looks barely functional.
If we have seen Florida State’s ceiling, it’s high enough for the rest of the regular season, at least: Of FSU’s remaining opponents (Louisville, Virginia, Miami, Boston College, Florida), only Louisville has appeared in the AP poll at any point this season, and the Cardinals haven’t enjoyed the distinction in more than a month. By Thanksgiving, Florida will be in the throes of a coaching search, and the Coastal Division rep in the ACC championship game will likely show up covered head-to-toe in scars. Even the relatively slow-starting, uninspiring Seminoles we’ve seen so far should be good enough to run the table against that slate and ascend into the final four unscathed in any sense that matters.
If they do stumble between now and the playoff, though, will it come as a surprise? In the specific Wow, I can’t believe Florida State lost to [specific underdog] way, maybe; but as a matter of probability, how far-fetched is it to suggest that these Noles are due for an imminent lapse minus some tangible, measurable improvement from the offensive line and secondary? Are down-to-the-wire rallies like the ones we’ve seen against Clemson, NC State, and Notre Dame sustainable for a team with serious championship ambitions? Your answers will vary based on how much stock you put into the notion that these boys are winners, statistics be damned. After 23 straight, it’s hard to argue that they’re not. But it’s also a little easier now than it was six weeks ago.
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• No. 2 Florida State 31, no. 5 Notre Dame 27: I wasn’t planning to elaborate on the decisive pass interference call against Notre Dame on what would have been the game-winning touchdown, because it was pretty obviously the correct call, as all but the most desperate Irish fans seemed to agree. Brian Kelly, however, did not agree (emphasis added):
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly adamantly disagreed with an offensive pass interference penalty that wiped away a go-ahead touchdown against Florida State, saying he had even less clarity Sunday than he did in the minutes after the 31-27 loss.
“Actually I have less clarity,” Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference. “I guess it was actually called on Will Fuller, not C.J. [Prosise]. So [it] just adds more uncertainty as to the final play.
“But again, the play itself, in terms of what we ask our kids to do, it was pretty clear what happened on the play: Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it. It’s unfortunate.”
It is indeed clear what happened: Both Fuller and Prosise actively blocked defenders as the pass was released, combining for a textbook illegal pick that allowed Corey Robinson to skate wide-ass open into the corner of the end zone:
There’s no “uncertainty.” The only way that’s not pass interference is if the ball is caught behind the line of scrimmage, which may have been the intent on the play, but was not the result — when the ball arrived, Robinson was already on the painted “G” and in the process of spinning into the end zone. Pick penalties are often ignored, as every defensive coordinator will tell you, but in this case the infractions were blatant and the call was 100 percent correct.
In fact, Notre Dame got away with an identical penalty earlier in the game, when it ran the same play to Robinson (with Prosise, no. 20, running interference) for its first touchdown in the first quarter:
A 50 percent success rate on an illegal play is nothing to complain about, Coach.
• No. 7 Alabama 59, no. 21 Texas A&M 0: In case you’ve forgotten how blissed out the college football punditocracy was over Texas A&M’s opening-day, 52-28 romp over South Carolina, allow me to refresh your memory in my own words:
In the meantime, the bridge from the Manziel era to whatever comes next appears to be fully intact, with nothing lost in translation and no “rebuilding” required. [Kevin] Sumlin has put the Aggies on elite footing in the SEC recruiting wars and continues to put opposing coaches to shame on the chalkboard. Johnny Football was a start, a spark plug, and perhaps a necessary one to get the machine cranked and humming. But let there be no doubt: A&M is built to last.
And here’s the first-half box score from Saturday’s loss at Alabama.
Again, that’s from halftime. At that point, the Crimson Tide led 45-0 and had scored touchdowns on six consecutive offensive possessions. A&M, owner of the highest-scoring offense in the SEC, had launched six consecutive punts. If you didn’t watch this game, I can assure you along with everyone else who did that Nick Saban went to extreme lengths in the second half to prevent his team from scoring 60 points, or 100 points, or however many it wanted.
A shocking, start-to-finish beatdown on national television is humiliating enough, but go back to that hilariously misguided blockquote and consider where Texas A&M stood in the SEC pecking order just three weeks ago. On October 1, the Aggies were ranked no. 6 in the AP poll ahead of a road trip to no. 12 Mississippi State. In that game, A&M fell behind 28-7 in the first half and eventually trailed by as many as 31 points before tacking on a couple of late, futile touchdowns to bring the final score to 48-31. The following week, A&M fell behind 21-0 in the first half against no. 3 Ole Miss, and trailed by as many as 28 points before tacking on a couple of late, futile touchdowns to bring the final score to 35-20. Three straight games against ranked teams, as a ranked team, all of them effectively over in the second quarter. At least on Saturday, there was nothing remotely cosmetic about the result.
So yeah, in Year 3 under Kevin Sumlin, the honeymoon is over. The six-year, $30 million contract he signed last winter buys a lot more pressure than patience, especially for a guy without a conference championship or a major bowl game on his résumé as a head coach, and who now faces increased doubts about whether he can win without Manziel, Mike Evans, and Jake Matthews. Kenny “Trill” Hill, the breakout star of the win over South Carolina, looks listless and lost at quarterback. With Auburn, Missouri, and LSU waiting on the other side of a bye week, A&M is in real danger of going out on a six-game conference losing streak and turning Sumlin into the Charlie Weis of the SEC. The bye week arrives at the right time, because the Aggies need to hit reset.
• West Virginia 41, no. 4 Baylor 27: Last week, I defended Baylor’s defensive performance in a wild, 61-58 win over TCU because the Bears D was on the field for a staggering 17 possessions against the Horned Frogs offense. This week, the Baylor D was on the field for 16 possessions against the Mountaineers, and again, the results were not bad relative to the opponent: The Bears held West Virginia to fewer yards per play (5.4) than any opposing defense this season, and to fewer total yards (456) than any opposing defense except Alabama’s; Baylor also forced three WVU turnovers. When the defense is on the field for that many possessions in support of the highest-scoring offense in the nation, it should be good enough to win.
But Baylor’s frenetic offensive pace comes at the defense’s expense, and so the offense must assume the blame for its worst afternoon on paper in years: The Bears finished with fewer total yards (318) than in any game since September 2010, managing just 4.0 yards per play. Quarterback Bryce Petty, still the subject of some lingering Heisman hype, completed just 16 of 36 passes, dropping his completion percentage in October to a dismal 45.1. From the middle of the second quarter on, Baylor was forced to punt on seven of its final nine possessions — all of them coming after West Virginia lost both of its starting cornerbacks in the first half.
• Missouri 42, Florida 13: I don’t feel sorry for Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is responsible for the whole enchilada. But I do feel sorry for his defense, which stuffed Missouri’s offense into a burlap sack and threw it into a river — Mizzou finished with a miserable 119 yards on 2.4 per play — only to look on helplessly as the Tigers scored two defensive touchdowns courtesy of Florida giveaways and two more on a pair of Marcus Murphy returns. (Mizzou’s only offensive touchdown also resulted from a Gators turnover, which set up the Tigers with a short field at Florida’s 19-yard line in the first half.) Leave it to a Muschamp offense to turn a legitimately dominant effort by a Muschamp defense into a grisly humiliation on homecoming.
Accordingly, fans who chose to stick around in the second half serenaded the team with chants of “FIRE MUSCHAMP,” which was hardly necessary after the team spent the first three quarters making the strongest possible argument for exactly that. At 3-3, Florida has a bye week to stew in the speculation before the annual Cocktail Party date with Georgia on November 1, which may well be Muschamp’s last game unless it’s a victory. Then things could get really interesting.
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It’s time to rethink: Everything we thought we knew about the Big 12. No. 14 Kansas State upset no. 11 Oklahoma in Norman, 31-30, with a lineup consisting mainly of junior-college transfers and walk-ons — 12 of K-State’s 22 starters on Saturday fell into one of those two categories — and threw the entire conference pecking order for a loop: After that win, Baylor’s flop at West Virginia, and no. 12 TCU’s 42-9 thumping of no. 15 Oklahoma State, the Wildcats are suddenly riding high in sole possession of first place. The Sooners, the preseason favorites to win the league, dropped into a tie for sixth place (alongside Texas) following their second conference loss in three weeks.
Admittedly, none of that tells us a damn thing about how the standings are likely to shake out on the first weekend of December, when it matters. The top six teams in the Big 12 all look equally capable of winning it. Baylor and Kansas State don’t play until that final weekend, on December 6; in the meantime, the Wildcats still have to play all of the teams directly beneath them (Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia) in consecutive games in November. WVU has yet to play TCU or Oklahoma State; after Saturday, the marquee Baylor-Oklahoma showdown on November 8 is just another date in the round-robin.
Five different teams have taken the Big 12 title in the past five years (Texas in 2009, Oklahoma in 2010, Oklahoma State in 2011, Kansas State in 2012, and Baylor in 2013), and TCU and West Virginia have given every indication that they’re up for extending the trend. At this rate, just don’t expect any of the conference’s contenders to make it through with playoff ambitions intact.
Quote of the Week
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“Now here’s what you’ve got to do. Calm down. Don’t give them that over-exuberant look. Act very passive right here and get people back on your side. You understand what I’m telling you? Humble. Humble pie.” —Jimbo Fisher, greeting his quarterback with a little PR advice immediately after Florida State’s win over Notre Dame
• Josh Doctson, WR, TCU: Doctson caught seven passes for 225 yards in the Horned Frogs’ romp over Oklahoma State, including scoring grabs that covered 77 yards and 84 yards, respectively, on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter. Halfway through its regular-season schedule, TCU ranks seventh nationally in total offense and fifth in scoring, up from 106th and 88th in 2013.
• Shaq Riddick, LB, West Virginia: Riddick, a former FCS All-American at Gardner-Webb, was the linchpin in the Mountaineers’ upset over Baylor, recording three sacks against Petty while adding a fourth tackle for loss for good measure. Including sacks, the Bears finished with 95 yards rushing on 2.3 yards per carry, their worst output of the season by far, and more than 150 yards below their season average coming in.
• Alabama’s Offensive Line: Last week, Alabama managed a paltry 66 rushing yards in an uninspiring, 14-13 win over Arkansas, an outing even senior tackle Austin Shepherd called “the worst game we’ve played as a unit.” This week, the same five — Shepherd, Cam Robinson, Arie Kouandjio, Bradley Bozeman, and Leon Brown — combined to obliterate Texas A&M, which barely seemed to lay a hand on backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry until the Tide decided to be sporting about it. Henry and Yeldon alone combined for 184 yards on 8.0 per carry, with most of that damage coming before the half.
• Fat Guy of the Week — Jarron Jones, Notre Dame: Jones was the immovable object in the middle of the Irish defense, accounting for six total tackles, three tackles for loss, and the quarterback hurry that resulted in Winston’s only interception.
• Catch of the Year of the Week — Chris Harper, Cal: The video of Harper’s acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA is very sweet:
But it’s really one of those rare catches that works better as a still life.
Honorable Mention: Western Michigan’s Daniel Braverman, who became the seventh and final person to touch the ball on the most entertaining play you’ll ever see resulting in a loss of three yards.