5 thoughts about the BCS Championship game

After hearing every so-called expert rehash the National Title game between Florida State and Auburn, here are five thoughts I’d like to bring up so we can make the discussion a bit more intelligent.

1. FSU won.

Infecting the post-game discussions is this notion that FSU didn’t win the game, Auburn lost it. I find this thesis less than convincing.

Allow me to let the ‘Nole haters and Auburn fans in on a little secret about how sporting contests work: in every game, one team finds a way to win, and one finds a way to lose. As true as it is that Auburn had a few killer blunders that are bound to give them quite the heartache when they watch the film, it’s also true that Florida State found a way to fight their way back in the game. Many teams, down 21-3, would have pulled an Ohio State, raised the white flag and started getting mentally ready to spend the next 7 months shielding their ego from the torment and ridicule of having surrendered 50 points to the SEC team. Not FSU. They got a crucial touchdown before the half, made decent adjustments at the break, and won the second half. People who give them no credit for this are being disingenuous.

Here is a fact: the what-if game is pointless. In a game, some opportunities are taken, others are missed. Some plays were there to be made by Auburn that could have won them the game. They didn’t make them. A better team would have. This makes the Tigers less deserving to win the game, not more so. My idol Skip Bayless brought back two plays he says cost Auburn the game. Pretending for a moment that I accept the premise that a handful of isolated plays can really determine the outcome of a football game, I counted three. (1) Before he went on to have a surprisingly effective night throwing the ball, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall reminded us that he’s barely adequate as a passer as he underthrew his receiver, who was left alone in the seam, and the receiver dropped the ball. This is on the game’s first drive. If he catches it, it’s 7-0. Instead, the Tigers punt the ball. (2) That dreadful missed field goal was a real gimme and hurts even more considering it was fourth and two and the Auburn ground game was having success moving the ball. Can anyone stop Auburn when they only need two yards? I haven’t seen anyone do it all year. (3) When Tre Mason broke his 37-yard TD to give Auburn the lead back with just over a minute to go, had he had the presence of mind to take a knee at the one-yard line, they can grind more time off the clock and/or force FSU to burn another timeout. 

Right. Except we must immediately make two points upon hearing this.

(1) So all Auburn had to do was make those plays and they win? That’s not an argument. They didn’t, did they? If my mother had a mustache, she’d be my father. But she doesn’t. Marshall did underthrow his receiver, who still should have caught the ball, but didn’t. The kicker did miss that field goal. And Mason didn’t down the ball at the 1. (Though I must confess I would struggle to give him a hard time about this. First, it goes against everything a running back is coached to do. Secondly and more importantly, everybody was so shell-shocked to see Auburn’s defense playing so well after being iffy the entire season. Well, they were their iffy selves on two drives in the game: the last FSU possession of each half, including the ice-in-his-veins drive from Jameis Winston that won FSU the game.  Wanna play the what-if game? Here’s one for you: if Auburn’s D doesn’t revert back to its incompetence with the game on the line, Mason’s mistake isn’t even a memory right now.)

(2) Let me hand out additional criticism that would make great fodder for the what-if game. What if Kelvin Benjamin hadn’t dropped two drive-killing passes along with the drive killer from Reshad Greene? What if DeVonte Freeman hadn’t taken that moronic personal foul after a touchdown, which prevented the Noles from going for two down 24-19? It’s not as if FSU didn’t cock up a few chances along the way.

What about the coaching? Auburn had amazing success offensively in the first half, yet in certain key situations in the second half, Guz Malzahn got too cute with some of his playcalling, which allowed the Noles to get Auburn in second/third and long situations. Even an over-caffeinated offense like Auburn’s becomes more predictable in such situations. Obviously, FSU’s gameplan was, as it should have been, to shut down the run and force Nick Marshall to beat them with the pass. Second or third and long forces this. Why would Malzahn do anything to fix something that isn’t broken? What if he hadn’t? Mind you, he certainly did much better than Jimbo Fisher, who apparently needed the entire first half to realize he might want to lay off the Captains concept (all hooks) considering Auburn was in man-press coverage most of the time. Hooks can work against man coverage, but they require perfect timing, which is tough to achieve when your quarterback is dodging incoming pass rushers all the time. (Cue to FSU O-Line coach Rick Trickett, one of the best in the business, downing 4 more caplets of Tums.)

When Fisher finally started sprinkling in some rub and crossing routes, they moved the ball better. So you mean crossing routes are great against man coverage? Say it ain’t so! Moreover, Fisher also tends to abandon the run FAR too often, and this game was no exception. This notion of 50% run/pass being a balanced offense doesn’t work, but when you have three future NFL draft picks at running back, how about using them? Of course, it doesn’t hurt the Noles when they’re molesting Idaho or Wake Forest. But against Auburn, you’re allowing Dee Ford and company to play situational pass rusher all the time. The Auburn defense doesn’t have that much going for it, but it has Dee Ford. Answer me this: what if Fisher had called a better game? We’re probably watching FSU pull away in the fourth. What is it, you say? He didn’t call this great game I’m referring to? Ah! But that, my friends, is exactly my point. (And in Fisher’s defense, that reverse punt fake was a beautiful call.)

2. Dee Ford can play the game of football. This was the fifth Auburn game I watched this year. Ford has impressed me in all of them. His size will likely prevent him from playing defensive end full time at the next level, and I’m not sure his initial quickness is elite, but the motor on this guy is just astonishing. He never gives up on a play. His hands are violent and he just bullies offensive tackles. Against Texas A&M, he did well when facing future 1st round tackle Jake Matthews. He was all over the field against Alabama, even if the stats weren’t exuberant. I liked what I saw against Georgia and in the SEC Championship game against Missouri. He terrorized FSU’s offensive tackles on Monday.

He’s disciplined too. Watch the play when FSU tried to run a fake jet sweep to Reshad Greene. When Winston tries to run in the opposite direction to find his receiver, Ford is waiting on him the entire time and drops him. The combine will tell us whether he has ideal athleticism, but his temperament and nastiness are ideal. I see him making it in the NFL as a 3-4 outside linebacker and having some success there.

3. FSU’s two unsung heroes. By and large, FSU’s defence had a tough day, but that didn’t stop defensive linemen Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards from having terrific games for FSU. For my money, Jernigan should have won defensive MVP for the game instead of PJ Williams, who did, to be fair, come up with a critical interception of Nick Marshall when the Noles were down 21-13. Jernigan anchored the middle of the defense, and mostly shut down the inside run. The success Auburn were having was mostly when they ran outside, which they too seldom did, in my view. Meanwhile, Auburn figured they could do well optioning Edwards, who is really built more like a defensive tackle than like an end (I think he’s a 3 or a 5 technique in the NFL), since Nick Marshall runs like a defensive back (which star linebacker Telvin Smith came to realize on Auburn’s third touchdown). For the most part, Edwards was coached not let Marshall keep the ball, but he did make an astonishing play in the fourth quarter playing 50/50 between Marshall and Tre Mason. When Marshall kept it, Edwards stayed with him until the sideline and flattened him for a one-yard gain. Again, for all intents and purposes, we’re talking a defensive tackle defending a DB.

4. Jameis Winston is one cool cucumber. His offensive line’s performance was borderline nightmarish. He rarely had a clean pocket. The running game was mostly absent. His timing was off most of the first half and even parts of the second. For the most parts, his receivers allowed themselves to be shut down worse than the Montreal Canadiens’ offense. He fumbled at a critical juncture, which gave Auburn another score. At this point, most quarterbacks would be losing it in some way, shape or form. Not Winston. Much will be said of his Brady-esque final drive. What impresses me is not the drive itself. (Let’s face it. Reshad Greene did most of the work with that 49-yard play, about 45 of which were YACs.) It’s the fact that he could muster such poise after struggling most of the night. When things were going so well, they get a delay of game penalty, yet Winston comes right back and gets the first down. I’m not one to believe in this notion of the clutch gene, but if it does exist, Winston has it.

5. Neither Auburn nor FSU is going away. FSU should start next season ranked number 1. Auburn deserves to be in the Top 10. The craziest thing about these teams is that both are loaded with young playmakers. Winston will be a sophomore, and he’s got a few promising receivers to replace those who will be leaving this year. Rick Trickett churns out athletic offensive linemen like he picks them off the assembly line. And mark my words, converted safety turned running back Karlos Williams is going to be SPECIAL. He’s tremendously big and fast, and as a former headhunter type at safety, he’s looking to hurt people. Kermit Whitfield, who had the key kickoff return for a touchdown, will be a playmaker wherever they line him up. And Jimbo Fisher recruits defense every year as if he’s losing every starter. They’re loaded with talent aching to take over for the Jernigans, Telvin Smiths and LaMarcus Joyners of the world.

Meanwhile, save for early declarations for the NFL draft, Auburn would get back Marshall, Tre Mason and ALL FIVE offensive linemen who started the National Title game. Part of the defense’s problem this year was its youth; they’ll be better in 2014. Besides, how much talent do you really need to run that offense? Malzahn has to be one of the two or three best offensive minds in all of college football and his offense is impossible to really shut down without changing the rules. And to think it’s basically a supercharged version of the Wing-T. Alabama better be ready, or they’ll lose to this lot again, and this time, Auburn won’t need a missed field goal returned for a touchdown.

Anyways, for us college fans who understand this is the best level of football to watch, we’re now stuck with the NFL playoffs. I’ll try to write a bit on that if law school allows me the time. Until then, FSU won. Just so we’re clear.

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Florida State’s statement

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston took the shotgun snap. As was the case most of the night, he had a clean pocket. He found his receiver Rashad Greene on a little eight-yard hook. “Good work,” I’m thinking. “Get your first down.”

Clemson safety Bashaud Breeland dropped his head trying to make the receiver pay, and Greene made him miss. Then, defensive tackle Kevin Dodd valiantly tried a shoestring tackle, but couldn’t make it. Greene accelerated into the now-open field. It was a footrace. Cornerback Darius Robinson looked like he had the angle, but Greene was going to gain quite a few yards before anyone tackled him.

10, 15, 20 yards. And I’m thinking, “wait a tick… Robinson’s not closing the distance… Holy shit! That’s a touchdown!” This was the first time it occurred me that the two teams on that field in Clemson were not on the same level this Saturday. At that point, it was 24-7 for FSU.

Sure, Clemson had lost a fumble on their first offensive play of the game. Sure, Winston’s first pass of the game was a touchdown to mammoth receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who looks like a faster version of Plaxico Burress. Sure, cornerback LaMarcus Joyner sacked Clemson QB Tajh Boyd and forced a fumble which was recovered and brought back for a touchdown by FSU’s Mario Edwards. Up until Greene’s touchdown, it was already clear FSU were playing better than Clemson.

But the Tigers were showing signs of fighting back. Boyd did find that filthy traitor receiver Sammy Watkins for a touchdown. The defence did intercept Winston as FSU was threatening to score again. I was expecting a back-and-forth affair much like last year’s 41-37 classic. With Clemson trailing by ten but threatening to trim the lead to three, it was looking that way.

But when Greene pulled away from the Clemson defence, all of a sudden, the vibe was different. It wasn’t momentum. It was superiority. When Tajh Boyd, who had himself one miserable night, threw an interception to FSU’s Joyner though the ‘Noles had only 10 men on the field, it dawned upon me FSU might not so much beat Clemson as they might maul them. In typical nervous-fan fashion, I didn’t believe it until Clemson started coming apart at the seams in the third quarter, taking stupid unnecessary roughness penalties and seemingly having every nice offensive play called back for holding. One of their defensive backs was ejected for targeting. It was as if the Tigers were coming to terms with the fact that they were not ready for what the Seminoles had in store for them today. It just wasn’t going to happen for them.

After the game, the only word ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit could muster was “Wow!” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, classy in defeat, observed that “Florida State might be the best team in the nation. You just don’t have a lot of room for error against a team like that.” What was clear, though, was that no one, not Herbstreit, not Swinney, and certainly not me, saw this beatdown coming. No one except, it would seem, Jameis Winston.

Much was said about Winston finally looking like a freshman. This game would have been a logical time for it to happen. Big stage; hostile atmosphere; best conference opponent; third-ranked team vs fifth-ranked team: this is the type of stage where inexperienced youngsters usually fail. Winston, however, is clearly not just any freshman.

If you haven’t seen the highlights from the game, watch them here. Beyond any individual moment (though Benjamin’s touchdown catch is far from banal), what struck me is Winston’s speech to his teammates in the locker room before the game. It shows you what Winston is, in a nutshell. “My brothers,” he says. “Put a smile on your face.” Had I been Dabo Swinney and seen this before the game, I would have been terrified. Winston was sincere. This was not a kid pretending not to be scared. This kid was not scared, period.

“It” factor

One of the usual clichés in sports, especially at the quarterback position, is the so-called “it” factor. WInston is not a walking human highlight reel like Johnny Manziel. There isn’t one ball that had me go “Oh, wow!” Not every throw is spot on target; his mechanics still need work. The kid, it seems, just manages the game, but next thing you know, he’s thrown for 444 yards, three touchdowns and has run for another one. By all accounts, he’s now played himself into the Heisman race.

Another beautiful moment tonight was when he was asked about Heisman consideration and his first, completely spontaneous answer was “it’s all down to my teammates.” And it is.

Even during FSU’s dark period between 2003 (or so) and last year, Florida State always had impressive-looking athletes. They always looked great coming out of the bus. Except unlike some of the overhyped cream puffs with whom FSU embarrassed itself during the final years of Bobby Bowden’s career, this group of guys can really play.

FSU’s dynamic trio of receivers (Benjamin, Greene and Kenny Shaw) chipped away at Clemson’s secondary all day. Tight end, Nick O’Leary, who reminds me of Dallas Clark, except he blocks better, led the team in receiving, including a 94-yarder when Clemson forgot about him on a play action fake. The running game, strangely ineffective in the first two quarters, became a factor in the second half when FSU started running the outside zone play from the gun split formation.

And that defence swarms like that of the FSU of old. 3-technique Timmy Jernigan ought to be a first-round pick, and the front doesn’t appear to suffer too much from losing three ends to the NFL draft. LaMarcus Joyner is a great leader in the secondary, and he had his greatest game as a Seminole when it counted most. And linebacker Telvin Smith is a special player.

Last but not least, offensive line coach Rick Trickett continues to take high school linemen nobody knows about and turn them into zone blocking monsters. I don’t know of anyone who coaches the position better in college ball than Trickett.

But to come back to Winston, it’s not the tangibles that make him great but the intangibles. His personality could not be more conducive to success as a quarterback, but we were waiting to see it on the big stage. There was a blip when he completed 24 of 26 passes against Pittsburgh, but that was the one time. He deep-fried Wake Forest and Maryland, but they’re Wake Forest and Maryland. The Clemson game, however, seems to leave very little doubt as to Winston’s legitimacy. The “it” factor is one of those things that can’t be described; you just know it when you see it. And Winston has it.

The long road back 

I’m sorry for going on and on about this, but you have to understand how emotional this game is for me as an FSU fan. The years of misery I had to go through while the program basically went through seven years of irrelevancy weighed on me.

Years of crappy quarterbacking from Chris Rix, Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee. Years of inept offensive line play, of failing overrated skill position players, of defensive mediocrity. And, of course, enough frustrating games to send me into depression. Between the 30-0 loss to Wake Forest at home in 2006, to the two losses at home to Russell Wilson’s NC State, to four years of not belonging on the same field as Tebow’s Gators, to several upset losses to pedestrian opponents like Boston College and Virginia, I had to watch teams like Clemson and North Carolina out-recruit the Noles in Florida and assume the kind of identity my Noles once had. That Miami took a similar downturn was of no consolation whatsoever.

Things got slightly better with Christian Ponder at quarterback, but the Noles were still a shadow of their former selves. And as I told anybody who would listen last year, FSU were much better under EJ Manuel, but they weren’t quite there yet.

A few years ago, there was a trend of naming “coaches-in-waiting.” Just about everybody hated it; it vanished very quickly. However, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has to be the most successful test subject of this M.O. The job he has done at FSU is remarkable, the culminating point of which (so far) was this drubbing of Clemson. Don’t let the score fool you, they might be overrated, but Clemson is one talented team, and yet they could seemingly do nothing right against the Seminoles tonight.

FSU might lose a trap game to a team like NC State or the scary fast Miami Hurricanes, but this type of outclassing of a quality opponent is something I hadn’t seen from FSU for a very long time. The lesser Seminole teams found ways to be a tease every once in a while, but they never did anything like this. And so, finally, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say it.

The Florida State Seminoles are back.

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I have to mention another game which made me extremely happy today, which was the victory of my alma mater, les Spartiates du Vieux Montréal, over the hated Vanier Cheetahs. This was Vieux’s second convincing win over “VC” this season. Of course, it won’t mean much if they don’t wrap their great season with a championship, but since the Bol d’Or final is not today, I’m taking a moment to enjoy it.

Between Vieux’s and FSU’s big wins. I don’t want this day to end.

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