ACC: FSU football

The image is now part of Florida State lore, etched into the history books for all time. Jameis Winston lofts a pass into the end zone in the final minute of the national championship game. As he’d done so often in 2013, Kelvin Benjamin -- all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him -- overwhelmed his defender and hauled it in for the score.

The touchdown was the capper in the Seminoles’ third national title, but it was also the finale to Benjamin’s career in Tallahassee. He’s off to the NFL, where he’s projected as a potential first-round selection.

Now, Florida State is left to find a replacement, and Jimbo Fisher has a sense of humor about the difficulty of the task, joking with reporters he’d simply stack two of his current receivers atop each other.

At least Fisher can laugh about it, but the truth is, Florida State simply doesn’t have an obvious replacement because, well, players like Benjamin don’t come around very often.

Benjamin wasn’t always the most refined route runner or sure-handed receiver, but his raw physical ability was unparalleled. He was a mismatch every time he was on the field. While Florida State retains its best receiver in Rashad Greene, has some developing talent in Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones, and has three prized prospects arriving this summer, none provide the same physically imposing target that Benjamin did last season.

So, who picks up the slack for the 89 targets Benjamin received from Winston last season (not to mention the 74 for Kenny Shaw or the 38 for FSU’s departed backs)?

Fisher’s answer is probably somewhat accurate. The young receivers will all play their part, but none are likely to replace Benjamin’s production on their own. It will have to be a combined effort, and the new arrivals will need some time to adjust to the college game.

Of the receivers that remain, Jones is the tallest at 6-4, but he’s 50 pounds lighter than Benjamin and perhaps the least refined of the Seminoles’ current receiving corps. No other receiver on the roster -- including the incoming freshmen -- measures taller than 6-2. And size does matter. Since Fisher took over as playcaller in 2007, FSU has always had at least one receiver 6-5 or taller catch at least 30 passes for at least 450 yards. That won’t happen in 2014.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Florida State will be without a physical mismatch in the passing game. It’s just likely that mismatch will come from its tight end.

Last season, Nick O'Leary blossomed to the tune of 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. It was a breakthrough campaign for the junior tight end widely considered among the best in the nation coming out of high school.

O’Leary’s big season was a necessity, too. Florida State had no other options at the position after Christo Kourtzidis transferred and Kevin Haplea went down with a knee injury. Giorgio Newberry was moved from defensive end to tight end, but he was targeted just twice all year, once resulting in an ugly interception when Winston attempted to force the ball to his makeshift tight end against Wake Forest.

Now, there is some depth. Haplea is healthy. So, too, is redshirt freshman Jeremy Kerr. Two more tight ends arrive this summer. None possess O’Leary’s skill set as a receiver, but all could fit as blockers should FSU decide to run a two-tight end set with any regularity.



But O’Leary (6-3, 245 pounds) again will be crucial this season. He was targeted 42 times last season. Aside from Greene, all other returning receivers were targeted a combined 18 times by Winston last year. Winston routinely referred to O’Leary as his favorite target. That O'Leary caught eight of nine passes thrown his way on third down and had five grabs in the end zone only reinforced Winston's faith in him.

Still, three of O’Leary’s red-zone catches came in Week 1. After hauling in five catches for 161 yards against Clemson, O’Leary didn’t have more than three catches or 55 yards in any game the remainder of the year. He scored just once in FSU’s last seven contests. He was shut out in the national title game.

So why did O’Leary disappear as the year went on? It was likely as much because of FSU’s needs for him to be a blocker and Benjamin’s emergence as the physically dominant downfield target as it was any regression by O’Leary. Neither will be an issue in 2014, and Fisher said he’d like to see O’Leary’s receptions reach the 45 to 50 range by year’s end.

“You can do a lot of different things with Nick,” Fisher said. “He’s grown into this offense. I think he will be critical."

No, Florida State won’t have another Kelvin Benjamin this season. The Seminoles would be lucky to get another receiver with that skill set and body type again this decade. But there is talent at the position, as Fisher has made clear, and there is still a player who can provide some brute force in the passing game. It’s just a matter of opening things up for O’Leary and seeing if he can take the next step in an already promising career.
We sat down with Florida State athletics director Stan Wilcox this week to discuss the future of the Seminoles and the ACC. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

In Part 2, Wilcox talks about revenue distribution in the ACC, the future of the league's championship game, and the potential of pay-for-play for student-athletes.

Q. Florida State has always viewed itself as the preeminent football program in the conference, and its recent success has certainly helped the ACC, both in terms of perception and financially. That leads a lot of FSU fans to wonder why the revenue sharing in conference is split evenly. What's the upside to that distribution model for Florida State?

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Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU AD Stan Wilcox is fine with the fact the Seminoles share revenues equally with the rest of the ACC.
A. There are good arguments for both sides. It depends what side of the fence you’re on how you feel about that issue. But I would say that one of the things that helps keep a conference stable is, as long as everybody is pulling their weight and contributing, when you start having divisiveness and an institution feels they’re not getting their proportionate share. When I was in the Big East it did create a different kind of way of revenue sharing that wasn’t even across the board. That eventually caused that conference to have problems.

Eventually things can shift and a school that got more of a share eventually gets less of a share, and what that does to your program on a year-to-year basis, trying to budget, it throws your budget off. You might be expecting to get a bigger share because you’re thinking your team is going to be better and things don’t work out. If you know exactly what you’re making every year at minimum, and that amount could go up, it makes it easier.

It all depends what side of the fence you’re on, but for conference stability, the way we currently operate -- which is the same way the SEC operates, revenue sharing across the board evenly -- it helps with conference stability.

Q. In 2012, Florida State lost money by playing in the ACC title game. The ticket allotment was lowered this year so that wouldn't happen again, but financially, is there a concern about the cost-benefit balance following what was such a successful season on the field?

A. We were able to make sure we don’t lose money in the end. This year, I don’t know the final numbers, but we’re definitely not going to lose money. What you’re probably getting to is the [national] championship, and that’s a different animal.

Again, we’re not losing money in the long run, because as a conference, we’re making a lot more money and those dollars are filtered down to the institutions. The issue has to do with the amount of expense allotted to go participate and what your expenses end up being. In that case, because -- if the championship game was at the Orange Bowl, not an issue, but when it’s on the opposite coast, and you have to charter flights for your band, for your team, for the VIPs of the university, that’s where your expenses can outpace the actual allocation dollars that you’re given.

So this year, we didn’t lose very much but when you compare that to what we’re going to get from revenue sharing, it’s really a no-brainer. We’re going to make out well this year.

Q. Avoiding financial losses in the ACC championship game is one thing, but actually filling the seats and making money is another. There have been some suggestions that the league might adjust its format, including switching to a single division to improve the championship game matchups. What is Florida State's take on those ideas?

A. There is discussion about potentially changing the NCAA rule that says in order to have a championship game you have to have two divisions. The issue we grapple with has to do with new schools coming into the conference, then you factor in Notre Dame [which will play five ACC games per year]. The issue is trying to get schools to play everybody at least once over a certain time period. When you have the two divisions, it becomes a little more difficult. If you’re a new school, you want to play everybody in the conference and figure out who’s going to be the new rival school. When you’re in divisions, it’s a little more difficult.

I understand the argument. But until the legislation is changed, we can’t really do anything. And with the change in restructuring of the NCAA and giving a little more autonomy the BCS conferences, it may occur sooner than later that that legislation is changed. Then we can look at not having divisions.

Q. Would it be possible to simply reshuffle the divisions to create some better matchups, for instance getting Florida State to play Georgia Tech more often?

A. There are some schools that want to. But I think at this point that we’re exploring and talking about all different options until we can come up with one that really makes sense for the entire league and that the majority of the league feels really comfortable with.

Q. Athletes at Northwestern are considering unionization. Is that a situation you've monitored? And what could be the long-term ramifications of unionization for players?

A. It’s something that’s always been on my radar, the whole pay-for-play issue. My position has always been that I don’t think student-athletes should be paid more money financially, but that they should be paid maybe more from an academic perspective. However we determine the value of the education in terms of credit hours, years of scholarship — that’s what should be negotiated here, and not money.

The money aspect of it gets too sticky. They’re trying to unionize. In order to unionize, you have to be considered an employee of the university. I don’t think student-athletes really want to go down that road. You become an at-will employee that can be hired and fired at any time. Your argument is that it gets you benefits, but you kind of have that now. If you become an employee, every employee has to pay X amount of dollars into a health care program. I don’t know if they’ve thought the whole thing through as to what it really means to be an employee of the university.

But I always felt that they should be negotiating about the education side of it. Not to say the health care and all of that isn’t an issue, but the best thing you can have is the ability to really compete in the classroom. If that means to have less hours during the season in which you’re participating and you still have those hours maybe after your eligibility is up, you still have time to make up those credit hours so you can get your degree. Or you negotiate for undergraduate degree plus a graduate degree. Something that’s more educationally based, to me, is what student-athletes should be trying to get more of if they think there’s an imbalance.

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AP Photo/L.G. PattersonWilcox said he hopes his coaches and athletes would be tolerant and understanding if an athlete were to come out as Michael Sam has.
Q. With the controversy surrounding bullying within the Miami Dolphins locker room and former Missouri star Michael Sam's announcement that he's gay, has Florida State taken any steps to address locker room culture, particularly as it relates to an athlete's sexual preference?

A. We have not had any specific conversations about that here yet, but I guess it’s probably becoming an issue that we need to maybe look at those types of things. We haven’t had anybody come out, but my hope is that all of our coaches, student-athletes and employees are tolerant of anybody who is a good person, whatever their lifestyle is. We’re not forming prejudices against anybody. But as far as doing a formal discussion about that particular issue, we haven’t. We actually do that through our student-athlete welfare and development department that has speakers come in just to talk to student-athletes, talk to staff about Title IX issues, diversity and inclusion issues, all of those are things that we talk about through seminars where we bring in experts from outside. But there’s a big focus on this particular issue because of the two instances that have occurred, but most institutions you go to — we do have those types of seminars where you have specialists come in and talk about inclusion and diversity.

Q. You discussed your work on a five-year strategic plan for Florida State, but what are some of the near-term goals you think fans can expect to see in the coming years?

A. Well we want to continue to be very successful, and I think we will. I think we’re poised to be where we were back in the early 1990s. I’d love to see Mike Martin win a college baseball championship. He’s been there so many times, come so close. He’s so deserving of it. I’d really like to see that happen for him.

As we look at other avenues and ways of generating additional dollars here, I think the sport that we can look at to help would be basketball. I’d like to see that we’re going to continue to improve there and get better facilities so we can have more fans engaged and create the type of atmosphere at our basketball games that are similar to other ACC major programs in basketball. If I can create another Cameron [Indoor Stadium at Duke], that’s the big wish list. But I’d like to see a better atmosphere at our basketball games.

I’d like to see championships on the playing field and our student-athletes graduating and being successful in the classroom. If I can help to get us to accomplish just those two things, those are the two major things I’d obviously love to see.

FSU looks to add neutral-site games

February, 18, 2014
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With the ACC still debating the possibility of shifting to a nine-game conference schedule, Florida State is in talks to play in neutral-site nonconference games in Orlando and Atlanta in future seasons, according to the school.

FSU associate athletics director Monk Bonasorte confirmed preliminary talks to play games in Orlando in 2016 and Atlanta in 2018, but he said no details, including an opponent, have been finalized.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJimbo Fisher does not want to see the ACC adopt a nine-game conference schedule.
Florida State opens the 2014 season with a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State in Dallas.

Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox said the neutral-site games are a significant part of the Seminoles’ scheduling plans moving forward because they allow the school to make inroads in potentially fruitful recruiting areas and allow fans in those cities -- FSU has one of the most displaced fan bases in the country -- to attend games more easily. Those plans could be stifled by a nine-game conference slate, however.

“From [Florida State’s] perspective, we’re at the point now that we would like to continue to be able to have as many quality home games as we can, potentially take one of those games on the road,” Wilcox said. “This year, we’re going to Dallas, and we’re looking at Orlando and other cities. Some of that can be jeopardized depending how the conference ends up.”

Coach Jimbo Fisher has been a vocal critic of a proposed nine-game conference schedule. Because FSU has an annual home-and-home series against SEC rival Florida, the Seminoles could find themselves with just six home games every other season -- a potentially significant financial hardship, Fisher argued. Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville also have annual rivalry games vs. the SEC.

The result to this point, Wilcox said, has been a deadlocked debate on the conference’s future scheduling.

“If we had our druthers,” Wilcox said, “we’d like to just keep things the way they are right now. But I can’t say that’s what’s going to happen.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Three years ago, Jimbo Fisher was out of options. Injuries and ineffectiveness had rendered his offensive line a sieve, and as the 2011 season drew to a close, Fisher threw his hands in the air and sent four true freshmen onto the field to start Florida State’s bowl game against Notre Dame.

The last resort proved to be a stroke of genius. The group gelled and by the time the Seminoles secured the 2013 national championship, the offensive line was a strength. With five seniors projected as starters for 2014, the line promises to be the backbone of Florida State’s offense again.

[+] EnlargeRoderick Johnson
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIESPN 300 offensive tackle Roderick Johnson is the Seminoles' top-ranked offensive line signee for the 2014 class.
The problem, however, is the incredibly uncertain future after Tre' Jackson, Cameron Erving, Josue Matias and the rest of this veteran line wave goodbye.

Fisher clearly remembers the struggles of 2011, and he’s not eager to relive them again in 2015 and beyond. So while rebuilding the line is still a year away, the groundwork for that massive overhaul began in earnest Wednesday.

Florida State inked an impressive class on national signing day, reeling in 28 new Seminoles -- including five early enrollees -- and one quarter of that group is offensive linemen. It is one of the largest recruiting scores at the position in school history, Fisher said, and it’s a group with significant upside.

“We got size on the edges, in the middle and that can snap the football,” Fisher said. “From that standpoint, it’s a great group, and guys are just getting bigger and faster.”

There might not be room for the seven linemen FSU inked to get much bigger. The group already averages 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, including juco transfers Kareem Are (6-6, 350) and Chad Mavety (6-5, 315), who Fisher believes can step in and play immediately.

Of course, finding reps for the fresh faces won’t be easy given the veterans already in place atop the depth chart, but Fisher understands it’s necessary if Florida State wants to avoid another season of linemen learning on the job in 2015.

“If those guys play well, there will be a lot of playing time,” Fisher said. “They’ll get a lot of playing time, and that’s why it was critical we got two junior college guys.”

If game-ready talent was necessary, developmental projects were significant for Florida State, too.

Fisher has racked up big recruiting wins in virtually every segment of the roster since his arrival in 2010, but the offensive line has remained a concern throughout. Part of the struggles to recruit top talent on the line lies with position coach Rick Trickett, who is far less interested in recruiting rankings than finding players malleable enough for him to build up from scratch.

Since Trickett took over the line in 2007, Florida State has signed just three offensive linemen ranked among the top 150 recruits. Jordan Prestwood left shortly after arriving. Ira Denson, last year’s prize recruit, could be on his way out, too. (Fisher said Wednesday that Denson was “still in school,” but didn’t elaborate on his status with the team.) Of FSU’s best line recruits in the Trickett era, only Bobby Hart remains embedded on the depth chart.

In fact, if Denson leaves, FSU will have just two scholarship linemen to show for its recruiting efforts in 2012 and 2013 combined and, before Wednesday’s haul, had just three linemen on the current roster set to still be with the team in 2015. Fisher praised the potential of redshirt freshman Wilson Bell and redshirt junior Ruben Carter, but there’s no doubt Wednesday’s new additions were a necessary influx of bodies.

“The guys who put their hands in the dirt on the offensive line, that controls the game,” Fisher said. “You can have all the skills in the world you want but you’ve got to win those battles up front and protect. Getting great offensive linemen is critical.”

Just how great this group ends up remains to be seen. Strong bodies with weak constitutions have a tendency to crumble under Trickett’s demanding approach. But the potential for this group is obvious.

Roderick Johnson is 6-7, 330 pounds and ranked as one of ESPN’s top prospects at tackle. FSU snagged him out of Missouri as one of Wednesday’s late additions to the class.

"Big Rod is a very athletic guy -- bends tremendously well for a guy 6-7 and 330 pounds,” Fisher said. “Great length and can bend his lower body, great flexibility and very intelligent. Very smart guy. Works very hard. I think the sky is the limit for the guy.”

Corey Martinez ranked just a tick behind Johnson as an ESPN 300 member, too. It’s the first time FSU landed multiple ESPN 300 linemen in the same class since Prestwood and Hart came aboard in 2011.

At 6-9, Brock Ruble is one of the tallest recruits in the nation, while Are and Movety were both among the top junior college linemen in the country. The Seminoles also added three-star center Alec Eberle.

Replacing the five seniors projected to start in 2014 will be no small task, but the first step in the process was providing Fisher and Trickett with some building blocks. Wednesday’s recruiting haul did that, and Fisher hopes that means there won’t be another season like 2011 on the horizon.

“Those guys will get a lot of playing time this year, and we’ll develop them,” he said. “They’ll have been able to play, and they’ll all be sophomores and juniors [in 2015] and they’ll fit in.”

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- All-America honors are nothing new for Jameis Winston, but the accolades this week aren’t coming on the football field.

Winston was named a third-team preseason All-American by Baseball America, which came as a mild surprise to fans who simply noticed his .235 batting average as a utility player last season.

That stat hardly sums up Winston’s skills on the baseball field, where he was a star in high school and was selected in the 15th round by the Texas Rangers in the 2012 MLB draft.

This season, Winston figures to be one of Florida State’s top bullpen arms, and his mid-90s fastball warrants plenty of attention. But the reality, according to ESPN’s Christopher Crawford, is that Winston’s future as a two-sport superstar is unlikely.

Crawford notes Winston’s lack of baseball refinement -- a product of so much time spent on the football field -- and the fact his financial future as an NFL quarterback likely far outpaces that of a bullpen arm in the big leagues.

Of course, Winston’s perspective on the issue has always differed greatly from the pundits. His decision to come to Florida State was based in large part on the school’s willingness to let him play both sports when others couldn’t or wouldn’t offer the same freedom. Winston grew up just a few miles from where Bo Jackson played in high school, and he’s routinely said he’s interested in following a similar path -- not choosing one sport over the other. For now, at least, football coach Jimbo Fisher and baseball coach Mike Martin completely agree.

That decision is still a ways off, however, and after a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and status as a near certain first-round pick in football, it’s possible Winston’s baseball future ends after this season.

What’s certain, however, is that Winston isn’t thinking that way. If he follows through on his current All-America status and makes the same level of strides on the diamond he did on the football field, the pessimism about his baseball future might be a bit harder to maintain.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the speech he delivered to some 30,000 Florida State fans at the team’s championship celebration at Doak Campbell Stadium last weekend, Jimbo Fisher touched on two primary themes.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher says the benefits of winning a national title is only beginning for Florida State on the recruiting trail.
First, he was grateful. He thanked the fans and the players and the coaches, but most importantly, the senior class. Those were the kids who believed in a recruiting pitch four years ago that was little more than grandiose promises designed to overshadow a 7-6 record and a rookie coaching staff. It was a tough sell, but Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Kenny Shaw and others bought in anyway.

Beyond that, however, Fisher talked about the promise of the future. Four years after Joyner and Smith and Shaw inked their names to a letter of intent at Florida State, the Seminoles now have a national championship trophy, and Fisher has a recruiting pitch that can both underscore the present and showcase a far more vivid plan for the future.

“We want to build a program,” Fisher said. “We’re not worried about a team; we’re building a program. And I think we can be very good again.”

Fisher did an exceptional job selling Florida State to recruits even when there wasn’t much to sell. His 2010 class was ranked sixth by ESPN. In 2011, FSU was tops, and in 2012, the Seminoles ranked second. Last year’s class was ranked No. 9, but immediately produced a trio of impact players on a national championship team.

Now, with that trophy providing an easy sales tool, Florida State heads into national signing day with the No. 3 class in the country and a chance to snag a few more big names before it’s over.

The wins aren’t the only catalyst for such strong classes. When Fisher took over in 2010, the Seminoles had a dearth of NFL talent, but last year, a record 11 Seminoles were drafted. As many as a dozen more could be selected this year. That has allowed recruits to see a clear path to the NFL, but it also has opened up opportunities for immediate playing time.

Last year, 14 of FSU’s 21 signees saw action, with three getting starting nods throughout the season. There figures to be even more room for new recruits this season.

With Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin departing, FSU’s receiving corps lacks much experience, but Florida State remains in on four receivers in the ESPN 300, including Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla.) and Travis Rudolph (West Palm Beach, Fla./Cardinal Newman).

The same is true on the offensive line, where all five projected 2014 starters are set to graduate at year’s end. The line has been one of the few areas FSU has struggled to land top recruits in past seasons, but the Seminoles already have commitments from six linemen heading into signing day.

But even in areas with ample competition, FSU is making headway. Fisher has commitments from two ESPN 300 quarterbacks, despite having the Heisman winner at the position already. He has been able to land that talent with a far different sales pitch today than the one he offered five years ago.

Florida State is no longer a place where recruits can come to rebuild a once-mighty program. It’s a place where the program can build recruits into stars.

“It’s way different,” Shaw said. “This year, it’s like, if you don’t want to be a part of this organization, it’s either you don’t want to compete or you don’t want to be a champion. We’ve set the bar to the limit.”

Of course, with the 2014 class waiting only for its finishing touches, Fisher isn’t easing up on his sales pitch.

The benefits of a national championship on the recruiting trail, he said, are only beginning.

“A lot of these relationships were built before the championship was won,” Fisher said. “It definitely helped cement where we’re going, where the program is going. But you’ll see this even more in the future.”

Winston: Baseball good for me

January, 8, 2014
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A Heisman Trophy and a national championship weren't enough to deter Jameis Winston from his plans to be a star in two sports.

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Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesJameis Winston was an outfielder and a relief pitcher for the Seminoles baseball team last spring.
Winston reiterated Wednesday that he plans to play baseball again this spring in spite of his elevated notoriety after leading Florida State to a 34-31 win over Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Monday.

Winston, who was named the winner of the 10th annual Manning Award on Wednesday, said baseball serves as an appropriate distraction as his off-the-field life grows busier.

"It keeps me busy instead of dealing with all the outside stuff and dealing with everything coming my way," Winston said. "I keep playing sports and I've got to keep my grades up, so I won't be focused on any outside things."

Winston played baseball last spring, too, serving as an outfielder and one of the Seminoles' top relief pitchers.

To continue reading, click here.
Jimbo Fisher was still on the podium, gazing into the crystal trophy that comes with winning a national championship, when it was suggested that once the team returned to Tallahassee, it was back to work preparing for 2014.

First on the docket for FSU will be identifying which star players will be returning for next season. Running back James Wilder Jr. is entering the draft, according to a source, and more decisions will trickle in before the Jan. 15 deadline. Here are our best guesses at what’s to come — and who might step in for departing underclassmen.

Likely going

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Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU nose tackle Timmy Jernigan is a force inside, and how well the Tigers do against him could determine how well they run the ball.
DT Timmy Jernigan (junior)

Why he’d leave: Entering the season, Jernigan was Florida State’s top-rated underclassman by most draft experts, and that standing never changed. Jernigan was dominant all season, and his impact was never more noticeable than in the national title game. When he was on the field, Auburn found no running room between the tackles. When he was out of the game, the Tigers moved the ball with ease on the ground.

Next up: Nile Lawrence-Stample took a big step forward this season, gaining valuable playing time in the defensive line rotation. He started six games and finished with 15 tackles. Florida State has five current defensive tackle commitments, so it’s certainly possible one of the incoming freshmen could make a big impact early — as Jernigan did in 2011 — but Lawrence-Stample is the safest bet to step in full time.

WR Kelvin Benjamin (redshirt sophomore)

Why he’d leave: Benjamin was projected as a star from the moment he arrived on campus, but it took him a while to get acclimated. He enjoyed a breakthrough 2013 season, finishing with 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, including the game-winner in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Some of his game could still use some refinement — as evidenced by two big drops vs. Auburn — but his physical skills already peg him as a likely first-rounder.

Next up: Kermit Whitfield certainly projects as Florida State’s next big-play receiver after an electric season as a freshman, but he fits more in the slot. Replacing Benjamin’s size and physicality isn’t an easy task, but 6-4 freshman Isaiah Jones figures to have the best chance. He saw limited playing time this year, catching two balls for 31 yards.

Possibly going

RB Devonta Freeman (junior)

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AP Photo/David J. PhillipDevonta Freeman became the first Seminoles tailback to gain 1,000 yards in a season since Warrick Dunn in 1996.
Why he'd leave: Freeman has been the steadying force for FSU’s running game for three years, and on Monday, he became the first Seminoles tailback to top 1,000 yards in 17 years. Wilder’s role was smaller this year as injuries hampered his production, but that could also have served as a reminder why it’s better to take the big hits with an NFL paycheck. Neither has a ton of early draft buzz which could convince them to return, but both could show out at the combine and work their way into the top three rounds.

Next up: Karlos Williams showed plenty of promise this season after moving from safety in Week 2, finishing with 748 rushing yards in reserve duty. He’s largely a straight-ahead runner, but his combination of size and speed makes him a weapon. FSU will still need to develop depth, likely with Mario Pender or Ryan Green, but could get a boost from four-star commit Dalvin Cook.

LT Cameron Erving (redshirt junior)

Why he’d leave: Erving has hovered near the top of the offensive tackle draft boards since the end of 2012, and in his second season since moving from the defensive line, he showed significant progress. Still, it’s a deep draft at the position, and there were moments — including against Auburn’s impressive defensive front Monday — when he showed some flaws.

Next up: Florida State brought in two potentially strong replacements last year in Ira Denson and Wilson Bell. Injuries hampered the progress for both during the season, however, which makes Erving’s decision potentially crucial for the stability of the line going into 2014.

Likely staying

G Tre Jackson and G Josue Matias (juniors)

Why they’d leave: Matias and Jackson might be among the top underclassmen at the position, but both could benefit from another year working with line coach Rick Trickett.

Next up: Florida State has struggled to recruit on the line the past few years, which makes depth — particularly on the interior — a significant concern. The Seminoles have a solid class coming in for 2014, but the loss of more than one of their underclassmen on the line would be a serious concern.

TE Nick O’Leary (junior)

Why he’d leave: O’Leary made huge strides this season, developing into one of Jameis Winston’s favorite targets and a legitimate red-zone threat. He’s an adept route-runner, a sure-handed receiver and his blocking game has developed nicely. But with Florida State's receiving corps in transition, O’Leary could be in a position to post huge numbers in 2014 if he sticks around.

Next up: Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury next year, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a true replacement.

WR Rashad Greene (Jr./WR)

Why he’d leave: What more can Greene accomplish at Florida State? He’s been the team’s most reliable receiver for three consecutive seasons. He became the Seminoles’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin this year. He’s quick, a great route-runner, and he has good hands. He does everything well, and his quarterbacks have taken notice. The problem for Greene is that he lacks the obvious physical skills that make scouts drool, so his draft value might not reflect his on-field contributions.

Next up: It would be a surprise if Greene left, but it would also be a huge blow to Florida State’s offense. Winston was a star this season in part because of an exceptional group of receivers, but the group will get a major makeover in 2014. The Seminoles need Greene to help ease the transition.
In a game as good as Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship, there are countless storylines to dissect in the aftermath. And as Florida State soaks in its third national championship, we’re only beginning to fully appreciate the effort it took for the Seminoles to get here. So while the celebration in Tallahassee continues, here’s a brief look at some of the most underrated storylines from FSU’s absurd 34-31 win over Auburn.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State RB Devonta Freeman became the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Seminoles since 1996.
Quest for 1,000, Part I: It was an otherwise uninteresting 4-yard rumble on first down late in the third quarter, but it was one of the most statistically significant rushes in Florida State history. The run put Devonta Freeman at exactly 1,000 yards for the season, making him the first FSU back to reach that mark since Warrick Dunn in 1996 and ending the longest active 1,000-yard rusher drought in college football. Freeman finished the season with 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns. More importantly, he was a crucial part of the offense when Jameis Winston struggled early Monday, finishing with 94 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Quest for 1,000, Part II: Freeman’s 1,000th yard came late. Rashad Greene's came early. The junior wide receiver cracked the mark with the second of his nine catches in the title game, finishing the season with 1,128 receiving yards. He’s the first FSU receiver to crack 1,000 since Anquan Boldin did it in 2002. Greene’s impact Monday was huge. He was the only FSU receiver to catch a pass for positive yardage in the first half, and he was responsible for 40 percent of Winston’s targets in the game. Most significant: He had 57 yards on two catches on the winning drive.

Quest for 1,000, Part III: And if Freeman and Greene weren’t enough, sophomore receiver Kelvin Benjamin became the third FSU player to join the 1,000-yard club with his penultimate grab, a crucial 21-yard catch early in the fourth quarter that set up Florida State’s second touchdown. Benjamin ends the season with 1,011 yards. It was a frustrating game at times for Benjamin, who was shut out in the first half and had two crucial second-half drops that ended drives. His final two catches, however, were essential, including the winning touchdown grab.

Special teams was big: Kermit Whitfield's kick return for a score was obviously a turning point in the game, but it was hardly the only crucial play on special teams. The first half, in many ways, was defined by two momentum-shifting punts. The first, by Auburn’s Steven Clark, pinned FSU at its own 2-yard line. Cason Beatty's punt on the ensuing drive netted just 22 yards, and Auburn scored easily to take a 7-3 lead. Tack on three lucky saves in a row for Auburn after muffed punts, the 15-yard penalty that kept FSU from going for two early in the fourth quarter and, perhaps most significant, a missed 33-yard field goal by Auburn's Cody Parkey early in the second quarter and special teams swung the momentum of the game in either direction again and again. As for Whitfield, the true freshman touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 but racked up 818 yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
AP Photo/Gregory BullP.J. Williams' interception led to a touchdown that pulled the Seminoles within one point.
FSU’s young stars: The three biggest plays in the game for Florida State came from Winston (game-winning TD drive), P.J. Williams (game-saving interception) and Whitfield (game-changing kick return). That trio’s total accomplishments prior to this season: 14 tackles by Williams, largely on special teams. In other words, this veteran team that Jimbo Fisher has been slowly building for years won the national title in large part because of the contributions of three players who’d barely seen the field before the start of 2013. That’s a good sign for 2014 at Florida State, too.

Pruitt’s big adjustment: To open the game, FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought pressure on Nick Marshall often, and it wasn’t entirely successful. The Tigers’ QB burned the Seminoles deep on several big plays. But Pruitt adjusted, was more conservative down the stretch, and it worked. Marshall was just 7-of-17 passing with an interception when Florida State brought four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Jernigan’s impact: The stat sheet shows just nine tackles, but anyone who watched Monday’s game knows Timmy Jernigan meant so much more for Florida State’s defense. He was a beast up the middle, shutting down Auburn’s vaunted run game for long stretches and offering next to nothing between the tackles. He clogged gaps and allowed linebacker Telvin Smith to step up and record a game-high 15 tackles. He flushed Marshall out of the pocket repeatedly. Of course, Jernigan was also completely gassed by the end, relegated to the sideline for much of Auburn’s final two scoring drives, and the Tigers’ success without Jernigan in the game was the ultimate proof of what an impact FSU’s under-the-radar defensive tackle actually made.

Winston’s rebound: There were two resounding narratives regarding Florida State entering the game. The first was that Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, would have a field day against an overmatched Auburn secondary. The second was that the untested Seminoles wouldn’t know how to handle a close game in the fourth quarter. It just goes to show that the pregame predictions often don’t amount to much. Winston’s unwavering confidence this season -- particularly on the prime-time stage -- has been Florida State’s hallmark. The “do it big” speech has been played again and again, but Winston was hardly that guy during the first three quarters Monday. His footwork was a mess. He was off target on throws. He was hesitant to release the ball, choosing again and again to tuck and run. He rarely looked downfield in spite of those supposed mismatches for his receiving corps. And yet, when the game was on the line, the QB who’d thrown just 25 fourth-quarter passes all season rebounded by completing 9 of 11 for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s final quarter.

It really was about his teammates: If there was a mantra Winston stuck to this season throughout all the highs and lows, it was that the season -- and his success -- was built on the backs of his teammates. Monday’s national championship proved him right. While Winston struggled early, so many others stepped up. Freeman moved the ball on the ground. Greene provided a reliable target. Fisher called a brilliant fake punt that Karlos Williams managed to execute perfectly. Whitfield returned a kick for a score. The defense held Auburn scoreless on five straight drives -- forcing a turnover along the way -- while Winston slowly chipped away at a 21-3 deficit. Yes, it was the Heisman winner who delivered the winning drive with 1:19 to play, but it was Greene’s spectacular run after a catch and Benjamin’s unparalleled ability to go up for a ball in the end zone that made the difference. For Florida State, 2013 really was about team, no matter how good (or, in Monday’s case, shaky) Winston was along the way.
It was the fourth quarter of a game Florida State already had well in hand over its in-state rival, Florida, in late November, but Jameis Winston was angry.

The Seminoles had flubbed the clock management, and when a timeout was called, Winston retreated to the sideline, barking at the coaching staff. Jimbo Fisher responded by grabbing Winston’s face mask, shouting back at his quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFSU coach Jimbo Fisher and QB Jameis Winston make an unlikely pairing, but the two are surprisingly similar.
It was a rare, public glimpse of an adversarial side to the relationship between Winston and Jimbo Fisher, but it was hardly uncommon.

“I’ll argue just to make it seem like I’m right a little bit, but he’s always right,” Winston said. “Sometimes we’ll get into an argument where we’re both right -- but he’s righter.”

The dynamic might actually have been explained better by Fisher earlier in the game. As he marched to the locker room at the end of the first half, Fisher was stopped by a TV reporter who asked about his quarterback. Fisher rattled off his usual responses at his usual frenetic pace, but he capped his answer with a bit of insight into their chemistry: Winston and Fisher are extremely similar, the coach said, and sometimes that’s not a good thing.

“It’s how we communicate,” Fisher said of the on-field argument. “It’s normal.”

Winston’s teammates have seen it happen often on the practice field, away from the cameras or the prying eyes of fans. Fisher insists on perfection, and Winston does, too. They just don’t always see eye to eye on exactly how perfection will be defined.

The practice-field barking is nothing new. Fisher is famous for it among his players. But what’s unique about his rapport with Winston is they match each other’s passion.

“They’ve had their arguments, but they’ve always understood each other,” left tackle Cameron Erving said. “I don’t know if Coach Fisher and guys like EJ [Manuel] and [Christian] Ponder, I don’t know if they related on the same level. I feel like that’s what makes Jameis and Coach Fisher so compatible. It’s always passion, wanting to do right.”

It seems an unlikely pairing, really. The unabashedly goofy 19-year-old with the cocky swagger and the throwback coach with the fiercely demanding bravado -- it might be easy to miss how similar they really are.

Winston jokes on the practice field, teasing teammates, singing and dancing in the huddle. But he’s as frustrated by failure as his coach is, and he’s as quick to get in the face of a teammate who needs to step up his game.

“But Jameis really isn’t mean,” Kelvin Benjamin said. “At least not to the receivers.”

Fisher is a no-nonsense drill sergeant. He presides over practice with a stern resolve that has, at times, rattled players with a lesser tolerance for criticism. But he also laughs often and pals around with players, filled with the same childlike enthusiasm about the sport he loves that his quarterback exudes so routinely.

“Coach Fisher likes to crack jokes just as much as Jameis does,” Erving said. “It’s just different ages, different sensibilities.”

That common ground has been a key to this season’s success, Fisher said. He can be hard on Winston because Winston understands why he’s being critiqued. He can bark orders at his quarterback but realizes Winston is already working to correct the mistake.

Fisher was Winston’s protector during the sexual-assault investigation that hung over Winston in November like a black cloud. Winston has been Fisher’s best asset in the locker room, offering the same rhetoric his coach has espoused for years, but with a sales pitch more appealing to the team.

When Winston gave his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, it’s no surprise the words echoed Fisher’s favorite mantras about process and focus and maturity, or that Fisher wept as he listened to the words.

“Just having somebody that I can relate to, somebody he can relate to, that just makes the situation more genuine,” Winston said. “That’s how you have a successful team, when the head coach and the quarterback get along.”
Kelvin Benjamin has answered the questions more times than he can count, and he has lost interest in the narrative.

The story has been written again and again about the physically gifted receiver who took so long to blossom. But even though Benjamin’s emergence is old news now, even he still manages to surprise with how good he really is.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Kelvin Benjamin
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesFlorida State's Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as one of the best receivers in college football.
His coaches and teammates spent two years hyping him, explaining away his shortcomings, pushing him to get better. Now they’re simply watching him do what comes naturally.

After two years of wondering when Florida State’s 6-foot-5 monster of a receiver would emerge, Benjamin has shifted into a far different approach as he prepares for the biggest game of his career.

“It’s just doing the same thing I’ve been doing all year,” he said.

That’s the true measure of Benjamin’s progress. No one needs to ask why his practice performances have so far outpaced his game-day numbers or wonder when he’ll put in the time and effort and study he needs to be great. After Benjamin finished 2013 with nine touchdowns in his final five games, the sophomore has officially reached elite status.

“I knew what he had in him and he’s really grown and developed into one heck of a guy,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Fisher has enjoyed seeing Benjamin develop. His opposition in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship, however, might be having nightmares.

Auburn ranks 103rd nationally in passing defense, and the Tigers’ secondary has had few answers for physically imposing receivers like Benjamin. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans had 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn. Mississippi State’s Donte Moncrief caught six passes for 122 yards and two scores. Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham went for 144 yards on six catches, including two touchdowns.

In other words, Benjamin has Auburn’s attention.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Auburn corner Jonathon Mincy said. “That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers.”

Mincy said Auburn views the matchup as an opportunity to prove its critics wrong, to play man and press coverage against Florida State’s dynamic receivers and challenge Benjamin physically.

Benjamin, however, isn’t buying that.

“Mostly third down, they’ll go man. But it won’t be press coverage,” he said. “They’ll probably play us like Miami played us.”

The Hurricanes tried to take away the deep ball by playing well off Florida State’s receivers and blitzing quarterback Jameis Winston. The plan didn’t keep the Seminoles from cruising to a 41-14 win, but it’s probably worth noting that Benjamin finished with just two catches for 46 yards.

It’s also worth noting that he found the end zone in every game after that.

That’s perhaps what truly separates this version of Benjamin from years past, what’s pushed those stories of unrefined talent to the back burner as the country takes notice of one of college football’s emerging stars. Benjamin isn’t frustrated by failure anymore. He’s motivated by it.

Benjamin’s biggest game this season came against Florida, when he caught nine balls for 212 yards and three TDs. The numbers could’ve been even better. He dropped two potential touchdowns, looking to get upfield before securing the ball. When he trudged back to the sideline afterward, he was already looking for his next chance to prove he could correct the mistakes.

“Maturity,” Fisher said. “Accepting that he made a mistake, corrected the mistake and he’s handled those situations much better. He got to a point where he realizes he can play, and the pressure’s not on, and he has true confidence.”

It’s confidence that’s infectious. Florida State’s other players feed off Benjamin’s big-play heroics. His size and speed and physicality can be demoralizing for the opposition before the game even kicks off. Benjamin has found the secret to his success, and that’s a storyline he’d been waiting to write.

“I really believe now,” he said, “that if you prepare for the test, you’ll pass.”

Auburn heroics have FSU's attention

December, 27, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the days after the Iron Bowl, everyone got their chance to weigh in on the absurd ending that helped send Alabama to its first loss of the season and Auburn on the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

The game came down to a long field goal, which Alabama missed. Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded the kick and returned it for a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher and FSU are well aware of Auburn's ability to make the seemingly impossible possible.
Even Jimbo Fisher, who knows both programs well and has seen his share of college football insanity, was left speechless.

“I never dreamed of it ending that way,” Fisher said.

Of course, had he been in the same position as Alabama coach Nick Saban, Fisher also might’ve handled things a bit differently.

“You’ve got to go cover [the return man],” Fisher said, adding that he would’ve adjusted his normal field-goal personnel to cover a potential return.

As unexpected as the play was, Fisher said Florida State has practiced it throughout the year, and the Iron Bowl was just another lesson on why the details matter so much.

For Auburn, those finer points have been crucial to reaching Pasadena with a shot at a championship. For Florida State, however, the Seminoles have rarely been tested on those finer points.

FSU has won all 13 games by at least 14 points. It’s average margin of victory -- 43 points -- is the most by any team in the past decade. Since its dominant win over Clemson on Oct. 19, Florida State has been favored by at least three touchdowns in every game.

The fact that Auburn has had to sweat out some close wins and Florida State hasn’t been tested has quickly become one of the most prominent narratives in the run-up to the BCS championship game. If it’s a close contest, certainly the team with the résumé of last-second wins gets an edge, right?

“That can happen to anybody, that can happen to us if we’re not locked in and playing to the last play,” safety Terrence Brooks said of Auburn’s unlikely wins over Georgia and Alabama. “I feel like those things will happen if you’re not doing the things you’re supposed to do and looking at the right thing.”

Even before Florida State began breaking down the film on Auburn, players were all too aware of the fantastic finish to the Iron Bowl, along with another final-minute win over Georgia in which Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis hauled in a 73-yard TD catch after it deflected off two Bulldogs defenders.

So as the Seminoles prepare for their Jan. 6 date with Auburn, they’re focusing on those same details they’ve worked all season in practice -- but they’re also expecting those details to be far more significant than they had been in any previous game this year.

“They’re going to play hard, so every snap we’ve got to be ready to play, whether it’s a trick play or a straight run at us,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We’ve got to go out and play until the clock says zero, zero, zero.”

It’s easy enough to say, of course, but the reality is that Florida State has had precious few chances to back up that mantra on the field.

The Seminoles haven’t won a game decided by three points or less since a 16-13 victory over Clemson in 2010. Since Fisher took over as head coach, FSU is just 6-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Auburn, meanwhile, has six wins by eight points or less this season alone.

“It’s a team with a bunch of talent, bunch of intelligence, and they wait for guys to make mistakes,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “They do what they do well, and they do it for 60 minutes. Something has to bend and break, and they don’t. Opponents do.”

If the national championship game is tight, Auburn won’t be rattled. During Florida State’s three weeks of bowl practice, Fisher is doing his best to ensure the Seminoles won’t be either.

There’s no way to properly simulate what the final minutes of a national championship game might be like on the field, and Auburn’s shocking wins over Georgia and Alabama were as unexpected as any in recent college football history. So the job for Fisher won’t be easy, but the Seminoles can return to the fact that working the fundamentals and prepping for a close game isn’t a new addition to the practice routine. They’ve been doing it since the spring -- which is why the past 13 games have all looked so easy.

“Right now we’re at a point where we just want to get better and be able to know our assignments like this because they go fast,” defensive end Christian Jones said. “So we want to be able to know when they come out in something, we know exactly [where to be]. We’re doing a good job staying level-headed.”

FSU's ground game toils in the shadows

December, 26, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first half of December was a coronation for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He won the ACC championship game MVP, led his team to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, won a slew of postseason awards, including the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIJames Wilder Jr., who has tallied 542 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, is one of three of Florida State's solid running backs.
Meanwhile, last year’s ACC championship game MVP, James Wilder Jr., relaxed and enjoyed awards season from home. Never mind that Florida State’s ground game actually tallied more rushing touchdowns and averaged more yards per carry this season than it did a season ago, when it was widely considered one of the best units in the country.

No, with a quarterback like Winston, the shadow the ground game lives in can be a long one.

“We have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback,” Wilder said. “It’s hard to talk about the running backs when you have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback.”

It’s not just Winston overshadowing Florida State’s runners now. The narrative for this season's national title game has already been written, with Winston’s high-flying passing attack going up against Auburn’s spectacular ground game, and the team that best executes its strength is likely to be the one hoisting a championship trophy on Jan. 6.

But again, that ignores the work of Florida State’s running backs.

Auburn’s rushing attack has earned raves -- and for good reason. The Tigers led the nation in rushing touchdowns entering bowl season with 46. Of course, that’s just five more than Florida State had, despite 202 more carries.

Auburn also had one of the most explosive running games this season, racking up 335 yards per game on the ground -- the best total in the country. But break those numbers down a bit by eliminating yardage lost to sacks on passing plays and big numbers tallied against FCS competition, and Florida State was actually just a tick better running the ball (6.43 yards per carry) than was Auburn (6.42 yards per carry).

In other words, there will be more than one talented rushing attack on the field in Pasadena.

“Inside the [running backs meeting] room, we feel we’re as good as anyone,” said Karlos Williams, FSU’s third-string back who has averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored 11 times this year.

Outside that meeting room, however, the Seminoles’ runners are happy flying beneath the radar.

Williams has been spectacular when he has touched the ball, but he’s gotten just 14 first-half carries all year.

Devonta Freeman is on course to become Florida State’s first 1,000-yard runner in 17 years, but he hasn’t complained about his lowly 12.5 carry-per-game average or the fact that he has had just 65 rushing attempts in the second half this year (an average of just five per game).

Wilder entered the season with NFL aspirations, but a shoulder injury and a concussion limited his workload. One year after winning the ACC championship game MVP, he is on pace to carry the ball 26 fewer times this season, but he’s not complaining.

“The backs, we’re not those guys that care if we get attention or not,” Wilder said. “All of our running backs are unselfish guys who just want to see the team succeed.”

And thus far, that dynamic has worked particularly well for Florida State’s offense, which leads the nation averaging 7.81 yards per play.

The Seminoles have done it with an almost perfect 50-50 split in running plays vs. passing plays -- a much heavier dose of the passing game than in years past under coach Jimbo Fisher. From 2010 through 2012, FSU ran 58 percent of the time. Florida State’s 36 rushes per game this season ranks 84th nationally, yet its 41 touchdowns ranks seventh and its 5.7 yards-per-attempt average is ninth.

“We’re explosive,” Williams said. “Very, very explosive when we lock in, when we pay attention to the small details and when we play our football.”

Of course, that’s not to take anything from Auburn’s ground game, which Wilder insists is as good as advertised.

The Tigers’ tailback Tre Mason was there in New York alongside Winston at the Heisman Trophy presentation, a worthy finalist. Wilder is good friends with Mason, and he actually texted the Auburn junior to wish him luck before Winston won the award.

But that’s where all the good wishes are likely to end. With a national championship to be decided, Wilder knows Mason will be a big factor, but on Jan. 6, Florida State’s ground game will get a chance to shine, too.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State fans will be tearing the wrapping paper off presents tonight and tomorrow, but the Seminoles have already unwrapped a handful of surprises this year. Here’s a look at five of the biggest gifts Florida State got in 2013 en route to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game:

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has finally lived up to his hype.
Joyner, Jones return: OK, so this was more of a late Christmas present from 2012, but when Lamarcus Joyner and Christian Jones announced in January they’d return for their senior seasons, it set the tone for what this year’s defense would be. Florida State lost all four of its starting D-linemen in the draft, taking 28.5 of the 36 sacks the Seminoles had in 2012 with them. The big question entering 2013 was who would provide the pass rush, and it turned out, Joyner and Jones were up to the task. Joyner switched from safety to corner and has wreaked havoc on corner blitzes this season. Jones moved from weakside linebacker to edge rusher and has provided a spark to a defensive line in transition. Together, they have seven sacks this season -- matching their combined career totals from their first three years in Tallahassee.

Winston is a star: This wasn’t a surprise, of course. Jameis Winston was pegged for stardom from the moment he arrived at Florida State. But who could’ve predicted just how good he’d be? From his astonishing debut against Pitt to his four-TD performance in the ACC championship game, Winston was a dynamic playmaker, mature passer and locker room leader. In August, his name was a trendy pick as a dark horse Heisman contender. By December, he was the runaway winner. Winston replaced a quarterback who went in the first round of the NFL draft, and he’s exceeded EJ Manuel’s production in every facet -- something we didn’t exactly anticipate before the season began.

Benjamin emerges: The long wait for Kelvin Benjamin to blossom into a star finally came to an end this year, thanks to the redshirt sophomore’s improved maturity. Benjamin always had the tools, of course. He made so many miraculous plays in practice that teammates spoke about his exploits as the stuff of legend. But on Saturdays, he hadn’t done much in his first two years at Florida State. Down the stretch in 2012, Benjamin was almost a non-factor -- catching just seven passes for 52 yards and no touchdowns in his final five games. This year, however, he’s gotten better each week, and he’s become perhaps the most dangerous receiver in the nation in the final weeks of the season. In his last five games this year, he’s caught 25 passes for 481 yards and nine TDs, including at least one in each game.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFreshman DB Nate Andrews is FSU's leader in interceptions.
Freshmen in the secondary: Florida State had the best secondary in the nation last year, and the depth figured to be even better this season. With stars like Joyner, Ronald Darby and Terrence Brooks and emerging talent like Tyler Hunter and P.J. Williams, there didn’t figure to be much room for the true freshmen to make much of an impact. As it turned out, Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews performed too well to keep off the field. Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at corner for Florida State since Deion Sanders in Week 1, then when Hunter went down with a neck injury against Bethune-Cookman, Ramsey switched to safety and has started each of the final 10 games. Andrews emerged as FSU’s top DB off the bench and has turned his limited playing time into big rewards, leading the Seminoles in interceptions. For the season, FSU’s true freshmen have a combined for seven interceptions, five forced fumbles and 13 passes defended.

The other Smith: For the past two seasons, Telvin Smith had been the most vocal player on the field for Florida State’s defense. Meanwhile, the more reserved Terrance Smith flew beneath the radar. In 2013, both Smiths emerged as impact defenders. Telvin Smith, a senior, leads Florida State in tackles and has continued to be the emotional leader of the group, but when Jones moved to the defensive line midway through the season, Terrance Smith got his chance to shine, too. He’s now third on the team in tackles (55), has an INT, four passes defended and two sacks. Since Terrance Smith became a full-time starter, Florida State has allowed just 2.8 yards per rush.

Stocking stuffers: Karlos Williams moved from safety to tailback in Week 2, and while he’s only had 14 first-half carries this year, he’s been dominant when he’s touched the ball, racking up 705 yards and 11 TDs; Roberto Aguayo hasn’t had to make a big kick all season thanks to an average margin of victory of 43 points for FSU, but he’s missed just one this season en route to All-America status; Kermit Whitfield’s role hasn’t been huge, but he’s averaging 31 yards per touch.

FSU's Darby dominates without hype

December, 23, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Ronald Darby might be a household name if his name was mentioned a bit more often.

The sophomore cornerback is rarely discussed during games. Florida State’s secondary has been dominant all season, but Darby’s work tends to fly beneath the radar. Darby doesn’t show up too often in the box score, either. His 12 tackles are tied for 24th on the team.

The anonymity isn’t a knock on Darby’s talent, though. The problem is, opposing quarterbacks are terrified to test him.

“Sometimes,” Darby said, “I get a little bored.”

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins, Ronald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroSophomore CB Ronald Darby is so good in coverage that opponents rarely test him.
Darby has started eight games this season and has been on the field for the vast majority of Florida State’s defensive snaps, but only a handful of balls have come his way.

According to Stats LLC, Darby has been targeted just 22 times this season -- 29 times fewer than Florida State’s other starting corner, P.J. Williams. It’s a casual workload that illustrates the ample respect he receives around the ACC.

“They watch the film,” Lamarcus Joyner said when asked why teams shy away from testing Darby. “You see his size, you see his speed, his strength. He has everything you look for in a cornerback.”

Darby’s natural talent was obvious from his first days in Tallahassee last year. He wowed teammates immediately, and while he didn’t start a game as a true freshman, he was on the field regularly, recording eight pass breakups and 22 tackles en route to freshman All-America honors. He was named the ACC’s freshman defensive player of the year.

But all the momentum from his sterling debut season came to a grinding halt this spring when a groin injury required surgery and kept him on the sidelines well into the start of fall camp. Even once the injury was healed, the effects lingered. Darby’s blazing speed was diminished a tad, and in the early going, he was reluctant to test it.

Even now, nearly a full year after the surgery, Darby says he isn’t quite right.

“I’m still not 100 percent yet,” Darby said. “I’m still trying to get back. ... I got a lot better from the offseason until now. I run a lot better, cut a lot better.”

The improved fundamentals have more than made up for the marginal dip in pure speed.

Of those 22 passes thrown Darby’s way, two were picked off and just seven resulted in completions. According to Stats LLC, that’s the fifth-lowest completion rate allowed by any defensive back from an AQ conference. Of the four players ahead of him, three were first-team all-conference. Darby didn’t even get an honorable mention.

“He’s been locking it down,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “That’s all he can do.”

And if that effort hasn’t been enough to garner much national attention thus far, that could change on Jan. 6, when Florida State takes on Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers don’t throw often, but they’ve got one of the country’s top big-play threats in receiver Sammie Coates.

In fact, Coates and the Auburn offense might be a perfect test for Darby. The Tigers run and run and run, and just when a cornerback appears to be getting a bit bored with the heavy dose of the ground game, the deep ball takes them by surprise. But Florida State just so happens to employ a cornerback who’s used to battling the boredom and pouncing on those rare chances to make a play.

“That’s why I just practice hard really,” Darby said. “So we can be perfect on game day.”

And perfection on the biggest stage might finally earn Darby some of the attention he has deserved all season. Add in a few more weeks for Darby to strengthen that groin injury and rebuild his speed, and Jameis Winston -- Darby’s roommate and practice-field nemesis -- has a good idea of what might be in store.

“I honestly think Darby could be the best cornerback in the country,” Winston said.

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