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.
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.”