Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher smiled at the ACC Kickoff when asked about the potential pitfalls of being the assumed preseason No. 1 team.
“I’d much rather be there than think we can’t win,” Fisher quipped.
Well, the first preseason poll was released Thursday, and, as expected, the Seminoles sit atop the Amway Coaches Poll with 56 of 62 first-place votes. Florida State also opened as the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win the inaugural College Football Playoff; has a 40 percent chance to finish the regular season undefeated, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Football Power Index (FPI; and returns the Heisman winner in quarterback Jameis Winston.
Expectations are piling on top of Florida State -- the FPI expects a 17-point margin of victory in every game -- and coaches who have been through it before know the mounting pressure can suffocate even the most talented teams.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio was the offensive coordinator at Florida in 2009 and witnessed first-hand how outside expectations can weigh on a program. The Gators were coming off a national championship and returned Tim Tebow, fabricating a false sense of reality among fans and media. Simply winning the game was not going to satiate those who expected weekly perfection. With a two-time national champion coach and quarterback, they surmised Florida should cakewalk through its schedule.
When the Gators failed to blow out teams at the onset of SEC play, each week the tensions heightened exponentially and would boil over into the locker room during halftime of games with Florida players shouting at each other. And they would be winning, Addazio said.
“You cannot let your team take that poison pill and worry about how much they win by,” said Addazio, adding one offensive lineman even suffered hair loss from the 2009 season’s stresses. “When you’re a national championship-caliber team, you have the high expectation level and managing that with your team so they keep the focus on the here and now, that’s what’s important.”
Fisher won a national championship at LSU in 2003, but the Tigers had a remodeled offense in 2004 and began the season ranked No. 3 in the Coaches Poll. USC was also crowned the 2003 champion in the final Associated Press poll, mitigating a majority of the pressures that accompanied LSU’s title.
This season is not entirely unique in Tallahassee, however, where wire-to-wire No. 1 seasons and national title defenses were not uncommon in the 1990s under former coach Bobby Bowden. Florida State was the preseason No. 1 three times under Bowden, including 1993 and 1999. The Seminoles won the national title in both those seasons, and they went wire-to-wire in 1999. Florida State and USC (the Associated Press title was not vacated) are the only teams to be ranked No. 1 the entire season in the history of the AP poll since the inception of preseason rankings in 1950.
“The thing about preseason No. 1 is you can’t sneak up on anybody,” Bowden said this summer. “Every team you play, they’re telling their boys ‘We’re playing No. 1 in the nation’ and they get sky high for that one. You got to be ready to play.”
Mickey Andrews served as defensive coordinator for nearly three decades under Bowden, and he believes Fisher is ridding the program of complacency in the same fashion he and Bowden did during the Seminoles’ 14-year run of consecutive top-five finishes.
Andrews said they were always acutely aware of which players would be counted on the following season and consciously made an effort to give them playing time during the meaningful portions of games. Bowden expected his eventual starters to contribute like a first-team player the season prior so Bowden would be confident the following season.
It also created an edge in practice during the season. A starter’s job had to be earned every week in practice lest a motivated backup steal the role on Saturdays.
“You got to sell them on great preparation being the key to great performance, and then they got to buy into it,” Andrews said. “A lot of times the people we practiced against was better than those we’d play against. We’d go first against first, even during the weeks of games. We’d have coaches come in and ask how we got them to practice so hard, and we’d say if they don’t, then they won’t play.”
The distinction between 2014 and the previous two seasons following a Florida State national title is this is the first time the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 the ensuing season. Andre Wadsworth, a member of the 1993 and 1994 teams, said that puts a little more pressure on this current group of Seminoles.
Fisher and his team don’t look like a team saddled by expectations yet, and they’re saying all the right things, refusing to use the word defend and celebrating the opportunity at the potential of a second national title completely exclusive from the first.
Fisher likes to say each team has a one-year life expectancy, but dynasties are expected to live much longer.