Musings from the end of a wild BCS title game; more mail

Wednesday January 8th, 2014

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher had plenty to celebrate after a thrilling win over Auburn in the BCS title game.
Robert Beck/SI

It was around 1 a.m. Pacific Time -- nearly four hours after the game ended -- when Andy Staples and I finally left the Rose Bowl parking lot on Monday, which seemed unduly late. Certainly we'd exited last year's game in Miami well before 4 a.m. ET. Why so slow?

Oh, that's right. Last year we had our Alabama-Notre Dame columns written in the third quarter. This year I hadn't written a word when I went down to the field with about five minutes remaining, and even if I had, they would have quickly become moot. It had been eight years and a whole lot of blowouts since I last covered such an exhilarating BCS championship game, and as coincidence would have it, I was standing in nearly the same exact spot on the Rose Bowl sideline near the end zone where Jameis Winston connected with Kelvin Benjamin as I was when Vince Young ran by me in 2006. These are the moments I'll never forget.

Stewart: Jameis Winston is getting a lot of unearned praise for his "heroics" in the national championship game. What did he do that was so heroic? Besides two or three midrange completions he had little to do with the outcome of the game. He may be a Heisman quarterback against ACC competition but against a middle-of-the-pack SEC defense he was average at best.

-- Jake Dawson, Reynolds, Ill.

If you were to make a list of the biggest reasons why the Seminoles prevailed Monday night, I'd agree that Winston would not be at the top. In fact he played rather poorly for three quarters. The key play of the entire game was Florida State's successful fake punt in the second quarter, which stopped the bleeding after the Seminoles had fallen behind 21-3. Couple that with Kermit Whitfield's go-ahead kickoff return in the fourth quarter and FSU's special teams deserve a lot of credit. Meanwhile, after a rough start, the 'Noles' defense came out in the second half and clamped down on Auburn's offense, particularly by taking away the Nick Marshall half of the Tigers' option. Tre Mason, who was outstanding all night, still gashed them for one last drive, but the Florida State forced enough punts (and an interception) to get back in the game.

But give Winston some credit. You think it's easy for a guy who had struggled for much of the night to complete 6-of-7 passes and lead his team 80 yards in just over a minute with the national championship on the line? Sure, Rashad Greene helped Winston out tremendously by breaking what might have been a short completion into a 49-yard gain. Sure, Chris Davis aided the cause with a pass interference penalty (though perhaps Kenny Shaw makes the catch in the end zone if Davis isn't draped on top of him.) But the Tigers still brought pressure on many of those plays, and unlike earlier in the game, when Winston took four sacks or occasionally took off running too soon, he made the right checks and kept moving the chains. He had an average game, but he also performed flawlessly in the game's most pressure-packed moment.

As for retroactively downgrading Winston's Heisman season -- give me a break. Auburn's defense was the most talented Florida State faced. The Seminoles said as much afterward, and Dee Ford and the Tigers played an outstanding game. But let's not make it like Auburn's defense was the '85 Bears when compared to Clemson's. Winston wasn't himself for most of Monday night. It happens, especially in bowl games. For the first time all season he looked like a redshirt freshman -- rattled and frustrated. But he recovered. Even with a modest 20-of-35, 237-yard performance he still finished with a national-best 184.9 passer rating, fourth-highest in the last decade.

I've long contended the Heisman should not be given out until after the bowls. Had that happened this year Mason would have a pretty good argument. But Winston was still far above average and in fact had a far better bowl performance than three of the Heisman finalists, Jordan Lynch (vs. Utah State), Andre Williams (vs. Arizona) and AJ McCarron (vs. Oklahoma). If I had to guess, were the votes re-tabulated today, Winston would still win, but not in a landslide, and he, Mason and Johnny Manziel would be the only finalists.

With the recent SEC and state of Alabama storylines, everyone has seemed to forget how the state of Florida has dominated college football (surely due to Miami and until now Florida State being down for awhile). Counting split championships Florida schools have won 11 titles in the past 31 seasons and three of the last eight. How does this compare to the SEC's streak?

-- Jeff, King of Prussia, Pa.

First of all, with so much focus in the past seven years on the SEC's title streak I don't think there was nearly enough discussion about the state of Alabama's milestone. Despite being the nation's 23rd-most populous state (compared with fourth for Florida) and with only two BCS-conference programs (compared with five in Florida) the Yellowhammer State came within 13 seconds of claiming five straight BCS championships. That's remarkable, especially given the fact that Auburn imploded shortly after its 2010 title and still made it back to the game within three years. You won't find anything remotely like it in terms of consecutive titles by one state. The closest is all the various schools that won back-to-back.

But when you look back at college football since the 1980s, certainly Florida schools have had the most collective success. One day in the distant future, when we look back at the course of power over the history of the sport, the '80s and '90s will be remembered first and foremost for the rise of the Florida schools (with a cameo of course by Nebraska's mid-'90s dominance); the first 10 years of the new century will be remembered most likely for USC's run under Pete Carroll; and, at least so far, the current decade will be remembered for the Iron Bowl's national takeover. I don't see the two Alabama programs slipping as long as their current coaches are at the helm. But Florida State's not going anywhere, either. The 'Noles could well begin a run like the one they enjoyed under Bobby Bowden, especially given the playoff's arrival. But both Florida and Miami will need to pull their weight for some bigger state-of-Florida renaissance -- UCF certainly did its part this season.

Stewart, in your opinion who does the upcoming playoff help more in getting back to the national championship game, Florida State or Auburn? Must be Auburn right? FSU is more likely to run the table in the ACC, and as we've seen if you start high you'll finish high. Auburn faces a tougher schedule in the SEC and is more likely going to let a game slip at some point in the season that can be forgiven if they finish ahead of Alabama/LSU/Missouri.

-- Sean, Dublin, Ireland

Easy, there. Auburn just made it to the title game a year after going 3-9, and you're already trying to predict next year's playoff? Good luck with that.

One thing I do know is that "if you start high you'll finish high" finally becomes irrelevant next year with the advent of the selection committee. I know Bill Hancock has said the group will publish semi-regular "interim rankings" beginning in late October, a move I understand (it helps build interest, much like the BCS standings) but disagree with because it will falsely create the perception of teams moving up and down, like they do in the current polls. In theory, the committee will sit down on Dec. 7 and evaluate each team's entire body of work, regardless of where they stood a week earlier, with an emphasis on strength of schedule.

To that end, the answer to your question is actually Florida State, which is playing a brutal non-conference slate next year that includes Oklahoma State (in Arlington, Texas), Notre Dame and (presumably improved) Florida. A Seminoles squad that goes 12-1 against that schedule but still wins the ACC could be the textbook case for the type of team the committee is supposed to reward. If there's only one spot left and Auburn is sitting there with the same record as FSU but having played just one legit out-of-conference game at Kansas State (the Tigers' other three foes are San Jose State, Louisiana Tech and Samford), the 'Noles may get the edge. Again: This is not a prediction. We've got eight months for that. It's just an illustration of the new system at work.

Let's pretend the 2014 playoff exists and the only teams available are the BCS champions from the past 16 years. Which four teams would you put in the playoff and who wins?

--Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

Wow. That, my friends, is a five-star Mailbag question.

I'd like to get some distance before deciding where 2013 Florida State falls in the mix, so as dominant as the Seminoles were this season, I'm not ready to put them in this mythical Final Four. Give me 2001 Miami, 2004 USC, 2005 Texas and 2002 Ohio State. The Hurricanes remain my choice as the best team of the BCS era, so it's hard to pick against them, though I'd love to see Vince Young put Ed Reed, Jonathan Vilma and the rest of that ridiculous '01 Miami defense to the test in a championship game matchup.

Levonte Whitfield's kickoff return for a TD was just one iconic moment from Monday's title game.
Gary Bogdon/SI

With the FSU win, does this mean all the teams in the ACC will start chanting "A-C-C" every chance they get? Or will SEC teams co-opt the chant and make it "Southeastern Teams! Southeastern Teams!

-- Adam, Kalamazoo, Mich.

I didn't hear any "A-C-C" chants Monday night, probably because if they had their druthers most FSU fans would still gladly join the "S-E-C." And I'm not sure SEC fans even noticed that anything changed. Heck, Nick Saban spent so much time on ESPN on Monday night you would have thought Alabama won again.

Do you have a take on the Charlie Strong-to-Texas hire? It seems like a solid choice, but his name curiously flew under the radar when the media was bantering about possible replacements for Mack Brown. Much attention has been given the past few years to his Bridgewater-led offense, but he cut his teeth as a hard-nosed defensive coordinator. What will he bring to Texas?

-- Michael Kurtz, Roseburg, Ore.

He flew under the radar because most of us who cover the sport assumed Strong -- so notoriously uncomfortable dealing with media and public obligations -- would not be seen as a good fit by Texas, whose previous coach, Mack Brown, was at times almost a de facto television host. It's still hard to believe. But there's no denying Strong's coaching credentials. Louisville's program had zero momentum when he arrived in late 2010. Four years later it's a top 15 program, about to join a power conference. Bridgewater was clearly his most important recruit and the face of the Cardinals, but he was hardly the only reason Louisville went 12-1 this season. It took several years of recruiting, but in 2013 the Cardinals' defense led the nation in yards allowed per game (251.5), exactly what you would expect from a Strong-coached team. Urban Meyer would not have two BCS titles today without the then-coordinator's suffocating '06 and '08 Florida defenses.

Football-wise, Strong may be exactly what the Longhorns need. They have quite clearly needed a kick in the rear the past couple of years under Brown, and no one will likely accuse Strong's teams of being soft. But there's a lot still to be determined. Strong has recruited well everywhere he's been, but he has no deep ties in the Lone Star State. He'll need a few plugged-in guys on his staff, one of which could be his current defensive coordinator, Texas native Vance Bedford. Strong said at his news conference that he'll run an up-tempo offense befitting the Big 12, so it will be interesting to see his coordinator choice. But most of all, how will a guy who once banned the media from covering spring practice deal with the soap-opera elements that perennially hover over the state capital's team, like prominent booster Red McCombs this week publicly deriding Strong as "a great position coach, maybe a coordinator?" Welcome to Texas, Charlie. Of course the obvious solution to this problem is, win, immediately. If he does that, Strong will control the message in Austin.

The real team that ended the SEC streak isn't Florida State. ... it's the Texas Longhorns. If Texas decided to skip to the Pac-10 a couple of years ago, the trickle-down ramifications probably end with Florida State and Clemson in the SEC. What says you?

-- Brad M, Baltimore

I say it's amazing we made it nearly the entire season without a realignment Armageddon e-mail.

Stewart, in your Jan. 3 Mailbag you stated Oklahoma's 36-20 loss to Texas on Oct. 12 was one of the five most inexplicable results of 2013. What, in your opinion, were the other four?

-- Morgan, Jacksonville, Fla.

Excluding the various early-season FCS-over-FBS oddities (because North Dakota State is a machine and may very well have beaten Kansas State if they had met again in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl), I'd go with 2-10 Virginia's season-opening 19-16 win over 8-5 BYU (though that game was played in a monsoon), 4-8 West Virginia's 30-21 win over 10-3 Oklahoma State on Sept. 28, 5-7 Utah's 27-21 win over 11-3 Stanford on Oct. 12 and 5-7 Tennessee's 23-21 win over 11-2 South Carolina on Oct. 19.

The significance of that last one didn't fully hit me until the final AP poll came out last Monday. South Carolina the fourth-best team in the country? Really? But upon looking a little closer, the Gamecocks finished with wins over three other top 10 teams, No. 5 Missouri (12-2), No. 8 Clemson (11-2) and No. 10 UCF (12-1), all three of them major bowl winners. That's pretty impressive. Meanwhile, the Volunteers followed up their one notable victory with a 45-10 loss at Alabama, a 31-3 loss at Missouri and a 55-23 loss to Auburn. How on earth did South Carolina lose that game, and how on earth did Oklahoma score more than twice as many points against Alabama (45) than it did against Texas (20)?

Oh that's right. It's college football.

Hi Stewart, UCF certainly caught some eyes this bowl season. Was this just a magical year where everything came together for the Knights? Or are they in position to challenge Florida's Big Three long term?

-- Leah, Edmonton

If UCF is on the radar in Canada, you know it's doing something right.

There was nothing fluky about the Knights' season. They won multiple big games -- at Penn State, at Louisville and against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl -- and their only loss was by three points to a season-ending top 5 team (South Carolina). It took George O'Leary nearly a decade to build Central Florida to this pinnacle, but with all the talent in the Sunshine State, we've long known there was probably room for a fourth major program. Of course, we assumed it would be USF, who joined the Big East eight years earlier and teased us at times during the Jim Leavitt era. There's some delicious schadenfreude in UCF getting there first after South Florida's president, Judy Genshaft reportedly spent so long blocking that school's rival program from joining her conference that her obstruction contributed to the league's eventual demise.

Unfortunately, the American conference's diminished state in the new postseason will likely prevent the Knights from ever achieving FSU-Florida-Miami type prominence. The gaps, both financially and perception-wise, may be too vast for any program outside the Power 5 to ever become a consistent national power. But by getting in under the BCS wire like it did, UCF built credibility that will certainly help as it contends among many others for the annual "Group of 5" selection committee bowl berth. Furthermore, with Louisville leaving for the ACC, there may be a window of opportunity for the Knights to remain atop the American. But more pertinently, UCF is losing a likely first-round quarterback (Blake Bortles) and an elite running back (Storm Johnson) to the NFL a year earlier than expected, so O'Leary could be facing some rebuilding of his own.

I know there are five minutes left in the first half, but I told you the buildup to this game felt like 2006 Ohio State-Florida with FSU playing the role of Ohio State, the patsy.

-- Joe Tucker, Clearwater, Fla.

Let's see. Those Buckeyes and these Seminoles both returned kickoffs for touchdowns in the game. So you still have that going for you.

I can't think of a more hilariously appropriate way for the BCS to go out than to give us probably its best slate of games ever. Seriously, has there ever been a better year for the BCS games top to bottom?

-- Greg, Fredericksburg, Va.

Nope. It went 5-for-5 in entertainment value, topping the previous-best 2005-06 four-game lineup. Be sure to pay the BCS its proper respects. It didn't go down without a fight.

Hello Stewart. Auburn and FSU played about as evenly matched a title game as we have ever seen. Either team could have won and been deserving, but the clock ran out on Auburn. However, Auburn had already run the gauntlet in the SEC, beating nearly every team that should have been in the Top 10. How is it that Auburn didn't end up ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll, or at least receive some No. 1 votes?

-- Eric, Grand Rapids, Mich.

And that's why the playoff can't come soon enough.

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