Florida State finishes unblemished, and its best football is still to come

Behind freshman running back Dalvin Cook, the Florida State Seminoles won the ACC championship over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and proved themselves worthy of a College Football Playoff spot.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jalen Ramsey and the Florida State Seminoles won’t be sweating out Sunday afternoon’s College Football Playoff selection. They believe they’ll be in, and they believe they deserve to be there as the only undefeated team in FBS and the champion of a Power Five conference after beating Georgia Tech, 37-35, on Saturday night.

“There better not be drama,” Ramsey said.

The Seminoles have heard every excuse why they don't belong in the conversation with the other national title contenders. They're flawed. They don't control games. They haven’t played anybody. They’re not the team they were last year.

• RICKMAN: Florida State makes compelling playoff case, tops Georgia Tech

“Last year’s team was dominating,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This year’s team, to me, the word is amazing.”

When the rankings come out on Sunday, it’d be a shock if the Seminoles weren’t in the top four. They played an entire season of ‘almosts’ and exited without a loss. No one else can claim that. Not Oregon with Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota. Not the pair of Big 12 teams (Baylor and TCU) jabbing at each other in a real-time political ad. Not Ohio State and its revolving door of quarterbacks. Not even Almighty Alabama.

Everybody has a loss. Everybody except Florida State. And if the regular season was its own mini playoff, the ‘Noles survived. Nobody’s claiming they looked good doing it. But they survived.

The scary thing: Florida State hasn’t played its best game yet. And the Seminoles know it.

“We’ve got a whole lot left in us,” cornerback P.J. Williams said. “I think it’s definitely going to come out.”

The goal all along in this new system is to get into the top four by any means necessary. Florida State took the phrase “by any means necessary” quite literally. The Seminoles easily could have lost, in any number of creative ways, to Clemson, to NC State, to Notre Dame, to Louisville, to Miami, to Boston College, to Florida, or to Georgia Tech. Had that happened, their playoff hopes would have vanished.

• HAMILTON: Ohio State crushes Wisconsin behind third-string QB Jones

But they didn’t. And there’s something to be said about the team’s ability to win despite itself. With a month to improve, get some players healthy and absorb some of the lessons they’ve learned in the latter half of the season, the Seminoles could be the team people overlook. It’s crazy to think the defending national champs are in that role, but here they are.

With a multitude of injuries (especially on defense), young guys have worked into the rotation and been trusted in critical moments. It's a “next guy up mentality,” according to cornerback P.J. Williams, and nowhere did it manifest itself better than at running back, where freshman Dalvin Cook started in place of a concussed Karlos Williams.

Cook responded in a big way, as he has frequently, running for 177 yards and a touchdown to earn the game’s MVP honors. On some carries, he’d flash inside to pick up tough yards. On others, he’d bounce it to the edge and gain 20. This isn’t news to anyone who has watched the Seminoles recently -- over the past several weeks, Cook has often looked like the best player on an offense filled with stars and the reigning Heisman winner.

He doesn’t just have the talent to be Florida State’s next great running back. He might already be one. To have him playing with such confidence, along with a more effective Jameis Winston (who threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets), it takes pressure off the offense. And the whole team could probably relax.

“I felt like a burden came off this team,” Fisher said. “I really did because I saw them loosen up and I saw them practice and I saw them see that it’s playoff time and you can see the end. You can see the finish line.”

• ELLIS: Alabama displays its prowess again in lopsided SEC title game

If the ‘Noles stay at No. 4, they’d likely get No. 1 Alabama, which looked as impressive as it has all season in its win over Missouri on Saturday. That’d be a “dream come true” for Winston, a Hueytown, Ala. native. One thing was clear from all the Florida State players about their potential matchup. They just want an opportunity. They want a chance to prove the doubters wrong.

“Whoever we play – they’re gonna get it,” Ramsey said.

Florida State may not be last year’s Florida State on the field, but the Seminoles haven’t lost one single shred of their confidence. And while it may be hard to believe that they are undefeated, they remain unblemished. As Fisher said on Saturday, that’s significant.