Seminoles find way back to top

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The symmetry of the way the BCS era began and ended was not lost on Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

The Seminoles played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1999, losing to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. They came right back the next year and won the title with a 46-29 victory over Virginia Tech and its freshman phenom quarterback Michael Vick in the Sugar Bowl.

Fisher’s own brilliant freshman quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, took the helm with 79 seconds left Monday at the Rose Bowl, piloting the Seminoles into the end zone for the game winner, a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with just 13 scant seconds left.

This time, Auburn was unable to pull a magic trick and find a way to conjure up yet another miracle finish. Frantic final score: Florida State 34, Auburn 31.

It took everything the Seminoles had, including a rally from an 18-point first-half deficit and 21 points in the fourth quarter. But when it finally ended, Florida State had done what no one else could for almost a decade: wrench the BCS trophy’s Waterford crystal football out of the greedy hands of the Southeastern Conference.

As the non-SEC college football world rejoices, Fisher sounded a note of warning at his champions news conference Tuesday morning:

College football may have switched one dynasty for another.

“I think its very fitting that Florida State has come back full circle,” Fisher with a grin that illustrated what the Cheshire cat would look like if he owned a whistle and a clipboard. “Maybe we don’t play in the SEC, but we play in the south and we play good football. And Florida State, it’s like the reckoning.

“Things are getting back in order again.”

Cue the ominous organ music, please.

If you’re a long-time college football follower, it isn’t hard to recollect how great FSU once was, the glory that was (dramatic pause) Tallahassee.

For 14 straight years starting in 1987, FSU finished in the top five of the final rankings, claiming two national championships along the way.

As amazing as that achievement was, it’s almost as much of a wonder to think how Florida State has been missing from college football’s elite for more than a decade.

Last year’s team gave an indication of things to come. The Seminoles went 12-2 and won the ACC championship, but that was with a senior quarterback in E.J. Manuel and 10 other players who departed for the NFL.

Six coaches left as well, among them defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to become head coach at Kentucky. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, not a re-crowning year for Florida State.

But Fisher, Winston, Benjamin, Lamarcus Joyner and the rest of Florida State’s team dared to dream they could be great back when preseason practice began.

“It’s good to be the king,” Fisher joked.

He was actually referring to a question about throwing Winston out of a recent practice back home. The young quarterback was getting too smart for his britches as the two locked horns over how to run a two-minute drill. But the analogy was fitting nonetheless.

The Seminoles had only eight senior starters on this 14-0 team. They and what Fisher feels will be a small handful of underclassmen will leave for the NFL.

But Winston, only a sophomore next season in terms of eligibility, will be back. He and the returning cast around him were already enough to have ESPN plant a big old preseason No. 1 target on FSU’s back immediately after the game, a confidence that will no doubt be shared by lots of preseason polls and magazines before the next season kicks off in August.

The key, as Fisher saw first-hand after the 2003 BCS championship season when he was offensive coordinator at LSU, is to find a way to keep your edge as a program after completing such a difficult task.

“Once expectations get so high, (the thing) is to not let complacency set in,” he said.

“You take winning for granted. You take success for granted. And how hard it is to win football games. If you ever lose that edge, that chip on your shoulder, you’re just another team. I don’t care how talented you are.

“That’s our nature as humans. It’s not to push. It’s not to grind. That’s why there’s just one champion at the end.”

Fisher knows the way. He’s learned under national championship coaches like Bobby Bowden and Nick Saban and Les Miles. And his program’s address is in Florida, a state that is to high school football talent what the Persian Gulf is to oil.

The reckoning may be just about to start.