CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They talked about Pasadena, spoke about the final destination within the confines of their team meeting rooms and practice fields.
Now that the moment had arrived, what unfolded seemed surreal. Florida State players dangled roses and put on championship hats and T-shirts after a 45-7 rout of No. 20 Duke in the ACC title game Saturday assured them a spot in the BCS national championship game.
But senior receiver Kenny Shaw admitted afterward what he and his teammates had accomplished was still hitting him. He flashed back to his freshman season, arriving on campus as part of Jimbo Fisher's first recruiting class.
The first week brought the first surprise: a conditioning test. Nobody passed. Not even close. "We died," he recalled. The first thought: Florida State was going to be miserable place to be for the long haul. But he knew, and the players in his class knew, Florida State ultimately would win championships again. The misery would have a payoff, somehow, some way.
"We did envision this after last season, because we felt like we left a lot on the table," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We felt like there was so much that we were supposed to accomplish that we came back and we had a little -- not a vendetta ... it was just a reckoning. We tried to put ourselves back to where we were supposed to be."
Anybody with any doubts about the schedule Florida State plays should check out Florida State itself, brimming with one NFL prospect after another, a year after losing 11 players to the draft.
Though Florida State did not play its best game against Duke, leading just 17-0 at halftime, you got the feeling the onslaught would be a formality given the sheer talent advantage on the side of the Seminoles. Indeed, Florida State scored 21 third-quarter points to effectively put the game out of reach, extending its domination over a Duke program that has never won a game in the series.
It seems only appropriate, then, that Florida State will get to face off against the SEC and Auburn in the BCS national title game. The conference that has lorded over not only college football but the ACC in particular has boasted for seven consecutive years that it has the most talent in America and the best teams in America.
Florida State, finally, seems ready to answer that argument. Nobody had more players drafted into the NFL last year. Not Alabama. Not LSU. When asked about the prospect of taking down the SEC, Seminoles players were not quite ready to start trash-talking a league that has come to dominate the ACC during regular-season matchups. Just last weekend, the ACC went 1-3 against the SEC, with Florida State posting the only victory, over Florida.
"I feel like the ACC is one of the best conferences in the nation," Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. "We've got a lot of great players."
So from a players' vantage point, is it irksome that the SEC is declared the best in America without much question or debate?
"Not even, not at all," Benjamin said. "The national championship is not here yet. We'll show them who the best is."
Fisher has molded his program into an SEC program, learning under Nick Saban and coaching at SEC schools. He served as quarterbacks coach at Auburn from 1993-98. He is intricately familiar with how the conference works, and how many of the programs in the conference work. It is no coincidence he has gotten to this level, then, following a similar framework.
The ACC has not had a team play for a national championship since Florida State faced Oklahoma following the 2000 season. It has watched every other conference get a swing at the SEC in the BCS national championship game and miss.
Now it finally gets its turn, with the undisputed No. 1 team in America, loaded with prospects and the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Jameis Winston. The ACC has waited on this moment, to finally stand on the top of the college football world.
Stepping on the SEC and ending its championship hold would make the victory all the more rewarding.
To Pasadena, then.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jameis Winston stood on a stage wearing a white T-shirt and black baseball cap proclaiming his team ACC champion, dancing and laughing and smiling as he waited to accept his MVP award.
This was not a man burdened, or a personality dimmed, by controversy. He had abruptly ended a postgame TV interview when he grew tired of the questions about the sexual-assault investigation that came to an end this week without charges being filed, but when he grabbed the microphone on that stage just a few moments later, he preached with the same gregarious enthusiasm that has endeared him to Florida State fans all season.
Winston struggled in the early going of Saturday's 45-7 win over Duke that assured his team a spot in the BCS National Championship, but he was quick to denounce any insinuations that he'd been distracted by three weeks of innuendo and speculation and, in the end, relief.
If there was any mark of the scandal that dogged Winston's final push toward a national championship, it came entirely from the veiled questions from reporters and never from the man himself.
Florida State appears set to play Auburn in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6, and Winston's meteoric rise from hyped freshman to Heisman favorite has been the catalyst.
Against Duke, he wasn't at his best, but he still was exceptional. Winston completed 19 of 32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions, added another 59 yards and a score on the ground, and Florida State rolled past Duke to yet another easy win. It was Winston's sixth game accounting for at least four touchdowns, his seventh throwing for at least 300 yards. He set a new FBS record for touchdowns and passing yards by a freshman in the process.
After the game, confetti rained down on Winston and coach Jimbo Fisher, and Florida State players romped around the field at Bank of America Stadium with roses jutting from their mouths. Florida State is 13-0, having won every game by at least two touchdowns, having dominated the four ranked opponents it faced by a combined score of 200-35. It was, linebacker Telvin Smith said, "a reckoning."
But Saturday's win was also a turning point, when the conversations finally could shift from the off-field drama to the on-field celebration.
"I think my teammates were more relieved than I was," Winston said. "It was a process, and we've got to keep moving forward."
That's what the process has been for Winston. The external distractions never filtered into the locker room, and the football field was a sanctuary from the chaos that surrounded him. That chaos came to an end Thursday, and Winston's march toward a berth in the BCS title game followed two days later.
"To already have so much pressure and stress on him, and then to add on to the negativity," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "He embraced it and kept fighting for us. He could've easily went into a tank. To keep all the weight on his shoulders because of his [teammates], he's a special young man, and he deserves everything he gets."
Winston has asked for little attention or praise. He won game MVP honors Saturday, and he is expected to be awarded the Heisman Trophy next weekend, but as he has all season, he shifted the attention to his teammates.
And throughout the past month, as Winston's name was linked to ugly accusations and each of his public appearances became sideshows with hordes of reporters hoping he'd address the one topic Florida State staff assured wouldn't be discussed, it was his teammates who insulated Winston from the distractions.
On Saturday, they celebrated together, Winston again in the spotlight, looking as comfortable to be there as he has been all year. A national championship game awaits, and Winston isn't spending time worrying about what's already behind him.
"We done made it to where we are," Winston said, "and we're not done yet."
The BCS bowl matchups won't be announced until Sunday night, but we can give our best projection now of what those matchups will be.
Here is how we think things will shake out for each of the five BCS games, including a look at what variables are still in play for each.
VIZIO BCS National Championship
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