NCF Nation: Kelvin Benjamin

The dust has settled after the NFL draft, and it was another solid showing by the ACC. Overall, the league had 42 players selected, the second most in ACC history and the second most by any conference this year (trailing only the SEC’s 48).

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Elsa/Getty ImagesFormer Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was the first ACC player selected (No. 4 overall) in the NFL draft.
Four of the first 14 players selected in this year’s draft came from the ACC, led by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (No. 4 overall to the Buffalo Bills) and UNC tight end Eric Ebron (No. 10 to the Detroit Lions). Five ACC players were taken in the first round and 10 more were selected in the second and third rounds.

For the second straight year, Florida State led all ACC schools in players drafted. Seven Seminoles were selected throughout the weekend, starting with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in round 1 by the Carolina Panthers and ending with linebacker Telvin Smith in round 5 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past two years, Florida State has had 18 players drafted by NFL teams.

Of course, it wasn’t just strength at the top for the ACC. All 14 programs had at least one player selected this year, including five apiece from Clemson and North Carolina and four from Boston College.

New addition Louisville, which officially enters the ACC next month, had four players selected this year, including three (Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Teddy Bridgewater) in the first round.

Three ACC quarterbacks were selected, led by Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas (No. 120). Pitt’s Tom Savage (No. 135) and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (No. 213) were also taken.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell was taken with pick No. 109 by the Bills, becoming just the third Blue Devils player drafted since 2001. He was also the highest-selected Duke defensive player since Mike Junkin was taken fifth overall in 1987.

Miami had three players selected over the weekend (Brandon Linder, Pat O'Donnell and Seantrel Henderson), extending its streak of consecutive years with at least one player drafted to 41. Florida State and Virginia extended streaks of their own to 32 years.

Of the ACC underclassmen who declared for this year’s draft, four went undrafted. FSU running back James Wilder Jr. inked a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, Syracuse running back Jerome Smith signed with the Atlanta Falcons and NC State defensive lineman Carlos Gray signed with the Green Bay Packers.

Among other notable undrafted free agents in the league, former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris signed with Jacksonville, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner inked a deal with Denver, FSU receiver Kenny Shaw signed with Cleveland, Tar Heels offensive lineman James Hurst signed with the Ravens and former BC quarterback Chase Rettig signed with Green Bay.
Russell A. Griffin in Sea Girt, N.J., sent this note into the mailbag: Hi, Andrea. In 2012, when FSU lost so many to the NFL draft, sports analysts we're saying that 2013 would be the year FSU would step back a bit and that 2014 would be its year. Clemson was the team to beat in 2013. I realize no one would have thought about how good Jameis [Winston] was going to be. The analysts said 2014 would be FSU's year to step up. With all that in mind, well, it’s 2014. If last year was the year to step back, imagine what this year should be like. Granted, 2014 is going to be tougher since the schedule is tougher. I know, it is always harder to repeat. I will be at the games against Oklahoma State and later at Louisville. Go Noles.

Griffin brings up a terrific point. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Florida State blew the doors off that notion. Are the Seminoles going to go unbeaten again? ACC reporter Andrea Adelson and Florida State reporter Jared Shanker debate the odds.

AA gives Florida State a 25 percent chance of going undefeated.

SportsNation

What are the chances Florida State goes unbeaten this year?

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    17%
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    21%
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    22%
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    28%
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    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,027)

Florida State is good enough to go undefeated. But being good enough to win all your games and actually winning all your games are two different matters entirely (see: Crimson Tide, Alabama). There are a few reasons why I think the Seminoles won’t run the table.

First, strength of schedule. Florida State trades in Nevada and Idaho (combined 5-19 last season) for Oklahoma State and Notre Dame (combined 19-7 a year ago). Not to mention trading Atlantic Division teams Maryland (7-6) for Louisville (12-1). Not only are the teams better, but there will be a cumulative effect of playing much tougher competition.

With the exception of the BC game, Florida State never had reason to play its starters for a full game during the regular season last fall. But that is not going to be the case in 2014. More playing time means more wear and tear on the starters, and more wear and tear on the starters means you need to rely on your backups to play many more meaningful minutes.

This leads to my second point. Florida State lacks depth on its offensive and defensive lines, and that could be a problem. The biggest concern should rest with the defensive front, where the Seminoles lost a ton of talent early to the NFL and was therefore low on players in the spring. Depth is vital, most especially late in games, when the big guys up front start to get gassed. What happens against high-tempo teams such as Oklahoma State and Louisville if the depth is lacking and the game is on the line?

Finally, what will Winston do for an encore with the spotlight shining even brighter than last season? Florida State needs a much more mature, much more focused Winston in 2014. He doesn’t have a Kelvin Benjamin to bail him out in the end zone. He has no 1,000-yard back returning. There are terrific players around him, and Winston has to learn how to trust them all from the outset while the media dissects every move he makes.

We saw what a focused Winston can do under that glare of the end of the BCS national championship game. But we also saw what do-it-all-myself Winston can do under that glare in the first three quarters of that game, too.

I still believe Florida State has as good a shot as any team in America to make the College Football Playoff. I just don’t think the Seminoles make it there unscathed.

Jared Shanker gives Florida State a 35 percent chance of going undefeated.

Florida State is looking to become the first team in college football history to go 15-0 and to win the inaugural College Football Playoff. The good news for the Seminoles is, unlike in previous seasons, going undefeated is not required to win the 2014 national championship.

The Noles, as a potentially unanimous preseason No. 1, will have the most leeway when it comes to suffering a loss and still being in the discussion for one of the four playoff seeds. Looking at the 2014 schedule, its roster and trying to account for the multitude of unknowns every season presents, it is hard to see Florida State going through another season undefeated.

As AA pointed out first, the schedule is tougher this fall. While Oklahoma State is rebuilding, coach Mike Gundy has that program in good enough shape that an upset of the defending champions in Week 1 would not be a total shock. The Fighting Irish are on the schedule, and whether it is Everett Golson or Malik Zaire taking snaps, both look capable of leading an offense and the Irish into a playoff berth. Bobby Petrino is tearing Louisville down and rebuilding it in his own image, but any Thursday night road game presents unique challenges.

Injuries are also the great unknown for every team, and Florida State remained relatively healthy throughout the 2013 season. Winston avoided significant injury last season, and with arguably the country’s best starting offensive line in front of him, he again could go the entire season without any major bumps. However, the nature of the position often leaves quarterbacks vulnerable, and there is no telling how FSU would fare if it is without Winston for any amount of time.

Even a healthy Winston could see a decline in production this fall with new faces throughout his receiver corps. Rashad Greene returns, but no longer is Benjamin or Kenny Shaw around to redirect double teams. The revamped unit showed some flashes during the spring game, but there is reason to worry about whether the receivers will step up in the fall. Several talented freshmen enter the fold this summer, and while freshmen across the country are making earlier impacts than ever before, it is still premature to expect Ermon Lane, Ja’Von Harrison or Travis Rudolph to replicate Benjamin’s or Shaw’s numbers immediately.

What Florida State does have is as much talent as just about any team in the country. Only Alabama has recruited better the past few years, and the Noles are loaded with talent from top to bottom. However, a decent portion of that talent is inexperienced. Certainly those new faces could exceed their predecessors' production, but it will not happen overnight. Defensively, breaking in coordinator Charles Kelly could add to the early-season learning curve as that side of the ball adjusts to a handful of new starters and is without vocal leaders Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith.

The odds of going undefeated being at 35 percent are still the highest in the country potentially, but that is not where I would put my money if I was a betting man. I’m much more inclined to believe Florida State enters the playoff as a one-loss team.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Most coaches keep practices behind closed doors. They don’t want any important information finding its way to opponents.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, however, graciously tipped his hand Wednesday when asked about what new formations and which underclassman receivers could mitigate the departure of potential first-round NFL draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, all 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds of him.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield isn't going to do the same things Kelvin Benjamin did in the Florida State passing game, but his speed could be every bit as dangerous to defenses.
“I’ll stack Bobo (Jesus Wilson) and Kermit (Levonte Whitfield) on top of each other,” quipped Fisher, clearly armed in anticipation of a question on his receivers’ height. Wilson stands 5-foot-9 and Whitfield is 5-7.

The humor could be a deflection as Fisher masks any possible concerns about replacing Benjamin, who at Tuesday’s pro day showcased a rare catching radius and leaping ability that no player on the Seminoles’ current roster has illustrated. Senior Rashad Greene's presence is vital, as he led the team with 76 catches last season, but no other returning receiver had more than 13 catches in 2013, which leaves mostly a unit with little to no in-game seasoning.

But while Benjamin’s size and strength combination won’t be replaced by anyone on the roster in its current form, his Tallahassee exit doesn’t necessarily mean a step in the wrong direction for the Seminoles offense. Whitfield and Wilson are small packages of instant offense. Whitfield initially trumpeted his speed for Florida State fans with touchdowns of 31 and 74 yards the first two times he rushed the ball, and then for a national audience with a 100-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter of the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

“You can jump or you can run there -- there are two different avenues [to catch the ball],” Fisher said. “Bobo and Kermit, those guys get the ball short and it’s hard to get them on the ground.”

Quarterback Jameis Winston knows receivers like Benjamin do not come around often, but he said neither do players with the acceleration and speed of Whitfield and Wilson.

“Kermit and Bobo, they’re going to catch the ball and you’re not going to tackle them,” Winston said. “Bobo is as electric as Kermit, but Kermit is special. And those guys can jump, and I’m pretty sure they can dunk.”

Expecting the talented but inexperienced Whitfield, Wilson, Jarred Haggins and 6-4 sophomore Isaiah Jones to quickly jell with Winston in the passing game is oversimplifying an issue that requires a quarterback and receiver to connect on an innate level. Official practice time is in short supply this spring in Tallahassee as Winston bounces between football and baseball, which will cost him Saturday’s practice.

Yet as foolish as it would be to assume Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t be missed, at this point it would be equally ill-advised to doubt any aspect of the team Winston touches.

“We trust all the guys we got. That’s why we come to Florida State, to win championships, and we've got great players,” Winston said. “It’s going to be a fast adjustment with timing, and we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
The news was hardly a surprise, but Florida State nevertheless could breathe an immense sigh of relief when Rashad Greene announced he’d be back for his senior season in 2014. There are more talented, more highly regarded players from the Seminoles’ national championship team departing for the NFL, but perhaps no one on the current FSU roster was more crucial in 2014 than Greene. He was practically irreplaceable.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsRashad Green had a team-high 76 catches in 2013, including 9 in the national title game.
The run-up to the start of the 2013 season was a disaster for Florida State’s receiver group. Greg Dent was expected to blossom into a consistent threat, but instead spent the year awaiting a trial for sexual assault. Willie Haulstead figured to return from more than two years saddled with the lingering effects of a concussion, but academics ended his season before it began. Jarred Haggins was poised for a far bigger role, but a knee injury relegated him to the sidelines.

What was left for Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense was essentially a three-man show: Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw. Of Winston’s 384 pass attempts in 2013, he targeted his big three receivers 279 times (73 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The tight rotation actually proved to be a benefit. Greene, Benjamin and Shaw all enjoyed breakout seasons, with the former two topping 1,000 yards for the season. But as Florida State looks to 2014, the lack of established depth at the position means a massive rebuilding project must begin, with Greene providing the foundation.

Shaw is graduating. Benjamin departed early for the NFL. Winston’s top three targets out of the backfield all moved on as well. Aside from Greene, the current Florida State roster accounts for just 44 of Winston’s completions, the bulk of those to tight end Nick O’Leary.

So as the enthusiasm builds for a repeat performance by the Seminoles’ high-flying offense thanks to the return of the Heisman Trophy winner and four-fifths of his offensive line, the obvious question is: Who will be catching all of those throws?

Greene’s 76 catches last season were the second-most in Florida State history. It seems likely that number will increase in 2014. Even with tempting options in Shaw, O’Leary and Benjamin, Winston targeted Greene on more than 30 percent of his throws last year.

Greene was fond of telling the story of Florida State’s receivers meeting last summer to discuss the new quarterback running the offense. It would be up to them, Greene said, to make Winston comfortable, to do their jobs so well it made his job easy. In 2014, Greene’s role will be similar, except he’ll now be mentoring a young group of receivers around him, too.

Kermit Whitfield is electric with the ball in his hands, one of college football’s fastest players. He figures to be a nice fit to replace Shaw as the team’s top slot receiver, but he caught just five passes in 2013 -- none from Winston.

Benjamin’s loss provides an even bigger hole. Receivers who are 6-foot-5, 235 pounds and can run and jump effortlessly are rare gems. Still, tall receivers have been a cornerstone of Florida State’s offense, from Greg Carr to Rodney Smith to Benjamin. The last time the Seminoles didn’t have a receiver taller than 6-4 record at least 30 catches and 400 yards was 2005. That role in 2014 figures to fall to 6-4 Isaiah Jones, who caught just two passes for 31 yards as a freshman last season. And while he offers height similar to Benjamin, he checks in almost 40 pounds lighter and is hardly the same matchup nightmare as his predecessor.

Teammates raved about Jesus Wilson’s work on the practice field in 2013, and he’ll get his share of reps, too. Christian Green will be back again, but after a solid freshman campaign in 2011, he’s all but disappeared in the past two seasons. Haggins returns from the knee injury, too, but since Oct. 13, 2012, his combined stat line looks like this: 1 catch, 1 yard.

All of that is simply to underscore the importance of Greene in FSU’s 2014 passing game. His fellow receivers have potential, but Greene is the established weapon. And while the losses of Shaw and Benjamin are big, it’s worth remembering that Winston’s favorite weapon remains.

On third down last season, Winston targeted Greene 27 times -- nearly twice as often as any other receiver on the team. His 18 third-down catches doubled the next closest receiver, and all 18 went for first downs. Winston’s other returning star, O’Leary, converted 8 of 9 third-down targets, too.

In the red zone in 2013, Greene was again Winston’s top target (14 throws) and receiver (eight catches), and he and O’Leary accounted for nearly half of Winston’s red-zone targets.

In short, few receivers made more catches when it mattered most. Fifty of Greene’s receptions went for a first down, tied for third among ACC receivers. And no player on Florida State’s offense has been as consistent. Greene has led the team in receiving in each of his first three seasons in Tallahassee. He needs 41 more catches and 1,133 more yards in 2014 to match FSU’s career receiving marks.

Of course, as good as Greene has been, the onus will still fall to his emerging teammates to draw the attention of safeties away from him and provide Winston with a wider variety of weapons at his disposal. That development remains a work in progress for the next seven months, but Greene’s ability to handle double coverage, to make the big plays when it matters most, to set the standard for game day on the practice field during the week -- that makes the jobs of everyone around him much easier.

For an offense that returns so many stars in 2014, Greene will again be the cornerstone.

The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:

Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Jones
AP Photo/Phil SearsIsaiah Jones (right) caught only two passes as a freshman, but Kelvin Benjamin's departure means he'll have to play a bigger role.
The replacement: Isaiah Jones. He is 6-foot-4, but he lacks Benjamin's physical strength (he weighs about 35 pounds less). Christian Green also could be an answer after playing sparingly the past two seasons. He's 6-foot-2 and known for his speed. He had 26 catches for 450 yards as a freshman in 2011 but has just 16 catches for 190 yards in the two seasons since. As far as a true red zone target and receiver who can win the jump balls, tight end Nick O'Leary will likely get the bulk of the throws that went to Benjamin in 2013.

Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine

The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.

Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland

The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.

Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant

The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.

Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron

The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.

Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman

The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.

Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan

The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.

Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith

The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.

Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.

Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.

The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.
Florida State finished off a spectacular season with a national championship, and with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Jalen Ramsey and a host of other stars returning for 2014, the expectations for next season are already sky high.

So if FSU is going to repeat as national champs, what are the big stumbling blocks on the road ahead? We take a look at the top five.

1. Rebuilding the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWith Timmy Jernigan heading to the NFL, Florida State will have a big hole to fill in the middle of its line.
With Timmy Jernigan leaving early for the NFL draft -- he’s widely considered a top-15 pick — Florida State will have a huge hole in the middle of the line. But the Seminoles also need to find someone to rush off the edge, as Christian Jones did throughout the season and develop some depth after waving goodbye to Demonte McAllister and Dan Hicks. Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and others could fill those voids, but it will be incumbent on emerging stars Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to step up their games, too.

2. Developing new receivers.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was nevertheless a relief when Greene decided to return for his senior season. Florida State’s receiving corps was exceptional in 2013, but it wasn’t deep. Kenny Shaw is moving on, and Kelvin Benjamin could follow. That leaves Greene as FSU’s only established, consistent receiver. Isaiah Jones, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield all got a taste of playing time in 2013, but they’ll need to do a lot more next season.

3. Finding new leaders on defense.

This might be the toughest task for Florida State. Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Jones and Jernigan weren’t simply the defensive standouts on the field, they were the heart and soul of the unit in the locker room. There’s still plenty of talent remaining on the unit, but no one who has had to step up and galvanize a locker room or push the younger players to work harder. Finding leaders on that side of the ball — Edwards, Goldman, Terrance Smith and Ronald Darby, perhaps — will be crucial to maintaining the unit’s immense production in 2014.

4. Managing the schedule.

If the knock on Florida State this season was that it wasn’t tested until the title game, the concern for 2014 might be that there are simply too many big tests. The Seminoles open in Dallas against Oklahoma State, but also have Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida before the season is out. If this title was a victory for the ACC’s legitimacy on a national stage, the 2014 slate for Florida State only underscores how much tougher winning the league will be going forward.

5. Handling the hype.

It’s one thing to win when no one is expecting it. Winning when everyone has you pegged as No. 1 is a whole other challenge. Florida State will enjoy its national championship now, but in 2014, everyone will be gunning for the Seminoles, and the media scrutiny will be immense. Can Winston go a full offseason as a Heisman winner and national champion and not waver from his commitment to getting better? Can the coaching staff maintain that same level of dedication from a group that already has a title on its résumé? There’s a reason so few teams repeat as champions. It’s really hard to do.

Video: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin

January, 7, 2014
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ACC reporter Heather Dinich talks with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin following the Seminoles' 34-31 victory in the Vizio BCS National Championship.
In a game as good as Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship, there are countless storylines to dissect in the aftermath. And as Florida State soaks in its third national championship, we’re only beginning to fully appreciate the effort it took for the Seminoles to get here. So while the celebration in Tallahassee continues, here’s a brief look at some of the most underrated storylines from FSU’s absurd 34-31 win over Auburn.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State RB Devonta Freeman became the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Seminoles since 1996.
Quest for 1,000, Part I: It was an otherwise uninteresting 4-yard rumble on first down late in the third quarter, but it was one of the most statistically significant rushes in Florida State history. The run put Devonta Freeman at exactly 1,000 yards for the season, making him the first FSU back to reach that mark since Warrick Dunn in 1996 and ending the longest active 1,000-yard rusher drought in college football. Freeman finished the season with 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns. More importantly, he was a crucial part of the offense when Jameis Winston struggled early Monday, finishing with 94 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Quest for 1,000, Part II: Freeman’s 1,000th yard came late. Rashad Greene's came early. The junior wide receiver cracked the mark with the second of his nine catches in the title game, finishing the season with 1,128 receiving yards. He’s the first FSU receiver to crack 1,000 since Anquan Boldin did it in 2002. Greene’s impact Monday was huge. He was the only FSU receiver to catch a pass for positive yardage in the first half, and he was responsible for 40 percent of Winston’s targets in the game. Most significant: He had 57 yards on two catches on the winning drive.

Quest for 1,000, Part III: And if Freeman and Greene weren’t enough, sophomore receiver Kelvin Benjamin became the third FSU player to join the 1,000-yard club with his penultimate grab, a crucial 21-yard catch early in the fourth quarter that set up Florida State’s second touchdown. Benjamin ends the season with 1,011 yards. It was a frustrating game at times for Benjamin, who was shut out in the first half and had two crucial second-half drops that ended drives. His final two catches, however, were essential, including the winning touchdown grab.

Special teams was big: Kermit Whitfield's kick return for a score was obviously a turning point in the game, but it was hardly the only crucial play on special teams. The first half, in many ways, was defined by two momentum-shifting punts. The first, by Auburn’s Steven Clark, pinned FSU at its own 2-yard line. Cason Beatty's punt on the ensuing drive netted just 22 yards, and Auburn scored easily to take a 7-3 lead. Tack on three lucky saves in a row for Auburn after muffed punts, the 15-yard penalty that kept FSU from going for two early in the fourth quarter and, perhaps most significant, a missed 33-yard field goal by Auburn's Cody Parkey early in the second quarter and special teams swung the momentum of the game in either direction again and again. As for Whitfield, the true freshman touched the ball just 25 times in 2013 but racked up 818 yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
AP Photo/Gregory BullP.J. Williams' interception led to a touchdown that pulled the Seminoles within one point.
FSU’s young stars: The three biggest plays in the game for Florida State came from Winston (game-winning TD drive), P.J. Williams (game-saving interception) and Whitfield (game-changing kick return). That trio’s total accomplishments prior to this season: 14 tackles by Williams, largely on special teams. In other words, this veteran team that Jimbo Fisher has been slowly building for years won the national title in large part because of the contributions of three players who’d barely seen the field before the start of 2013. That’s a good sign for 2014 at Florida State, too.

Pruitt’s big adjustment: To open the game, FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought pressure on Nick Marshall often, and it wasn’t entirely successful. The Tigers’ QB burned the Seminoles deep on several big plays. But Pruitt adjusted, was more conservative down the stretch, and it worked. Marshall was just 7-of-17 passing with an interception when Florida State brought four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Jernigan’s impact: The stat sheet shows just nine tackles, but anyone who watched Monday’s game knows Timmy Jernigan meant so much more for Florida State’s defense. He was a beast up the middle, shutting down Auburn’s vaunted run game for long stretches and offering next to nothing between the tackles. He clogged gaps and allowed linebacker Telvin Smith to step up and record a game-high 15 tackles. He flushed Marshall out of the pocket repeatedly. Of course, Jernigan was also completely gassed by the end, relegated to the sideline for much of Auburn’s final two scoring drives, and the Tigers’ success without Jernigan in the game was the ultimate proof of what an impact FSU’s under-the-radar defensive tackle actually made.

Winston’s rebound: There were two resounding narratives regarding Florida State entering the game. The first was that Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, would have a field day against an overmatched Auburn secondary. The second was that the untested Seminoles wouldn’t know how to handle a close game in the fourth quarter. It just goes to show that the pregame predictions often don’t amount to much. Winston’s unwavering confidence this season -- particularly on the prime-time stage -- has been Florida State’s hallmark. The “do it big” speech has been played again and again, but Winston was hardly that guy during the first three quarters Monday. His footwork was a mess. He was off target on throws. He was hesitant to release the ball, choosing again and again to tuck and run. He rarely looked downfield in spite of those supposed mismatches for his receiving corps. And yet, when the game was on the line, the QB who’d thrown just 25 fourth-quarter passes all season rebounded by completing 9 of 11 for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s final quarter.

It really was about his teammates: If there was a mantra Winston stuck to this season throughout all the highs and lows, it was that the season -- and his success -- was built on the backs of his teammates. Monday’s national championship proved him right. While Winston struggled early, so many others stepped up. Freeman moved the ball on the ground. Greene provided a reliable target. Fisher called a brilliant fake punt that Karlos Williams managed to execute perfectly. Whitfield returned a kick for a score. The defense held Auburn scoreless on five straight drives -- forcing a turnover along the way -- while Winston slowly chipped away at a 21-3 deficit. Yes, it was the Heisman winner who delivered the winning drive with 1:19 to play, but it was Greene’s spectacular run after a catch and Benjamin’s unparalleled ability to go up for a ball in the end zone that made the difference. For Florida State, 2013 really was about team, no matter how good (or, in Monday’s case, shaky) Winston was along the way.

Wait is over for Florida State

January, 7, 2014
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PASADENA, Calif. -- As the Florida State players emerged from the locker room for the second half of Monday night’s VIZIO BCS National Championship, their confidence unwavering in spite of falling behind against Auburn, receiver Kelvin Benjamin said they all agreed in the huddle that “this is our time.”

Florida State had waited long enough.

With the program’s first national title since 1999 on the line, Florida State found one big play after another -- the kind of explosive, big gains they had made look so easy all season but were so hard to come by against Auburn. It wasn’t just Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who had been pressured all night by Auburn’s defensive line, who delivered in the clutch. It was freshman Kermit Whitfield, one of the fastest young players in the country, whose jaw-dropping, 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter changed the game with blazing speed. It was Rashad Greene, whose ability to split two defenders and run 49 yards off a screen pass extended the game-winning drive. It was Benjamin, whose otherwise quiet night was overshadowed by the game-winning touchdown.

One thing it wasn’t: all about conference supremacy.

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return was just one of many big plays the Seminoles used to win their first national title since 1999.
While so much has been made about the ACC versus the SEC, Monday night’s moment of celebrating a 34-31 win over Auburn was for Florida State, and only Florida State. The Seminoles earned it, collectively. As the players made their way to the locker room after the game, clutching roses between their teeth and already wearing their new hats and T-shirts proclaiming them national champs, it was a celebration of an improbable come-from-behind win -- and more than a decade of waiting for the return to No. 1.

“I have to say, it’s been a four-year evolution to put ourselves in this opportunity,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We talked about being a program, and we wanted to do things right, and we wanted to build the foundation, and these guys have given their hearts and souls to us as coaches and it’s been unbelievable.”

So was the game -- the last of the BCS era.

Florida State’s comeback from 18 points down was the largest in BCS national championship game history. The Noles trailed 21-3 with 5:01 left in the second quarter. It looked like a dud, a collapse on the game’s biggest stage. Florida State’s strength of schedule was once again called into question. So was its offense. And its defense.

None of the players, though, flinched.

“When you train like we do and practice the way we practice, it’s a habit to go out and play hard and compete,” Greene said. “We weren’t worried. I wasn’t nervous at all. Even when they scored and there wasn’t much time on the clock. Honest to god, I still knew we were going to win the game.”

At halftime, Fisher prodded his team to keep blocking on kickoff returns because “Kermit’s going to pop one anytime now.”

Nobody else saw it coming -- and Auburn couldn’t stop it.

Whitfield’s return was the first special teams touchdown in the national title game since 2007, and it gave FSU a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left in the game. Fisher said Whitfield ran a 10.1 in the 100 meters, the third-fastest time in high school history.

“He has great hips, great acceleration, he’s learning our offense and getting the touches,” Fisher said. “But in the open field, he’s as dynamic as anybody in America.”

With Auburn being such an opportunistic team, though, it wasn’t enough. Auburn responded with a touchdown on the next drive to take the 31-27 lead, and Florida State had 1:19 left to win a national title.

From FSU’s own 28-yard line, Winston found Greene for 49 yards, and two plays later the Noles were in the red zone. Greene said he saw “green grass and one defender,” so he got as many yards as he could before stepping out of bounds.

“I knew those guys were physical corners, physical defenders, so it was my job to get physical back with them and create some type of separation, and I was able to do it,” Greene said. “We definitely had that calm mentality, just take a little at a time and they’ll definitely come, and [the big plays] came at the end.”

Indeed, it was finally their time.

Love it or hate it, the BCS delivered a dramatic and fitting ending on Monday night, as No. 1 FSU rallied from from a late four-point deficit in the final two minutes to defeat No. 2 Auburn 34-31 in the final VIZIO BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Seminoles won their third national championship and ended the SEC's reign of seven consecutive BCS national championships.

Play of the game: Trailing 31-27 with about one minute to go, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston threw a 49-yard pass to Rashad Greene to move to Auburn's 23-yard line with 56 seconds to play. Six players later, after Auburn was penalized for pass interference in the end zone, Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin to go ahead for good with 13 seconds to play. FSU's extra point gave it a 34-31 lead.

Turning point: After Auburn took a 24-20 lead with about 4:42 to go, FSU's Levonte Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, giving the Seminoles a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left. Whitfield, a 5-foot-7 freshman known as "Kermit," returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second time this season.

Early turning point: With Auburn holding a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall lofted a 50-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray to stake the Tigers to a 14-3 lead with 13:48 to go in the first half. Ray, a sophomore from Tallahassee, Fla., had four catches for 58 yards this season before hauling in the long touchdown catch against the hometown Seminoles. FSU, which hadn't trailed since falling behind Boston College on Sept. 28 and had led for more than 571 minutes of football before falling behind the Tigers, suddenly trailed by two scores. The Seminoles played catch-up the rest of the night but finally caught the Tigers in the end.

Player of the game: Winston, a redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., got off to a slow start against Auburn's defense, getting sacked four times and fumbling once in the first half. But in the end, Winston broke the Heisman Trophy jinx, throwing the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns.

What it means: The controversial BCS era ends with the SEC being denied its eighth consecutive national championship, which should sit well with college football fans outside of the SEC. In a game in which the SEC seemed most vulnerable during its championship streak, the Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead but couldn't hold on for a victory. The Tigers were denied their second BCS national championship since the 2010 season, when they defeated Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship behind quarterback Cam Newton. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn missed becoming only the second coach -- Miami's Larry Coker was the first -- to lead his team to the national title in his first season since the BCS began in 1998.

Stat that matters: 2-for-12: Florida State won despite going 2-for-12 on third down.

What's next: Florida State will probably be a popular choice to be the No. 1 team in preseason polls heading into the 2014 season. FSU will have to replace several key pieces on defense, including linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. But the Seminoles will bring back Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, along with several of their most important players on offense. Auburn, which reached the BCS national championship in Malzahn's first season, will be among the SEC West favorites in 2014, along with Alabama and LSU. The Tigers will bring back Marshall, but they'll have to wait to see if junior tailback Tre Mason returns to school or enters next spring's NFL draft. Auburn's very young defense will be a lot wiser in coordinator Ellis Johnson's second season, too.

Here’s a quick preview of Monday night’s VIZIO BCS National Championship (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):

Who to watch: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Heisman Trophy winner, who will be playing for a national title on his 20th birthday, has a chance to become the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship. Only one sophomore or freshman starting quarterback has ever won the BCS National Championship, and that was Alabama's AJ McCarron as a sophomore. Winston can also become just the third quarterback since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season. Winston, who has dominated the headlines both on and off the field this season, has proved to be the game’s best player, but Auburn is confident in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s game plan to pressure him into uncharacteristic mistakes.

What to watch: Florida State’s defensive line against Auburn’s offensive line. This matchup will feature two of the nation’s best fronts, which both feature future NFL talent. Auburn’s strength all season has been its running game, and the Tigers have no plans of abandoning that now. The Seminoles, though, have every intent of slowing the Tigers down and forcing them to win with their passing game. Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. The Tigers lead the nation in rushing yards per game and runs of 25 yards or more. Tre Mason leads the SEC in almost every major rushing category, and his seven 100-yard rushing games against SEC defenses are the most in a season for any player in the last 10 seasons. FSU leads the nation in scoring defense, though, and is No. 13 in the country in rushing defense.

Why to watch: The SEC’s streak of seven straight national titles is on the line, and if Auburn wins, the conference will have claimed 10 of the 16 BCS titles. The last time an SEC team lost a true national championship game to a team from outside the conference was when Nebraska beat Florida to end the 1995 season (1996 Fiesta Bowl). Auburn is also playing for the fifth straight national title for the state of Alabama. With wins over then-No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 5 Missouri in its previous two games, Auburn has a chance to become the first team in college football history to win three consecutive games against top-five teams. For Florida State, it’s the program’s first appearance in the BCS National Championship in 13 years. Both coaches -- Auburn’s Guz Malzahn and FSU’s Jimbo Fisher -- are playing for their first national titles. It’s also historic, as this year’s game will be the last in the current BCS system before the four-team College Football Playoff begins next season.

Prediction: Florida State 38, Auburn 35. The Tigers have been a team of destiny this season, while the Seminoles have been a team of dominance. Florida State is the deeper, more talented team, and that will show against an Auburn defense that has been average this year. While the key to the game is up front, and whether FSU can slow down Auburn’s running game, the difference will be in the likes of Winston, FSU wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Seminoles running back Devonta Freeman. It’s not that Auburn can’t pass the ball -- quarterback Nick Marshall’s Hail Mary beat Georgia -- but Florida State does it better. If Auburn is trailing and gets behind in down and distance, Florida State’s defense -- particularly the secondary with Lamarcus Joyner -- will be too good for the likes of Sammie Coates to bail the Tigers out. Monday is the day the SEC’s streak comes to an end and Florida State returns to the pinnacle of college football.
It was the fourth quarter of a game Florida State already had well in hand over its in-state rival, Florida, in late November, but Jameis Winston was angry.

The Seminoles had flubbed the clock management, and when a timeout was called, Winston retreated to the sideline, barking at the coaching staff. Jimbo Fisher responded by grabbing Winston’s face mask, shouting back at his quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFSU coach Jimbo Fisher and QB Jameis Winston make an unlikely pairing, but the two are surprisingly similar.
It was a rare, public glimpse of an adversarial side to the relationship between Winston and Jimbo Fisher, but it was hardly uncommon.

“I’ll argue just to make it seem like I’m right a little bit, but he’s always right,” Winston said. “Sometimes we’ll get into an argument where we’re both right -- but he’s righter.”

The dynamic might actually have been explained better by Fisher earlier in the game. As he marched to the locker room at the end of the first half, Fisher was stopped by a TV reporter who asked about his quarterback. Fisher rattled off his usual responses at his usual frenetic pace, but he capped his answer with a bit of insight into their chemistry: Winston and Fisher are extremely similar, the coach said, and sometimes that’s not a good thing.

“It’s how we communicate,” Fisher said of the on-field argument. “It’s normal.”

Winston’s teammates have seen it happen often on the practice field, away from the cameras or the prying eyes of fans. Fisher insists on perfection, and Winston does, too. They just don’t always see eye to eye on exactly how perfection will be defined.

The practice-field barking is nothing new. Fisher is famous for it among his players. But what’s unique about his rapport with Winston is they match each other’s passion.

“They’ve had their arguments, but they’ve always understood each other,” left tackle Cameron Erving said. “I don’t know if Coach Fisher and guys like EJ [Manuel] and [Christian] Ponder, I don’t know if they related on the same level. I feel like that’s what makes Jameis and Coach Fisher so compatible. It’s always passion, wanting to do right.”

It seems an unlikely pairing, really. The unabashedly goofy 19-year-old with the cocky swagger and the throwback coach with the fiercely demanding bravado -- it might be easy to miss how similar they really are.

Winston jokes on the practice field, teasing teammates, singing and dancing in the huddle. But he’s as frustrated by failure as his coach is, and he’s as quick to get in the face of a teammate who needs to step up his game.

“But Jameis really isn’t mean,” Kelvin Benjamin said. “At least not to the receivers.”

Fisher is a no-nonsense drill sergeant. He presides over practice with a stern resolve that has, at times, rattled players with a lesser tolerance for criticism. But he also laughs often and pals around with players, filled with the same childlike enthusiasm about the sport he loves that his quarterback exudes so routinely.

“Coach Fisher likes to crack jokes just as much as Jameis does,” Erving said. “It’s just different ages, different sensibilities.”

That common ground has been a key to this season’s success, Fisher said. He can be hard on Winston because Winston understands why he’s being critiqued. He can bark orders at his quarterback but realizes Winston is already working to correct the mistake.

Fisher was Winston’s protector during the sexual-assault investigation that hung over Winston in November like a black cloud. Winston has been Fisher’s best asset in the locker room, offering the same rhetoric his coach has espoused for years, but with a sales pitch more appealing to the team.

When Winston gave his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, it’s no surprise the words echoed Fisher’s favorite mantras about process and focus and maturity, or that Fisher wept as he listened to the words.

“Just having somebody that I can relate to, somebody he can relate to, that just makes the situation more genuine,” Winston said. “That’s how you have a successful team, when the head coach and the quarterback get along.”
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State
Kelvin Benjamin has answered the questions more times than he can count, and he has lost interest in the narrative.

The story has been written again and again about the physically gifted receiver who took so long to blossom. But even though Benjamin’s emergence is old news now, even he still manages to surprise with how good he really is.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Kelvin Benjamin
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesFlorida State's Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as one of the best receivers in college football.
His coaches and teammates spent two years hyping him, explaining away his shortcomings, pushing him to get better. Now they’re simply watching him do what comes naturally.

After two years of wondering when Florida State’s 6-foot-5 monster of a receiver would emerge, Benjamin has shifted into a far different approach as he prepares for the biggest game of his career.

“It’s just doing the same thing I’ve been doing all year,” he said.

That’s the true measure of Benjamin’s progress. No one needs to ask why his practice performances have so far outpaced his game-day numbers or wonder when he’ll put in the time and effort and study he needs to be great. After Benjamin finished 2013 with nine touchdowns in his final five games, the sophomore has officially reached elite status.

“I knew what he had in him and he’s really grown and developed into one heck of a guy,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Fisher has enjoyed seeing Benjamin develop. His opposition in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship, however, might be having nightmares.

Auburn ranks 103rd nationally in passing defense, and the Tigers’ secondary has had few answers for physically imposing receivers like Benjamin. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans had 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn. Mississippi State’s Donte Moncrief caught six passes for 122 yards and two scores. Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham went for 144 yards on six catches, including two touchdowns.

In other words, Benjamin has Auburn’s attention.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Auburn corner Jonathon Mincy said. “That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers.”

Mincy said Auburn views the matchup as an opportunity to prove its critics wrong, to play man and press coverage against Florida State’s dynamic receivers and challenge Benjamin physically.

Benjamin, however, isn’t buying that.

“Mostly third down, they’ll go man. But it won’t be press coverage,” he said. “They’ll probably play us like Miami played us.”

The Hurricanes tried to take away the deep ball by playing well off Florida State’s receivers and blitzing quarterback Jameis Winston. The plan didn’t keep the Seminoles from cruising to a 41-14 win, but it’s probably worth noting that Benjamin finished with just two catches for 46 yards.

It’s also worth noting that he found the end zone in every game after that.

That’s perhaps what truly separates this version of Benjamin from years past, what’s pushed those stories of unrefined talent to the back burner as the country takes notice of one of college football’s emerging stars. Benjamin isn’t frustrated by failure anymore. He’s motivated by it.

Benjamin’s biggest game this season came against Florida, when he caught nine balls for 212 yards and three TDs. The numbers could’ve been even better. He dropped two potential touchdowns, looking to get upfield before securing the ball. When he trudged back to the sideline afterward, he was already looking for his next chance to prove he could correct the mistakes.

“Maturity,” Fisher said. “Accepting that he made a mistake, corrected the mistake and he’s handled those situations much better. He got to a point where he realizes he can play, and the pressure’s not on, and he has true confidence.”

It’s confidence that’s infectious. Florida State’s other players feed off Benjamin’s big-play heroics. His size and speed and physicality can be demoralizing for the opposition before the game even kicks off. Benjamin has found the secret to his success, and that’s a storyline he’d been waiting to write.

“I really believe now,” he said, “that if you prepare for the test, you’ll pass.”

Does 2013 FSU compare to 2001 Miami?

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
10:00
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Florida State, Florida and Miami have produced 10 national championship teams, but only one enters the "greatest team of all time" debate.

That would be 2001 Miami.

I had the opportunity to cover that team for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, getting the chance to not only watch a terrifically talented group dominate on the field, but also observe terrifically talented freshmen develop, knowing full well they would get their own shot at greatness.

So now that Florida State has a shot at winning a national championship and finishing undefeated, some have asked how this team compares not to the 1999 Seminoles (also unbeaten) but to the historic 2001 Canes.

We all know Florida State has to beat Auburn to be in the discussion. If that happens, do the 2013 Seminoles have a case to make over 2001 Miami? First, a little tale of the tape.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFSU QB Jameis Winston is one of many Seminoles who could get drafted, but it will be tough to match Miami's 2001 team, which had 17 players become first-round picks and 38 players total drafted.
Talent level: Florida State is loaded with NFL talent up and down its roster, from the senior class all the way down to its freshman class. If redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston came out today, he would have a shot to become the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Timmy Jernigan and Kelvin Benjamin have a shot at going in the first round in 2014 if they leave school early, and a slew of other players are guaranteed to get selected. It is hard to give the Seminoles a complete grade here until we know how many players will get drafted.

But they have work to do to match what 2001 Miami did: 17 players became first-round picks, and 38 players were drafted. Of the 22 starters in the national championship game against Nebraska, 11 became first-round selections, and 18 were drafted. To compare, 2004 USC is widely regarded as one of the greatest college football teams of all time, too. The Trojans had 33 total draft choices off that team and nine total first-round selections.

Position groups: Florida State has an edge at quarterback with Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, and at receiver. Miami had Andre Johnson but the Florida State trio of Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw is much better.

[+] EnlargeGore
Eliot Schechter/Getty ImagesFrank Gore was just one of many players from the 2001 Canes who went on to successful NFL careers.
Now consider what Miami had at running back: Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore and Najeh Davenport. In the secondary: first-round picks Ed Reed, Mike Rumph and Phillip Buchanon, along with freshmen backups Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle (future first-rounders). At linebacker: future first-round picks D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma. At tight end: Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow. On the defensive line: Jerome McDougle, Vince Wilfork, William Joseph and Andrew Williams. The Florida State offensive line is supremely talented, and all five starters are projected NFL players. But the Miami starting offensive line in 2001, featuring future first-rounder Bryant McKinnie, only allowed two sacks all year and paved the way for one of the best rushing teams in college football.

Schedule: Florida State has not gotten as much credit as it deserves because people perceive its schedule to be weak. But it is hard to argue with the way this team has dispatched all its opponents, most especially the ranked teams it has faced. Florida State outscored ranked opponents Clemson, Maryland, Miami and Duke 200-35. Miami was just as thorough. In consecutive weeks, the Canes beat No. 14 Syracuse and No. 12 Washington 124-7, an NCAA record for largest margin of victory against back-to-back ranked opponents. Miami led Nebraska 34-0 at halftime of the national championship game before going on cruise control. The defense posted three shutouts. Florida State has one.

On average, Miami played against better offenses and better defenses. Miami’s average opponent total offense ranked 65. For Florida State, the average is 70. The average opponent total defense rank was 48 for Miami and 55 for Florida State. Miami faced three offenses and five defenses ranked in the top 30 nationally. Florida State has faced one offense and two defenses ranked in the top 30 nationally. But the Canes did have two scares, against Boston College and Virginia Tech. None for Florida State so far.

The verdict: I still believe the 2001 Miami group is the greatest college football team of all time. Others disagree. Of course, all these comparisons are moot if Florida State loses to Auburn on Jan. 6. We can pick up the debate if the Seminoles hoist their third national championship trophy.

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