SEC: Jameis Winston

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's not easy watching your arch-rival reach the highest of highs while your team suffers through the lowest of lows, but that's exactly what's happening in Florida. FSU won a national championship to cap a season in which UF posted a losing record for the first time in more than 30 years.

Talk about a programs going in opposite directions. It's not easy to even comprehend the mountain top when you're sitting at rock bottom.

But Florida can learn a lot from this year's champion and runner-up -- Florida State and Auburn.

Tigers bounce back

Auburn might have benefited from a miracle or two, but there is no doubting the way this program rebounded in one year.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel, once the nation's No. 1 QB prospect, gives the Gators -- and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper -- someone to build the offense around.
That should give everyone associated with Florida great hope. Auburn had a far worse season in 2012 than Florida did in 2013. The Tigers didn't win a single game in the SEC and were just seconds away from winning a national championship one year later.

Gus Malzahn's return brought a sense of connection to Auburn's success in 2010 when he was offensive coordinator. He was able to salvage a recruiting class that ranked No. 11 last February and featured a couple of recruits who were critical to the turnaround.

Defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation's No. 2 overall prospect in the Class of 2013, became a bookend to senior Dee Ford. But it was juco transfer Nick Marshall who made the biggest impact. His electric speed and ability to run Malzahn's offense made the Tigers nearly unstoppable.

Like Auburn a year ago, Florida must use its sub-standard season as a selling point to recruits. The message is simple: "You're needed here and you can play right away."

UF didn't change head coaches, but a new offensive coordinator is nearly as seismic. Kurt Roper, a veteran play-caller with an extensive SEC résumé, will install something very different from the unimaginative, clock-chewing, run-run-pass offense that so frustrated Gator fans the last three seasons.

There's much work to be done across the board, but like Auburn, the key to revamping the offense for Roper and Florida is to work from the quarterback position out.

Seminoles' ascension

Just over a year ago, Florida went to Tallahassee and beat the Seminoles. FSU hasn't lost since.

The difference? A transcendent quarterback.

Sure, Jameis Winston is a generational talent. He's a quarterback prodigy with the otherworldly talent to win both the Heisman Trophy and the national title in just his second year out of high school.

Florida doesn't have that kind of QB, but Jeff Driskel was once the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, just like Winston. And UF's incoming freshman Will Grier is rated No. 2 in the nation. Together, Driskel and Grier give the Gators a focal point from which to build around.

Florida State's success came as a result of a steady buildup of talent. Remember how many times fans and observers claimed the Noles were officially "back" in recent years? Now there is no questioning FSU.

If Florida is to return to college football's elite, it needs stability. Some fans might not love the idea of Will Muschamp sticking around, but he is being given the chance to finish what he has started. Florida has recruited some of the nation's best classes -- 12th, fourth and second -- in Muschamp's three years. The talent level is rising, and someone has to steer the ship.

Some people forget this, but Jimbo Fisher has only been a head coach for one more year than Muschamp. And while his run at FSU has seen the Seminoles steadily climb back to prominence, Fisher was there from 2007-09 as offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting when the Noles lost 16 games.

Florida's time with Muschamp has been more like a roller-coaster ride. After free-falling to the bottom, there is but one direction to go.

Auburn runs out of miracles

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
3:34
AM ET
video
PASADENA, Calif. -- There were no miracles this time, only heartache.

And for the longest time, it didn’t look like Auburn would need a miracle Monday night after building an 18-point lead on a VIZIO BCS National Championship stage that not even the most die-hard fan on the Plains would have dreamed the Tigers would be playing on back in August.

But Florida State came storming back with a little late-game magic of its own to win a 34-31 thriller at the Rose Bowl, leaving a lump in the Tigers’ collective throats and bringing to an end the SEC’s national championship streak.

“We’ve been in this position all season long,” Auburn senior cornerback Chris Davis said. “We believe that if the game’s close, we’re going to win. It didn’t go our way tonight, and it’s going to take a long time for this hurt to go away.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDee Ford had two sacks for Auburn.
The truth is that Auburn was never supposed to be here, not after going winless in the SEC a year ago, firing Gene Chizik as its head coach and starting over with Gus Malzahn.

But Malzahn’s message to his team in his very first meeting was that the Tigers were going to engineer the biggest turnaround in college football history.

And, boy, were they close, which made Monday night’s loss all the more nauseating for them.

“I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn’t finish,” said Auburn running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 195 yards on 34 carries and surpassed Bo Jackson as Auburn’s single-season rushing leader.

“We didn’t finish what we started. That’s a great team [Florida State] and they deserved to win. They found a way to win at the end.”

Mason had given Auburn a 31-27 lead with 1:19 to play on a tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run.

“We knew we were going to take it down and score there,” Mason said. “Even after they returned that kickoff, you could just feel it on our sideline.”

It’s the same script Auburn had followed all season, whether it was Davis’ kick-six touchdown against Alabama, Ricardo Louis’ Hail Mary touchdown catch against Georgia or Nick Marshall’s late touchdown pass to beat Mississippi State.

“Right now, I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “No one gave us a chance at the beginning of the season. We won the SEC championship in the best league in the country. Obviously, it was a successful season, but you’d like to win one more game.”

If not for a handful of plays, Auburn could easily be taking the final BCS crystal trophy back to the Plains.

Jameis Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to play won it for the Seminoles. But a play earlier, Davis was flagged for pass interference in the end zone when Winston tried to hit Rashad Greene on a third-and-8 play.

“I didn’t think it was pass interference. The ref called it, so it is what it is,” Davis said.

As costly as that pass-interference penalty was for the Tigers, the real back-breaker was Greene’s 49-yard catch-and-run to set up Benjamin’s touchdown. Auburn was in a zone and had a chance to tackle Greene for a modest gain, but he split Davis and safety Ryan Smith and was off to the races.

“We just didn’t come up with a stop when we needed to, and we usually do that as a defense,” said Davis, who was also covering Benjamin on his game-winning touchdown.

Auburn’s defense deserved better. The Tigers pressured Winston repeatedly, sacked him four times and held the Seminoles to three offensive touchdowns.

But Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to put Florida State ahead 27-24 late in the fourth quarter was a killer. Likewise, the Tigers had another breakdown on special teams late in the second quarter when they gave up a fake punt leading to Florida State’s only first-half touchdown.

“They just executed at the times they needed to,” said Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who had two sacks. “We played great for 3½ quarters. It just came down to that one possession. We had some calls that didn’t go our way, and it just didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.

“Those same guys who were out there on that field were the same guys that helped get us here. We went out and fought. We just came up short. We’re not going to hang our heads.”
video
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.

BCS National Championship picks

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
10:30
AM ET
Well, well, well. They tried to say the youngster couldn't do it. They tried to tell him that back-to-back championships were only for those wrapped in crimson and white.

They were wrong.

After watching Missouri take it to old Big 12 rival Oklahoma State 41-31 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl on Friday, I captured my second straight picks title by taking an insurmountable two-game lead over Chris heading into tonight's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State.

My championship record currently stands at 102-21 (.829), while Chris is 100-23 (.813). Outside of tonight's game, I went 5-4 during bowl season, missing on Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. Chris went a respectable 6-3 to make things interesting, but missed on Georgia, Alabama and Missouri.

I tried to tell the vet not to sleep on the Tigers, which he did quite a bit this season.

It has to be tough for Chris to watch the new guy, who is still referred to as "Hey, Rookie" by esteemed colleague Mark Schlabach, to come into his house and take what's his. I didn't dominate like I did in 2012, but I proved that even when the times got tough and adversity hit, I could still figure out a way to win.

I'd like to say I'm the Alabama of the picks, but hopefully my three-peat happens next year.

I'd like to thank Chris for battling back like he did and keeping it interesting. I was a little worried about where his head would be after the thrashing I gave him last season. I'd also like to thank my cat Meeko, who worked tirelessly with early-morning wake ups to keep me fresh and on my toes. I really wouldn't be here without that fur ball.

Finally, I'd like to thank all you readers for pushing me through the tough weeks and motivating me every step of the way. Never forget #thingsAschoffsays.

I can't wait to see what next season has in store for us.

Let's check out our final pick of the season:

VIZO BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Auburn vs. Florida State

Chris Low: Florida State’s talent on both offense and defense jumps off the game tape at you, but I also don’t think the Seminoles have been tested the way Auburn has this season. They’re used to cruising in the second half, and the Tigers are too good on offense to be out of the game by the midway point of the third quarter. Make no mistake. Auburn will have to play much more consistently on defense and can’t turn it over the way the Tigers did in the first half of the SEC championship game. But Auburn’s offensive line will be the best Florida State has seen this season, and there’s something to be said for the way the Tigers have found ways to win games. They’ll find a way to win one more, meaning the SEC’s national championship streak will live on. … Auburn 38, Florida State 34

Edward Aschoff: I'd be lying if I said I came to this pick weeks ago. I'd be lying even more if I said it was something I was still sure about, but a pick must be made. I kept going back and forth about Auburn's elite rushing offense against Florida State's elite defense. Jameis Winston has the advantage over Auburn's pass defense, but the Tigers' defensive line has made strides all season, especially in the final month of the season. So the ACC over the SEC? I mean, look at how much the ACC struggled during the bowl season. Were the Seminoles' opponents really that good this season? At the end of the day, who messes with mojo? Gus Malzahn has had a month to add to his offense and Nick Marshall will find a way to make a few plays through the air. Expect Winston to make a couple of mistakes late to help Auburn's run game grind out a win. ... Auburn 34, Florida State 31

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.


When Dameyune Craig left Florida State to return to his alma mater, he was leaving behind a national championship contender and a potential Heisman Trophy quarterback in Jameis Winston. It’s no wonder Craig turned down Auburn the first time they offered.

[+] EnlargeDameyune Craig
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDameyune Craig's return to Auburn helped the Tigers land Nick Marshall and develop their receivers.
But it wasn't the talent and future success that made it such a difficult decision. It was his relationship with Winston, the quarterback he was responsible for bringing to Tallahassee. Craig had served as a mentor, a father figure and a friend to the Seminoles’ redshirt freshman.

“Without Coach Craig being in my life -- he was a good reason why I came to Florida State,” Winston said. “He kept me on the right path. He used to call me every morning. If he had one of his visions or something, 5 in the morning he’d call me and let me know, ‘Aye Jaboo, don’t do this.’ Coach Craig’s got a lot of visions.”

The relationship began when Winston was a sophomore in high school. Craig had just become the new quarterbacks coach at Florida State, and it didn't take long for him to make Winston a recruiting priority.

It helped that Craig could relate to Winston. He, too, was a star quarterback from the state of Alabama. While at Auburn, he set numerous passing records, including completions (216) and passing yards (3,227) in a single season. He led the Tigers to 10 wins in 1997. He was who Winston wanted to be at the next level.

“Just talking to him, meeting his family and everything, I see him as me,” Winston said at Saturday’s BCS media day. “When I grow up, I want to be like him.”

Craig also made an impact on Winston’s family. He was the first recruiter to bypass the high school coach and talk directly with Jameis’ father, Antonor Winston.

“He was willing to break through the walls,” Antonor said. “Coaching-wise, you never go to a school for a coach because they could be a dime a dozen. As a mentor, Dameyune just understood Jameis. He said some stuff that nobody would think about saying about Jameis, and it came to pass.”

According to Antonor, Craig told his son that if Jameis went to Auburn, he would start as a true freshman. If he chose Alabama, he might make some people mad because he would take AJ McCarron’s spot. But at Florida State, he could redshirt his first year, learn from future NFL quarterback EJ Manuel and focus on his baseball career, too.

That’s what the family wanted to hear. It was a win-win situation. So Winston, the No. 1 quarterback and No. 14 prospect in the 2012 ESPN 300, signed with the Seminoles.

“Coach Craig doesn't get enough credit for bringing Jameis there,” Antonor said. “Their relationship -- Jameis knew leaving home, Dameyune was going to make him do right. He got recruited by a lot of schools and a lot of recruiters, but I don’t think anybody came in and cared about Jameis’ well-being the way he did.”

It couldn't have worked out better for the prized recruit. Jameis redshirted his first year with football. In the spring, he started 30 games for the baseball team that ended up reaching the super regionals. And this season, with expectations high, he took over as Florida State’s starting quarterback and led the Seminoles to an undefeated season and a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreJameis Winston spent his redshirt season under Craig's tutelage.
The only downside? Craig wasn't there to be a part of it. He left after Winston’s freshman year, a decision that was difficult for Winston and his family.

“It hit me pretty hard,” Jameis said. “I didn't really express that because I had to talk to Coach [Jimbo] Fisher about it. I was sad when Coach Craig left because it was unexpected. I had talked to him about it, and I knew he had done the right thing for him. I trusted him and told him I supported him the whole way.

“I told him, ‘Coach Craig, if you gotta go, then go. Because I’m going to be with you no matter what.’”

Little did Winston know, he’d be going against his former mentor and coach in Monday’s national championship game.

The decision to leave Florida State for Auburn worked out for Craig, too. He works with the wide receivers now, but he helped recruit quarterback Nick Marshall, who has been instrumental in the Tigers’ miracle season. The two have already developed a relationship similar to what Craig had with Winston.

“He’s the same type of guy,” Marshall said. “He doesn't let anything change. What’s his is ours. That’s with all the coaches. If we have anything to talk about, we can call any one of our coaches on the coaching staff and just talk to them about it. It’s like another dad to us.”

However, Craig will always hold a special place in his heart for Winston and his family. It’s the reason Winston mentioned Craig in his Heisman Trophy speech. It’s the reason Winston deleted Craig’s number from his phone -- he was afraid he’d be tempted to call his former coach. It’s the reason why Monday’s game won’t affect their relationship.

“I don’t think he’s concentrating on beating me,” Winston said. “He’s concentrating on beating Florida State. It’s just like I’m not concentrating on beating him, because at the end of the day, win or lose, me and him are going to remain the same. He’s going to be happy for me if we win. I’m going to be happy for him if they win.”

Video: Pressure on Jameis Winston

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
11:40
AM ET


Rece Davis, Lou Holtz and Brian Griese discuss the pressure facing QB Jameis Winston as Florida State takes on the Auburn Tigers for the national title.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The hits just keep coming for Texas, which can’t seem to find a coach to replace Mack Brown.

Well, here’s some good news: If the Longhorns hire Jimbo Fisher, they’ll get a two-for-one deal, scoring the Heisman Trophy winner, too.

The odds of that happening don’t look good, of course, especially because Fisher recently signed a new contract with Florida State. And Texas already had its chance at quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Through the whole recruiting process, I said to my coach, ‘We got to get Texas on the phone,’ ” Winston said.

Winston even tried to get Brown on the phone himself.

“I tried to call him a couple times because I really like Texas,” he said.

It’s probably better it didn’t work out. After all, Winston said he was an Oklahoma fan.

SWINGING FOR THE STARS

Who says Winston can’t play both baseball and football at the next level?

“You can do anything you put your mind to,” the two-sport star said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘No way, he’s a quarterback.’ Bo Jackson was a running back. The one thing I always seem to do is gain the trust of my teammates. Even being in the NFL, if I can convince those guys I can be your quarterback, I can go play baseball for the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees. I can’t talk about that, because I’m living in the moment right now.”

On Tuesday, he’ll be ready to talk baseball again.

“Right now I got one thing on my mind, win the national championship on Monday. Tuesday comes, I’ll be ready for it then. I’m pretty sure [Florida State baseball] coach Mike Martin, he’ll talk to me about it then. I know he’s not saying nothing about baseball to me right now.”

HAPPY RETURNS

Prior to this season, Auburn's Chris Davis had not returned any punts or kicks during his college career, but it wasn't because he didn't try.

"I'd been asking. I never got the opportunity," said Davis, who led the SEC in punt return average this season and also returned the missed field goal against Alabama 109 yards for a touchdown.

Asked what reason the previous coaching staff at Auburn gave him for not giving him a shot to return kicks, Davis said, "They didn’t have an answer for me."

Auburn's current special teams coach, Scott Fountain, was the director of player personnel on the previous staff and made it known when the new regime arrived that Davis was plenty capable as a return man. Davis had excelled as a return specialist in high school.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I’d mention it every year. I’d go back and catch punts and kicks at the beginning of the season, but I never got the opportunity," Davis said. "I thank Coach Fountain and Coach [Gus] Malzahn for the opportunity."

NOT BACKING DOWN

Florida State's receivers, led by 6-foot-5, 234-pound sophomore Kelvin Benjamin, are big, physical and explosive.

Benjamin has 14 touchdown catches entering Monday's Vizio BCS National Championship, which presents quite a challenge for an Auburn pass defense that ranked last in the SEC this season.

But the Tigers are adamant they're not going to all of a sudden change it up.

"We’ve mixed it up, but man[-to-man coverage] is our base," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We’re going to play man. LSU had great receivers. Georgia had good receivers. Missouri’s got bigger receivers than Florida State’s got. We’ve seen all types. We’ve seen some of the best. At all times, we haven’t stopped them, but you can’t just give up on something.

"I think a lot of people have been intimidated out of man coverage against them early in the game because they can’t score on them. If we score on them and hold the ball on them a little bit, we’ll have a chance to be more aggressive. If we don’t, we’re going to have a hard time."

GETTING DRAFTY

Florida State junior running back Devonta Freeman said he turned his papers into the NFL draft evaluation board but hasn’t heard back from it yet. Freeman said when he does, he will talk to Fisher about possibly entering the draft.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was greeted by crowd of television cameras as he stepped out of the shiny black Chevy SUV that had escorted he and several of his teammates to the Newport Beach Marriott on Friday morning for the Seminoles’ offensive news conference.

Sipping on his Starbucks, Winston was once again unfazed as the center of attention.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsHeisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston threw 38 touchdown passes this season and just 10 interceptions.
After a whirlwind awards tour, which included a trip to New York to claim his Heisman Trophy, Winston was again lighting up the stage with his engaging personality. He was the focus -- not just for the media, but also for Auburn’s defense. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson conceded that the Tigers “have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year.” That’s going to have to change on Monday night against the Seminoles if the Tigers hope to win the Vizio BCS National Championship, and according to Ellis, the difference in the game will be the defense’s ability to pressure Winston into uncharacteristic mistakes.

“It's going to be a big factor,” Ellis said. “The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have. There will be some other things in the game we can't control, kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”

Somehow, pressure doesn’t seem to get to the 19-year-old first-year starter.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, on plays Winston is pressured (knocked down or hurried), he completes an AQ-high 62 percent of his passes and is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt. The AQ average for a quarterback when pressured is 35 percent and 4.7 yards per attempt.

It’s a statistical mismatch in Florida State’s favor, but Auburn’s hybrid safety, Robenson Therezie, isn’t deterred.

“With our game plan I feel like when we execute and do our jobs, I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone,” Therezie said. “With our front four, I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th. It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced. With our secondary, I don't think he's seen the secondary that he's seen all year with our secondary. It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in.”

The good news for Auburn’s defense: It has had a little experience with elite SEC quarterbacks. Now the bad news: Against the offenses of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, Auburn allowed 7.3 yards per play.

"I think seeing those type of players, week in and week out, definitely gets you ready," defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “I mean, seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman. Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of ...

“I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play. We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country, and they’re going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game.”
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
Editor’s note: Each day this week, Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban will be in the awkward position of having to watch a football game rather than coach one on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. His Alabama Crimson Tide won't play for the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and instead will be forced to watch Florida State and Auburn do battle on center stage.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFormer Nick Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher and former Saban recruit Jameis Winston are proof of the power of "The Process."
But don't weep for Saban and the Tide. Because whatever happens, Alabama benefits.

Should Auburn win, Saban can continue selling recruits on the SEC being the most dominant conference in college football. "Come play in the league with eight straight national titles," his pitch might go. "Come compete in a rivalry game with championship implications," he might say.

But if Florida State wins, Saban can sell something much simpler. "See Jimbo Fisher coaching out there? He was my offensive coordinator at LSU," he could say. "See Jeremy Pruitt leading the Noles defense? I took him from a high school assistant coach to an SEC defensive coordinator," he could flaunt. "Defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri? Offensive line coach Rick Trickett? Wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey? Yeah, those were all my guys at one point, too," he could add for good measure.

Saban's process of building and running a football program -- simply dubbed, "The Process" -- has caught hold at a number of programs around the country, but maybe none more so than at Florida State. The similarities between the two schools are staggering: both work out of a 3-4 base defense, both use mainly pro-style sets on offense, both have built through the trenches and both recruit like gangbusters. Even their focus and implementation of off-field physical and mental conditioning are similar as both have employed the services of sports 'mindset' expert Trevor Moawad and both try to stay on the cutting edge with programs like Catapult Sports.

"Jimbo has done a fantastic job," Saban said of his former assistant in late November. "I always thought Jimbo was one of the best coaches we've ever had to work with on any of our staffs. He did a fantastic job for us. I think he has done a fantastic job.

"If you look at the whole body of work and the way they beat people, they are arguably the best country right now. And they weren't when he went there. They made a significant improvement. He has done a very good job of recruiting and developing the players they do have in the program. They've played really, really well and improved each year he has been there."

Though the Noles may have the flashier quarterback and the higher profile today, Saban shouldn't let you -- or the nation's top recruits -- forget what got them there. Since Fisher took over, the two staffs and the two rosters have been heavily intertwined. Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy this year, signed with Florida State over Alabama in 2012. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American a season ago, signed with Alabama over Florida State in the same year. The list of prospects whose decisions have come down to the Tide and the Noles are too many to count.

It ultimately took three seasons of coaching, recruiting and staffing for Saban to reach his first championship game with Alabama. For Fisher, it took four seasons to get Florida State to the promised land.

Whichever team wins on Jan. 6, The Process, Saban and Alabama come out looking good.

Who has most to prove in SEC bowls?

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
2:00
PM ET
In a week, the bowl season for the SEC will kick off when Ole Miss takes on Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.

It's the first of 10 postseason games involving SEC teams, culminating with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Who in the SEC has the most to prove this season in the bowl games? We’re talking head coaches, assistant coaches, players, teams and particular units on teams.

Here's a look:

Alabama: It's been a while since Alabama has played in a BCS bowl game when there wasn't a national championship at stake. Not that Alabama fans need to be reminded, but it was the 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl following a tough loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide looked uninspired from the start and were throttled 31-17 by Utah. This year, Oklahoma awaits in the Sugar Bowl, and that bitter loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl won't seem quite so bitter if the Crimson Tide can take care of business in the Big Easy.

Ole Miss' offense: The Rebels managed just one offensive touchdown in their last two games -- both losses -- after putting up big numbers all season long. They were in the red zone three times against Missouri and came away with a grand total of three points, and twice they were at the goal line. They get a chance against Georgia Tech to show what they genuinely are offensively, and you know quarterback Bo Wallace can't wait to get back onto the field after losing that fumble in overtime against Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel will likely end his college career against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Auburn's secondary: Talk about a tall order. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in pass defense this season, allowing an average of 260.2 yards per game. Now, they have to go up against Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin and a Florida State attack that has generated 40 touchdown passes.

Johnny Manziel: Johnny Football's last collegiate stand will come in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. He gets a chance to go out with a flourish after a pair of un-Johnny Football-like performances in his last two regular-season games.

Mike Davis: South Carolina's sophomore running back was one of the SEC's breakout stars with 1,134 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. But he was slowed by bruised ribs during the final few weeks of the season. He missed the Coastal Carolina game and was held to 76 rushing yards in the two games against Florida and Clemson. Davis should be back to full strength against Wisconsin and will be looking to upstage the Badgers' one-two rushing punch of Melvin Gordon and James White.

Les Miles: The Mad Hatter has had a lot of success at LSU, but the Tigers' last two postseason experiences haven't been particularly memorable. They collapsed against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season and were shut out against Alabama in the BCS National Championship two years ago. Nobody on the Bayou wants to see that bowl drought extend to three consecutive years.

Vanderbilt's fans: James Franklin has brought unprecedented success to Vanderbilt's program in the last two years, but the Commodores haven't necessarily been a commodity in the eyes of the bowls. The only way that's going to change is for the Commodores to keep winning and for their fans to turn out in force in Birmingham, Ala.

Missouri's defense: When last seen, Missouri was being shredded by Auburn to the tune of 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 SEC championship game loss. The hard part for the Tigers was that they had been stout defensively all season and went into that game allowing just 119 rushing yards per game. They get a chance for redemption in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against an Oklahoma State team that scored 38 or more points in five of its last six games.

Anthony Jennings and Hutson Mason: Fans are always wanting to know what the future looks like. Because of injuries to Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray, we'll get to see the future at quarterback at both LSU and Georgia in their respective bowl games. LSU's Jennings and Georgia's Mason have already shown that they have plenty of game, but the lights will be a little brighter in the postseason.

Heisman intrigue is merely in margin

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
12:04
PM ET
There is little intrigue leading into the 2013 Heisman Trophy ceremony Saturday in the Best Buy Theater in New York. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is the overwhelming favorite to take home the coveted bronze statue.

He's the best player on the nation's top-ranked team and the highest-rated quarterback, according to both the NCAA's efficiency rating and ESPN.com's Total Quarterback Rating.

But, as with this college football season as a whole, Winston's candidacy was not without detours and complications. The redshirt freshman's often brilliant and refreshingly exuberant play on the field was offset to some degree by an off-field incident that cast a dark cloud over him and the Seminoles for weeks. He was accused of but not charged with sexual assault, and the media storm surrounding the incident, as well as the curious way the case was handled by police, still has lingering and discomfiting fumes.

How discomfiting those fumes are to voters across the country will be revealed by how wide Winston's winning margin is among the 938 total ballots cast by 870 media members, 57 previous winners and one vote from the general public.

To read more, click here.
 

After Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman a year ago, it appears another freshman, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, is poised to take the trophy. But which quarterback had the better freshman campaign?

David Hale and Sam Khan Jr. take the debate to the Interwebs for your reading pleasure:

Take 1: Hale: Winston was consistent, even in biggest games
No matter what Winston accomplishes this season, there’s one thing Manziel will always have over him. Only one player can be the first freshman to win a Heisman, and that was Manziel. He was, to be sure, a worthy winner.

But beyond the history, the debate on which quarterback had the better freshman campaign is easy. It’s Winston.

[+] EnlargeFSU
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIf winning matters, Jameis Winston has won a conference title and has his team in the national championship game: two things Manziel has not done.
Compare passing numbers through 13 games and Winston comes out well ahead. He threw for a freshman-record 38 touchdowns, compared with 26 for Manziel. Winston threw for more yards, averaged significantly more yards per attempt (10.9 to 8.5 for Manziel) and had a quarterback rating (190.1) that dwarfs Manziel’s (155.3). Winston had seven 300-yard games; Manziel four. Winston accounted for four or more touchdowns six times.

And before anyone makes the strength-of-schedule argument, remember that Winston had a slightly higher adjusted QBR -- which takes into account myriad factors, including competition.

Sure, Manziel came out of nowhere to become a Heisman winner. But wasn’t there a lot more pressure on the much-hyped Winston to live up to those immense expectations?

Then let’s look at how each player fared in his biggest games.

Manziel played six games against ranked teams, and he won four. He completed 67 percent of his throws -- same as Winston -- but the rest of his stats were utterly pedestrian. He averaged just 7.5 yards per attempt, threw for seven TDs and had five interceptions.

Winston, on the other hand, won all four of his games against ranked teams handily. He averaged 11.8 yards per attempt and threw for 12 touchdowns with five INTs.

Winston wasn’t only at his best in big games, he simply never had a bad game. Manziel struggled mightily against Florida and LSU.

And Winston has the edge in the most important statistic: wins. The Seminoles are 13-0 and playing in the BCS National Championship next month. Manziel's season was great and the Aggies were a surprising 11-2 last year, but they didn't even get to a BCS bowl. Their season ended in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

OK, so now we get to the obvious check mark in Manziel’s corner: his legs.

Admittedly, there’s no comparison here, and Manziel’s ability to run is the great equalizer in this debate. But it’s hardly fair to penalize Winston for looking to throw before he looks to run.

Winston put together a highlight reel of big throws that followed miraculous escape acts. His numbers when under pressure were by far the best in the nation. He managed to extend plays, completing an absurd 16 of 21 passes with four touchdowns and 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Does that make up for Manziel’s 21 rushing TDs and 1,400 rushing yards? Probably not, but a quarterback's primary jobs are to make throws and win games. Winston was head and shoulders ahead of Manziel in both areas.

Take 2: Khan: Manziel did it all, against tougher teams
Winston has lived up to the hype and that's hard to do. In my opinion, he has been college football's most outstanding player in 2013. In every big game, he delivered and he led his team to the BCS title game.

But there's no debate here. As terrific as Winston has been this season, Johnny Manziel's freshman campaign was better.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel is clearly the superior runner.
Manziel was statistically better, had to carry his team more and did it against a tougher schedule. Oh, and as David mentioned, Manziel was the first freshman to do it. Can't beat that.

Yes, Winston's passing numbers are better. However, what Johnny Football did with his legs in 2012 is what set him apart, and it's what made him the toughest player to defend in college football. Winston hasn't run nearly as much because the Seminoles don't need him to (77 carries for 193 yards and four touchdowns), but that was a signature part of Manziel's game. He was a true dual threat. Manziel exploded for 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns and led the SEC in rushing a year ago.

Not the leading rusher among quarterbacks. The leading rusher, period.

A&M needed that. Without that element of Manziel's game, the Aggies might not have beaten Louisiana Tech. They might not have beaten Alabama. The season would have been different.

Manziel broke Cam Newton's SEC single-season record for total offensive yards in a season, finishing with a whopping 5,116. And while Winston had more touchdown passes, Manziel had more total touchdowns with 47. Winston still has a chance to catch that total if he accounts for five touchdowns against Auburn in January.

And let's not forget A&M's schedule last year. A&M finished third in the country in the NCAA's "toughest schedule" rankings. The Sagarin ratings had the Aggies with the sixth-toughest schedule last year. The NCAA's schedule rankings are unavailable for this season, but for comparison's sake, Florida State's schedule is currently ranked 63rd in the Sagarin ratings. That's a huge difference.

Winston didn't have to face an LSU team that put five players from its front seven alone in the NFL draft. And even with that, Manziel and the Aggies still could have won that game (they lost 24-19). The best defenses Winston has faced were Florida (10th) and Clemson (23rd). Manziel faced three that finished in last year's top eight (Alabama, Florida, LSU).

And the best win -- at least to this point in time -- belongs to Manziel. Texas A&M's upset over then-No. 1 and eventual champ Alabama in Tuscaloosa was the epitome of Manziel's freshman campaign. He was virtually unstoppable. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 92. Gaining 345 yards individually against a Nick Saban-coached defense? Simply amazing.

Winston has a chance at the crystal football. Manziel can't top that and there's no denying it. But that's more of a team accomplishment and there's not a ton Manziel can do about it.

If you were picking a team to go win a football game and both supporting casts were the same, which QB would you pick: 2012 Johnny Manziel or 2013 Jameis Winston? My guess is you're taking Johnny Football. He's done things on a football field that seemingly nobody else can.

SPONSORED HEADLINES