SEC: Jimbo Fisher

National signing day, and the build up to it, is as close as Texas and Texas A&M get to actual football competition these days, to see who will in fact “run this state.”

Well, right now it’s neither school. The Lone Star State is run by Baylor and TCU, the Big 12 co-champs that narrowly missed the initial College Football Playoff field.

That’s why the 2015 recruiting class and the season are so vital to both the Longhorns and Aggies, with each power striving to re-establish itself -- not just regionally, but nationally.

Texas and Texas A&M lead off our look at programs and coaches that need the 2015 class to pay off, and the sooner the better.

(Note: The RecruitingNation ranking and number of commitments are updated as of Sunday evening.)

1. Texas
Ranking: 9
Commitments: 26

The Longhorns have secured a number of solid, team-building pieces in this class, and a few high-end targets -- DT Daylon Mack and RB Soso Jamabo, among them -- remain distinct possibilities to sign with Texas this week.

Still, Wednesday
The Florida-Florida State rivalry has been one built on runs. Only three times since 1968 have the teams alternated wins over a three-year period.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher ended a six-game skid to Florida in his first season as head coach in Tallahassee, and now he has Florida State on the verge of its fourth win in five seasons against the Gators. In all three FSU wins under Fisher, the Gators have been held to seven points.

Adding to the rivalry this season has been quarterback Jameis Winston, who has goaded Gators fans seeking his autograph by signing his name and last year’s score, 37-7, on the Florida memorabilia.

However, Florida has the distinction of being the last team to hand FSU a loss, although it came all the way in 2012, 27 games ago.

ESPN reporters Edward Aschoff and Jared Shanker break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry:

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators know they can't allow Jameis Winston to be comfortable in the pocket.
Key to victory for Florida: If the Gators are going to win this game, they have to run the ball well. That’s how they upset Georgia, and that’s the only way Florida will leave Tallahassee with a win over the Seminoles. Florida averaged 201 rushing yards in conference games and piled up 418 on Georgia to open the month. FSU has allowed 416 rushing yards in the last two games, which means the Gators will have to heavily rely on running backs Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, who have the one-two-punch ability to frustrate a defense that has been far from elite this season.

Key to victory for Florida State: Jimbo Fisher said he will dial up the film of Florida’s win over Georgia because the Bulldogs employ former FSU assistant Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, and the Noles still run a similar scheme. Florida State has struggled to stop the rush all season, and Florida ran all over Georgia. What Florida State has to do, as it has all season, is stop the run in pivotal situations. Florida State is significantly better against the run in the second half, and if the Noles can keep Florida’s offense off the field in the second half, it will give Winston the requisite time needed for a comeback if it once again comes to that.

X-factor for Florida: While running the ball will be key for the Gators, you have to take Winston out of the game. Winston is very good against the rush, but you have to force him into bad situations if you want to beat him. Putting pressure on him will be key for Florida’s defense, and that’s where end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. comes in. The future first-round draft pick has been one of the SEC’s most disruptive players this season (credited with 15 quarterback hurries), and if he can force Winston to rush his throws it will be a major advantage for Florida’s defense.

X-factor for Florida State: There’s no point in ignoring the obvious. Anytime Winston suits up for Florida State, he is the Seminoles’ X-factor. He is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and college football’s premier prime-time player. No deficit to this point has been too large for Winston, who continually rises to the occasion in the game’s tensest moments. He leads the country with four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and has a QB rating of 194.26 when trailing by 15 or more points. For Florida to win, it will have to keep Winston out of the end zone for more than just the first half.

Aschoff’s favorite moment from the rivalry: Watching Warrick Dunn in this rivalry was fun, and so was having the game decide the national championship after the 1996 season. But two memories really stick out to me because I was actually there for them: Ron Zook getting carried off the field in 2004 (didn’t they rename the field “Ron Zook Field” after that?) and the 2008 Florida team’s impressive rain-soaked win in Tallahassee. The one thing about the 2008 game that really sticks out is how Tim Tebow, covered in garnet paint, taunted FSU’s student section after a touchdown because Seminoles fans cheered when Percy Harvin went down with an ankle injury. To this day, that 2008 Florida team is the best team I’ve ever covered.

Shanker’s favorite moment from the rivalry: No doubt those games were memorable ones and that 2008 image of Tebow will live on this rivalry’s lore for quite some time. However, I’m going with the 1994 “Choke at Doak.” I’ve watched it a handful of times over the last few years with the 20-year anniversary being this week, and it’s crazy how so many little plays added up to help FSU overcome a 31-3 deficit to tie it in the final minutes. That ’94 comeback makes this 2014 season look tame by comparison. This season’s renewal could go down in history, too, if Muschamp leaves like Zook did. I don’t know if Nole Nation would be able to take that a second time.

Florida carried Ron Zook off the field in his final game, an upset that remains so memorable, people continue to point to that win 10 years later.

Especially this week.

Because everybody wants to know: Can the Gators win one for Champ, the way they won one for the Zooker?

The similarities between Zook’s last triumph over Florida State and the 2014 Gators headed into the Florida State game on Saturday are too similar to ignore.

Both Florida teams 6-4. Both heavy underdogs. Both playing for an outgoing coach.

“We were in the same position those guys are in this year,” said former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a captain on the 2004 team. “Our coach got fired. We hadn’t beaten them in Tallahassee in a very long time, so it made us want to go out there and play for Coach Zook but also win at Doak. It happened to be on the same day they were naming the field for coach (Bobby) Bowden, so we wanted to go up there and upset every celebration they had.”

In the days leading up to the game, nobody gave down-and-out Florida much of a chance against the No. 10 Seminoles. Florida State had one of the best defenses in the country and had shut down just about every running back that came its way.

But Florida believed it had nothing to lose. To the Gators, all the pressure belonged to Florida State.

“Nobody expected us to win, and that just mentally makes you feel like, ‘We can go out here and cut it loose. Don’t worry about mistakes. We can go for it on fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-3 because we’ve got nothing to lose and Florida State has everything to lose,’" Fason said. "As a Gator, we know we’re trying to keep them from get a national championship, and it being a rival game with nothing to lose that works to our advantage.”

Fason also believes the way Florida played in 2004 caught Florida State off guard. He ended up with 100 yards rushing in the game and was a big reason why the Gators won, saying the Seminoles were not prepared for their smash-mouth style.

After Florida took a 10-3 lead into halftime, Fason told his teammates he wanted them to carry Zook off the field if they ended up winning. They assembled around him in the final minute, a 20-13 win theirs to celebrate.

“As soon as that final tick went off the clock, everybody picked up Coach Zook,” Fason said. “It was the best moment of my life.”

And it still remains one of the top moments not only in Gators football history, but in Zook's career. Mike Degory, the starting center on the 2004 team, later coached with Zook at Illinois. Even there, Zook talked about the way the Gators won his final game there.

“He always used to say how much it meant to him, and how much he felt the commitment from the players was there,” Degory recalled. “Everybody knows after this week, Coach Muschamp is going to be looking for another job, but the players feel a lot of commitment to that coach. We wanted to send Coach Zook out a winner. What we had 10 years ago was a connection with Coach Zook. Deep down in my heart, that is the guy that I wanted to play for and we wanted to echo that by giving him that victory.”

Muschamp was even asked about it during his press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.

“That isn't going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that,” he said. “So we'll prepare well and we'll go up there and play well. That's what we need to do.”

Florida has a history of doing that under Muschamp. It was two years ago Florida went into Doak Campbell Stadium and forced five turnovers in a 37-26 win. Florida was a much better team then -- ranked higher than Florida State, in fact. But it also happens to be the last time the Seminoles lost.

Since then, Florida has not come close to another 11-win season, while Jimbo Fisher has won two ACC championships, one national championship and 27 straight games. But this season, Florida State has played in so many close games, the expectation is this will be another close one.

Especially if the Gators play as emotionally as they did for Zook in 2004.

“Emotion always counts, but I think at the end of the day, execution wins,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we'll be emotional. To play Florida, our kids will be high. Our kids will be excited. I think you'll see two teams that are emotionally and physically ready to play, and then who can go out and execute and win the battles in the physical and mental execution will be the team that wins.”
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.

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.

Video: Malzahn, Fisher talk title game

January, 5, 2014
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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher sit down with Rece Davis to discuss their team's participation in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Video: BCS title -- better coaching staff?

January, 5, 2014
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ACC reporter Heather Dinich and SEC reporter Chris Low debate which BCS national championship team, Florida State or Auburn, has the better coaching staff.

Johnson could have been on other side

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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wouldn't have missed this for the world.

The only question, as it turns out, was which side of the field he would be on Monday night in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIWhile Ellis Johnson's defense has had its struggles, the Tigers are second in the SEC red zone defense and third in sacks.
Johnson, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football, was one of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s top targets when Mark Stoops left Florida State to become Kentucky’s head coach.

But one of the first calls newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made after getting the job was also to Johnson, who was fired after one forgettable 0-12 season as Southern Miss’ head coach.

“It was close. I guess I could have been on the other side,” Johnson said Saturday during media day. “I actually got a call from someone Jimbo and I both know before I even got fired at Southern Miss.”

To say the least, Johnson was intrigued and remembers telling his wife, Caroline, that the Florida State situation was ready-made.

“We really thought we were looking at a three-year deal here at Auburn,” Johnson said. “Nobody expected this, but I knew they were going to win at Florida State.”

After meeting with Malzahn, Johnson was scheduled to meet with Fisher, but didn't want to drag it out any further; he knew Auburn was where he belonged.

Getting back into the SEC was important for Johnson, as was getting a chance to work under Malzahn. But, ultimately, Johnson made his decision for family reasons.

He’d taken his family out of Columbia, S.C., which was home to his wife, to accept the Southern Miss job and felt as though they’d be happier in Auburn. Plus, he wasn't too far away from locking in a nice pension from the state of Alabama after working previously on Alabama’s coaching staff.

“There were a lot of reasons to go to Florida State, and I knew Jimbo was on the verge of something special there,” Johnson said. “But there were some other reasons outside football that made Auburn the right choice for us, and it’s been unbelievable the way this season has unfolded.”

Johnson’s first defense at Auburn has had its moments, both good and bad. But the Tigers have consistently made key plays during crucial situations and were second in the SEC in red zone defense.

“We’re going to have to play a lot more consistently in this game,” Johnson said. “If we give up some of the cheap plays we have this season at times, we’re going to have a hard time.”


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw was posing for photos while wearing “Google Glass.” Auburn players were dancing and jumping into interview shots, even joining the ESPNU crew on stage. Players from both teams took turns getting their pictures taken with the Vizio BCS National Championship trophy.

But don't be fooled -- they're ready for Monday night.

Saturday’s media event at the Newport Beach Marriott was chaotic, with every player and coach from both teams available to reporters. Florida State was the first team in the spotlight, followed by Auburn, and while the stars and head coaches for each team were seated at individual podiums, the rest of their teammates and staff members were seated around tables in a huge ballroom, swarmed by reporters with microphones and television cameras, working to preview the sport’s biggest game.

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AP Photo/David J. PhillipAll of FSU and Auburn's players faced the media throng Saturday before the BCS title game.
In spite of all of the distractions and attention this week, those within both programs agreed they are focused and ready for Monday night’s stage.

“Preparation has been great,” FSU receiver Rashad Greene said. “So I feel like it's been one of the best all year. So we're doing a great job at handling our business, handling the situation, and when it's time to prepare, we have done a great job and when it's time to have fun, we're doing a great job at having fun as well. So we're definitely mature enough to handle our business and know there's a time and a place to do everything.”

Auburn cornerback Chris Davis said the Tigers have had the same approach.

“In the SEC, that's the best conference in college football,” Davis said. “And I just got to say, we're going to be well prepared for Monday. We're just ready to play our best and represent the great state of Alabama.”

For Auburn, Monday’s game is a chance to extend the SEC’s streak of national titles to eight, and give the conference 10 of the 16 BCS championships. For Florida State, which is making its first appearance in the national title game in 13 years, it’s a chance to elevate the ACC and most likely finish in the top five for the first time since the program’s historic run from 1987-2000. Saturday’s media event was a also rare opportunity for reporters to speak with Florida State assistant coaches, several of whom are former players now basking in the program’s return to the top.

Both teams have been here since Dec. 31, when they were welcomed at Disneyland. Sunday morning’s news conferences with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will be the final media availability before Monday’s 8:30 p.m. ET national title game.

For the players, it’s all business now.

“Our team has done a very good job this year of not getting distracted by anything,” Malzahn said. “This week has been no different, even though the schedule has been a little bit chaotic at times. Once we got in our meetings, once we got to the practice field, the guys have been locked in, trying to get better and focus.”

Fisher and Greene both said that the Noles haven’t played their best game yet.

“I feel very confident we're ready,” Fisher said. “I think we've practiced extremely well and I like our mindset and our attitude right now. I think we're very confident in what we do but we're not arrogant. I think our kids believe in the system, and the team we have, there's not a lot of arrogance where they're ignoring things and not preparing at the same time, and I think that's very critical.”
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.

Malzahn named AP coach of the year

December, 23, 2013
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Auburn is headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and Gus Malzahn can add another accolade to his resume. On Monday, the Tigers' first-year coach was named the AP national coach of the year after orchestrating one of the greatest turnarounds in college football.

“It’s very humbling,” he told the AP Monday. “Any time you get awards like this, it’s a team thing, as far as our staff and our players. It’s been fun to be a part of this year.”

Malzahn took over an Auburn team that finished 3-9 in 2012 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. In his first season, the Tigers went 12-1, won the SEC championship and will play Florida State for the national championship. Only Hawaii’s 8.5-game turnaround from 1999-2000 matches Auburn’s one-year improvement.

Malzahn received 33 of the votes, edging Duke’s David Cutcliffe (17 votes) for the honor. Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to their first-ever 10-win season. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio each received three votes.

Malzahn becomes the second Auburn coach to win the award. Tommy Tuberville was named the AP coach of the year in 2004 after leading the Tigers to an undefeated season. It’s the fifth time an SEC coach has won the award, which was created in 1998.

Ranking Nick Saban's coaching tree

December, 11, 2013
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Nick Saban's name is sure to come up in every high-profile coaching job that opens until he decides to retire.

That's just the nature of the business when you've had the kind of success Saban has had with four national championships in the last 11 years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama coach Nick Saban has several protégés who are now head coaches, including Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Florida's Will Muschamp and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.
He won't be playing for a national title this season, but one of his protégés will -- Florida State's Jimbo Fisher.

In fact, it's been an eventful season all the way around for the Saban coaching tree.

Since we're all into power rankings this time of year, let's roll out the power rankings for the Saban coaching tree coming out of this season. In other words, those guys who have coached under Saban at some point in the college ranks and have gone on to be head coaches either in major college football or the NFL.

1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach: We'll go with Fisher at No. 1 on this list since he has the No. 1 Seminoles unbeaten and headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game to face Auburn. It's their first trip to the national title game since the 2000 season. Fisher is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. His Seminoles have been dominant this season. They've won all 13 of their games by 14 or more points and 12 of their 13 games by 27 or more points. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-04.

2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State head coach: Another finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, Dantonio has Michigan State in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season and led the Spartans to a school-record 12 wins this season. This will be their seventh straight bowl appearance. Dantonio was Saban's secondary coach at Michigan State from 1995-99.

3. Jim McElwain, Colorado State head coach: In his second season at Colorado State, McElwain has the Rams in a bowl game for the first time since the 2008 season. They will face Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. McElwain was a part of two national championship teams at Alabama under Saban as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator from 2008-11.

4. Pat Shurmur, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator: Now in his first season with the Eagles, Shurmur was the Cleveland Browns head coach from 2011-12. He coached under Saban at Michigan State from 1995-97 as the Spartans' tight ends coach.

5. Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots offensive coordinator: This is McDaniels' second season as the Patriots' offensive coordinator. He was the Denver Broncos' head coach from 2009-10 and was a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State in 1999.

6. Will Muschamp, Florida head coach: After a breakthrough second season at Florida and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, Muschamp's Gators suffered through a dismal 4-8 season this year that was marred by a litany of injuries. It was Florida's first losing season since 1979. The Gators lost their last seven games, including a home loss to Georgia Southern. It goes without saying that Year No. 4 will be a critical one for Muschamp, whose Gators have struggled on offense. Muschamp coached under Saban at LSU as the linebackers coach in 2001 and defensive coordinator from 2002-04. He was also Saban's assistant head coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2005.

7. Derek Dooley, Dallas Cowboys receivers coach: Now in his first season with the Cowboys, Dooley was the head coach at Tennessee from 2010-12. The Vols suffered through losing seasons all three years and managed just five SEC wins, leading to Dooley's firing. Dooley was the head coach at Louisiana Tech for three years prior to his stint at Tennessee. He coached under Saban at LSU from 2000-04 as tight ends coach and then running backs coach. From there, he went with Saban to the Miami Dolphins and coached tight ends before getting the Louisiana Tech head job in 2007.

Fisher, Muschamp take diverging paths

November, 26, 2013
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The most obvious sign their paths would diverge appeared in the first week of September. Jameis Winston announced himself as a future Heisman candidate with a near perfect performance in Pittsburgh, setting Florida State on its way from afterthought to contender.

Five days later, Jeff Driskel and his teammates bumbled their way to five turnovers in yet another avert-your-eyes performance at Miami. A string of team-crushing injuries ensued, setting Florida on its way from contender to catastrophe.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SearsFSU's Jimbo Fisher (left) and Florida's Will Muschamp are good friends and have a lot in common, but this year they have seen their programs head in opposite directions.
The two best friends could not have more contradictory fortunes. Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp -- groomed in the same coaching tree and working their first head coaching jobs -- have had seasons for the ages but for opposite reasons.

Muschamp has had to watch his Florida team come apart so spectacularly, his job security has been a daily topic for weeks. Meanwhile, his close pal has brought Florida State together so completely, the gap between the two programs is as wide as the 150 miles that separate Gainesville and Tallahassee.

That dichotomy must be hard to swallow for Muschamp, especially when you consider how his team thoroughly beat the Seminoles physically and on the scoreboard just one year ago. How must Muschamp feel watching Fisher enjoy so much success, knowing it further amplifies his own problems?

“I worry about Florida,” Muschamp said Monday. “I worry about what we need to do and where we are and what we need to improve. That’s what all my concentration is on. Obviously the game each week, you focus on the other team and prepare for that team -- and they’ve got a heck of a football team and they are having a heck of a year. That’s how I view things.”

A look at the Florida roster reveals little in the way of the offensive talent or overall depth Florida State has this season. It is true the Gators have sustained more injuries to starters than just about any team in America. Of the 22 players who started against Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in January, only six were available last week in a horrendous loss to Georgia Southern.

But injuries cannot be the only excuse. Questions about the offense and depth have followed Muschamp since he arrived in Gainesville. Florida did win 11 games a season ago, but the Gators had one of the worst offenses in the country and their defense was exposed in the loss to Louisville.

Quarterback has been a consistent issue since Tim Tebow left. Driskel came in as the No. 10 player on the ESPN 150 in the class of 2011 but has yet to live up to his advance billing.

Contrast that with Winston, who was actually rated lower on the ESPN 150 in the class of 2012 at No. 14 overall. Fisher could end up with a third quarterback taken in the first round in his Florida State tenure, and has some of the best talent and depth at receiver in the country. Incredibly, his team in 2013 is better after losing a record 11 picks to the NFL draft in April.

Most impressive is how the Noles have performed despite a staff full of new coaches, hired to replace assistants who went on to bigger, better jobs this past offseason. And yet the one constant on offense remains Fisher, who works without an offensive coordinator and has called the plays since his arrival. Contrast that to Florida, which is likely to make offensive staff changes for the third time under Muschamp.

What seems clear now is that Fisher benefited from serving as coach-in-waiting under Bobby Bowden. As maligned as the idea was not only at Florida State but elsewhere, Fisher had the necessary preparation for his first head-coaching job. In Year 3, he won 12 games, an ACC championship and a BCS game. Not only has Florida State put together top recruiting classes over the last several years, Fisher has maximized the talent he has brought on campus and built a two-deep that rivals Alabama.

Muschamp also served as a coach-in-waiting, but under Texas coach Mack Brown. He got his first head coaching job at Florida, a surprise hire to many, and has seemed in over his head throughout his tenure. Now in Year 3, Muschamp has never won an SEC title or a BCS game and will post the first losing season at Florida since 1979.

After the loss to Georgia Southern, the calls for his job grew more intense. Muschamp was SEC coach of the year a season ago but right now, that feels like 100 years ago.

“We have no patience in this world anymore,” Fisher said Monday. “Everything is what have you done for me lately. It’s just the way things go. I don’t think it’s right. I think that’s some of the things as far as when you look at the history of organizations, ones that have had patience seem to be the ones that really have the best true teams over longevity than ones that don’t come to rash decisions very quickly.”

Fisher offered words of support, saying he was confident Muschamp would get through the trying times. “He’s a great guy and a heck of a football coach. Will knows this business, he’ll handle it very well,” Fisher said.

Indeed, it was not long ago Florida ruled the state, winning six straight in the series between 2004-2009. That, of course, was before Fisher and Muschamp started down their own head coaching paths. Where Fisher has succeeded, Muschamp has been left alone, trying to find the right way out.

3-point stance: UCLA's growing pains

October, 29, 2013
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1. UCLA started eight true freshmen against Oregon, including three on the offensive line, and played 18 overall against the Ducks. If you are looking for a reason that Oregon scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, it might be physical (how long can 19-year-olds play guys two or three years older?) and it might be mental (close game, big stakes, who’s been there before?). Either way, the Bruins will get a dividend on this investment in, oh, 2015.

2. If you congratulate No. 3 Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher for voting his conscience on his USA Today ballot -- he sounded as if he voted Alabama No. 1 -- and if you applaud him for sitting his starters in the second half against North Carolina State after leading 42-0 at halftime, you may as well congratulate him for getting his team on the field for the opening kickoff. That’s how a coach should act. As the saying goes, Fisher is acting as if he has been there before. Which he has, as an assistant under Nick Saban.

3. Kentucky is 1-6, 0-4 in the SEC, and Wildcats first-year head coach Mark Stoops is trying to remain patient. Only the 48-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama could be considered a blowout. “I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time,” Stoops said at his press conference Monday, “but that’s not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC. You’ve got to be good top to bottom, and you’ve got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you’re under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface.”
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Miami and Florida once played an annual rivalry game, one that has only appeared intermittently over the past few years.

The meeting between the two schools set for Sept. 7 could be the last one for a good, long while. Miami athletic director Blake James said during the ACC spring meetings that he has not had any discussions with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley about extending the series.

"This is a game that’s been on the schedule and we’re thrilled to be hosting them in South Florida," James said. "With that said, I haven’t spoken with Jeremy or the University of Florida about future games and I don’t know how it would fit into their schedule or fit into ours right now. There hasn’t been any conversation and there isn’t anything on the schedule for the future."

That really is too bad, although not unexpected. The two schools previously met annually between 1938-87 but have played only five times since then. Two were in bowl games. Their meeting this season will complete just their second home-and-home series since 1987. Essentially, Florida's nonconference scheduling logistics have hurt this rivalry game.

The Gators already have Florida State as an annual nonconference game, and Foley prefers to fill the other open nonconference slots with home games. Florida rarely plays a nonconference game away from home, much less out of state. Indeed, of the future Florida opponents already announced, the only nonconference road game is in Tallahassee.

Miami, meanwhile, already has future nonconference home-and-home games set with Nebraska, Rutgers and Michigan State and also plays at Notre Dame as part of the three-year league rotation in 2016.

Looking into the future, there also remains the possibility that the SEC will move to a nine-game league schedule. If that happens, well the chances of Miami and Florida playing again in the regular season are reduced even further. Especially with Florida-Florida State a mainstay. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher remained confident nothing would happen to the Florida-Florida State game if the SEC adds another conference contest.

"I doubt that game will ever be affected because I think one of the criteria for getting in the final four is strength of schedule, which is why we’re changing our schedule," Fisher said. "Whether they have nine or we have eight only enhances that ability and it makes the results of that game even greater."

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