TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It’s not just Auburn standing in the way of a national championship for Florida State. It’s history.
For seven straight seasons, the BCS title game has been dominated by the SEC, so when this year’s matchup was set, the question for the Seminoles wasn’t simply whether they could match up with the Tigers, but whether they possessed the magic formula to finally snap that league’s stranglehold on the trophy so many SEC fans now view as a birthright.
But just because the dominance of the mighty SEC provides an easy narrative for this year’s championship game, Florida State isn’t buying in to the hype.
“It’s not the ACC vs. the SEC,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “It’s Florida State vs. Auburn. It’s a bunch of great, talented kids over here vs. great talented kids.”
In the wake of Florida State’s win over Duke, wrapping up a second straight ACC title and securing the Seminoles’ spot in the VIZIO BCS Championship Game, coach Jimbo Fisher was quizzed on how he assembled his such a talented group of players. A longtime assistant at Auburn and LSU and a protege of Alabama’s Nick Saban, Fisher never hid his appreciation for how the top SEC programs were built.
When six assistant coaches departed following the 2012 season, Fisher looked to the SEC for replacements. He hired Randy Sanders from Tennessee and stole Jeremy Pruitt away from Saban. Sal Sunseri had spent years coaching in the SEC, too. When Pruitt came aboard and installed a new defense, he sold players on the system by showing them film of Alabama.
Even beyond X’s and O’s, however, Fisher has worked to instill an SEC culture at Florida State. In February, he told a Minnesota radio station that building his program in Alabama’s image was the path to success.
"I went against [Saban] every day in practice for five years," said Fisher, who was Saban’s offensive coordinator for five years. "He's done a great job of organizing. He's got the structure. People don't realize he's got the infrastructure really set up.
"That's why we've been able to make our jump at Florida State. We've got our infrastructure set up where we can keep replacing guys, and I think we'll be in that national title hunt every year, just like they are."
Fisher’s words proved prescient. After the Seminoles had 11 players from last year’s team selected in the NFL draft -- more than any other school -- Fisher simply plugged in talented replacements, and Florida State never faltered.
But now that his prediction has come true, Fisher isn’t so eager to tip his cap to the conference that has won the last seven national titles.
“I built our program like I thought we needed to build it to win a national championship,” Fisher said. “We don’t model ourselves after nobody. We’re Florida State, and we do things the way we do them, the way I think you have to play to win a championship. That’s the way we tried to build this team.”
Fisher can bristle at the comparisons, but it’s hardly a slight. And while the culture he’s created at Florida State looks awfully similar to what Saban installed at Alabama, the key for the Seminoles on Jan. 6 will be the players Fisher has recruited.
In his four years on the job, Fisher has won his share of recruiting battles going head to head with Auburn, Alabama and Florida. Since 2010, only two programs have finished with top-10 classes every year, according to ESPN’s rankings: Alabama and Florida State. And when FSU takes the field against Auburn in Pasadena, all but two members of its starting lineup will be players who spurned SEC offers to play for the Seminoles.
In other words, it’s not about how good the SEC players are in the other locker room. Florida State has plenty of talent of its own.
“We always say the opponent has no face,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We’re not looking at them and saying, ‘Oh, they’re Auburn’ or ‘They come from the SEC.’ We’re going out there to compete against ourselves.”
After seven years of SEC dominance, the challenge Florida State poses this year might finally be enough to end the streak.
Of the last six non-SEC teams to play for a national title (two SEC teams faced off in 2011), Florida State has the most yards per play (7.8), scored the most points per game (53), held opponents to the fewest points (10.7 per game), and compiled the second-best turnover margin (+17). The difference between the Seminoles’ yards-per-play and points scored compared with what their defense has allowed this season is nearly double the average of the last six teams to challenge the SEC for a national title.
In other words, Florida State is good, even if it doesn’t come from the world’s most distinguished conference.
“We're not going to get involved in all this SEC-ACC stuff because we done made it to where we are, and we're not done yet,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We fear no one.”