With 2012 winding to a close, we're counting down the five biggest moments of the past season for Florida State. Today, we fill in the top spot on the list: Karlos Williams' interception to clinch the ACC championship.
Williams might be the best athlete on the Florida State roster, but through the better part of two full seasons with the Seminoles, all that talent had earned him only marginal playing time. He'd seen work as a kick returner and proven to be a dangerous weapon. He's filled in sporadically at safety, and his playing time had increased incrementally throughout his sophomore season. Regular playing time remained out of reach, however, until he was called into action midway through the first quarter of Florida State's biggest game of the year.
For the pessimists who watched Florida State in 2012, it was a year of missed opportunities, a season that saw an immensely talented team play an immensely manageable schedule and still finish with two losses. For the glass-half-full types, however, it was FSU's best season in a decade, a return to the top of the conference, and a turning point for the future.
What is certain, however, is that 2012 will be remembered as the season in which Florida State won its first ACC title in seven years, and that might not have happened without Williams.
After Williams spent nearly all of the season at safety, outgoing defensive coordinator Mark Stoops shifted him to linebacker in preparation for the title game against Georgia Tech's run-heavy offense. With little depth at the position, Stoops knew an injury would be catastrophic against the Yellow Jackets' triple option, and Williams was an insurance plan.
As it turned out, the Seminoles cashed in that plan early in the first quarter when senior strongside linebacker Nick Moody left the game with a concussion. Williams entered, and he quickly made his impact felt.
Williams finished his first game as a linebacker with a team-high 11 tackles, playing the position with both natural athleticism and veteran savvy required to stop Tech's option, which feasts on catching linebackers out of position. Behind Williams, the Seminoles held Tech to just 183 yards on the ground -- nearly half its season average.
But as the Yellow Jackets lined up on first down at their own 37 with little more than a minute to play, none of that mattered. Florida State's offense had crumbled in the second half, and Tech had steadfastly chipped away at the Seminoles' lead -- and now it was threatening to send FSU home without its prized possession. It was a scenario eerily similar to a loss at NC State two months earlier, when the defense simply couldn't make a play to get off the field in time to prevent disaster.
"You just have flashbacks," safety Lamarcus Joyner said.
Of course, Williams wasn't on the field much in that game against NC State. In the ACC championship game, however, he got his chance.
Tevin Washington's pass was off line, and Williams tipped it in the air before settling under the ball for an interception, which he returned 41 yards before being nudged out of bounds just 4 yards shy of the end zone.
"[The receiver] came across and the quarterback threw a pretty bad ball," Williams said. "I just broke on it and tried to tip it up and bat it down. I just tried to make a sure catch, and that's what happened. I'm just happy I got the call, and we're ACC champions."
It was Williams' first big game, but it was also Stoops' last at Florida State, and he said afterward that he couldn't have written a better farewell.
"It's unbelievable story," Stoops said of Williams' dramatic conclusion to the game. "I just loved it."
Williams' older brother, Vince, summed up the performance by lauding his sibling's versatility.
"He can really do anything," Vince Williams said. "He's an outside linebacker that returned kickoff returns. The man is unbelievable talent wise. It's just get him a role, get him adjusted and get him out on the field to see if he can make plays."
Even if Florida State's season fell shy of immense expectations, its finale proved meaningful. It provided the Seminoles with a long-awaited conference title, and it punched their ticket to the Orange Bowl.
Just as importantly, perhaps, Williams opened the door for a sneak peak at what lies ahead, too.
"Karlos is a wonderful kid and he's going to have a bright future," Stoops said. "It was just fitting."