Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

As Good As It Gets: FSU Wins National Championship

No team gets to the National Championship game without being a pretty good squad. Actually better than that. So when Auburn and FSU were matched up in Pasadena for the final BCS Championship game, nobody should have expected anything but a close game. It’s never a mismatch unless the pollsters fall in love with one team (see Alabama vs. Notre Dame). But as the weeks wore on between their final games and their meeting in California, FSU became more and more of a favorite. Their quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and charmed the media with his easy, glib manner. Their coach gave an unfiltered view of what he thought of just about anything you asked him.

And the fans loved it.

Meanwhile, Auburn toiled in relative obscurity, highlights of their heart-stopping two final wins representing their entire season to most fans. In Pasadena, both teams said all the right things and looked poised to provide a great contest.

Once they kicked it off though, Auburn proved to be less effected by the big stage and played the kind of game that was expected: strong running game, some out-of-the-box offensive formations and quarterback Nick Marshall calmly hitting wide open receivers.

Florida State looked lost. Physically they were a match for the Tigers. Big across both lines and fast everywhere, the ‘Noles had the look of a contender. But instead, they were rattled. Jameis Winston was rushing just about everything, from handoffs to checkdowns to throws, the All-American seemed to fall victim to the Heisman curse. Quarterbacks winning the Heisman and playing in the National Championship game had gone 2-5 coming into this game. Between nervous execution, unlikely penalties and dubious clock management, FSU gave up yards and points, trailing 21-10 at halftime.

In a nutshell, Auburn was playing as expected: FSU was not.

As the second half unfolded, Winston found a little rhythm and the ‘Noles defense started to get the stops they needed. A couple of solid drives led to a field goal and a TD and cut the deficit to 21-20. But Auburn is nothing if not resilient. They pounded the ball down the field, chewing up clock to kick a field goal and a 24-20 lead. And that’s when lightning struck for the ‘Noles Levonte Whitfield returned a kickoff 100-yards to give the Noles a 27-24 lead. But again, Auburn got to this game by playing to the final whistle, scoring a TD of their own on a Tre Mason 37-yard blistering run to lead 31-27.

So it’s over right?

Not exactly.

With just over a minute to go, Jameis Winston lead the FSU offense down the field, 80 yards for a TD of their own, for a 34-31 lead. Winston’s arm was the difference. His toss to Rashad Greene chewed up a bunch of yardage and stopped the clock, putting the ‘Noles in position to score. This is where Winston was tested. As a 20-year old, it would be very easy to make a mistake and throw an interception at this point but he was patient, taking no chances and hit Kelvin Benjamin on a high toss for the TD.

For all of their problems in the first half and at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, FSU stuck together. They regained their poise when it looked like things could go in the wrong direction quickly.

Credit Jimbo Fisher for whatever he said to Winston at halftime. I saw him grab Jameis’ facemask during a timeout in Gainesville against Florida and asked him if that was part of their regular relationship.

“Absolutely,” he said with a steely-eyed glare. “It’s how we communicate.”

However that kind of communication translated during the National Championship game obviously worked as the ‘Noles finish the season at #1.

And with everybody who’s coming back, they could stay there for a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU vs. Team of Destiny

There are only a couple of questions about tonight’s outcome of the National Championship game between FSU and Auburn. If you just look at how the two teams got here, it’s easy to pick FSU to win going away. The Seminoles won every game by double digits and scored more than 40 points almost every Saturday.

“Our best game is still out there,” Head Coach Jimbo Fisher scarily told the assembled media this week.

If that’s true, the Seminoles could already be considered one of the best teams in college football history. But they have some flaws, at least statistically. FSU has given up a lot of yards through the air. Some of that is scheme, as they try to pressure the quarterback and play man-to-man behind it. Some of it is that they’ve been ahead so easily and so early that other teams had no choice but to throw the ball.

But some if it comes from risk-taking and giving up the big play.

That’s where Auburn might have a chance to take advantage of the Seminole’s style.

The Tigers have speed and deception on offense, something that will give the ‘Noles difficulty early on. “We don’t call them trick plays,” Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said when asked about his play calling.

“The players call them special plays.”

Misdirection, reverses, speed to the edge, all of that is what the Tigers have lived on this year. They’ll score some points, particularly early, and they’ll need to against a potent FSU offense.

Florida State will score points, no question. With their Heisman winning quarterback Jameis Winston throwing it to NFL-quality wide receivers, an all-American tight end and three running backs rotating to stay fresh, they’ll be able to do what they want on offense.

Auburn will have the same success early in the game and it will look like a contest at halftime.

In the second half, that’s where the Seminoles will continue to score and their defensive speed will start to shut down the Tigers. They’ll wear on Auburn and continue to relentlessly drive the ball on offense. But the final whistle, it’ll be another double-digit win by FSU, something like 37-24.

Having said that, remember that Auburn had a couple of miracles to get to this game, the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” and the kick return in the Iron Bowl that nobody expected. They do have a bit of destiny on their side so a couple of turnovers and another small miracle could change this game completely.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU A Close-Knit Group

When they walked into the ballroom for their “Media Day” interviews, I was struck by how much the 2013 FSU football team reminded me of the 1993 team that played for, and won the National Championship. Big and athletic, there aren’t any “fat” guys on this team. Even the biggest of the offensive and defensive linemen who are over 300 lbs. look like athletes.

That ’93 team had the same look.

Guys you’d take in a pick-up game and dominate. In fact, that’s what a lot of the linemen were doing in ’93 when not involved in interview or practice: playing pick-up football. Most linemen think they’re QB’s and WR’s anyway so the chance to run, throw and catch is what they’re looking for. I was surprised at the time that Bobby Bowden and his staff allowed it but Bowden said later it helped the team bond.

Jimbo Fisher thinks this is a close-knit team as well.

“I think we’re a good football team,” the chief Seminole said in front of hundreds of media members gathered around his podium. “But I think this is a great bunch of guys. They’re really together. They look out for one another. They’re something special.”

Fisher speaks in a Hemmingway-esque staccato style. Short sentences, very straightforward. In this case he was very effusive in his praise for what kind of “men” this FSU team were developing into as well as their ability on the field. He emphasized the word “great” every time he used it when describing the kind of people his players have become.

“Just a great group to be around. Work hard, play hard. I like everything about these guys.”

You might think that every coach says that, but actually you only hear that when you get to a championship situation. Because that’s what it takes to win a title.

“Any successful team has teammates who have a strong affection for one another,” Two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlin preaches.

The first time you hear that it’s kind of strange. But under closer examination, it’s what separates great teams from good ones. They’re close, they root for each other.

“When I first got here, there was a lot of looking around, trying to size up what you can do,” said Tyrell Lyons, a freshman defensive back from First Coast. “But now, we’re just all friends. We love each other, we pick each other up.”

Cameron Ponder from Yulee agreed right away.

“Absolutely,” he said when I asked if it had made him a better man to have been on this team.

“I’ve learned to make friends with all kinds of different people. I come from a small town; I could be called ‘country’ on this team. A lot of my teammates have never seen a four-wheeler. They don’t know a thing about hunting or fishing. I was used to the same kind of people growing up in Yulee but now, I have a lot of different kinds of friends who are teammates.”

In this “media day” situation, some of the stars of the team are put on podiums around the ballroom. The rest of the players are sitting at round tables in the center, waiting in case somebody asked them a question. During the Seminole’s interview time, large groups of players in their jerseys huddled around the tables, laughing and chatting, taking each other’s picture and working on their phones.

“We’re a brotherhood,” First Coast’s Derrick Mitchell Jr. told me when I asked about the team bond. “Everybody gets along. No cliques, no separate groups. We all joke and have fun together and get down to business when we’re on the field.”

There are nine different players on the 2013 Seminoles squad who call Jacksonville and North Florida home. They’re from very different backgrounds and different parts of town. Three are from First Coast. Lee, Wolfson, Bartram Trail, Sandalwood, First Coast Christian and Yulee are all represented.

Jonathan Wallace from Lee walked-on at FSU and stuck around. He says it’s one of the best experiences of his life.

“We’re tight,” the 6-7 295 lb. redshirt senior said when asked about this team versus other’s he’s played on. “The Jacksonville guys stick together, even though we played at different high schools. We have to. The Miami guys pick on us all the time!” he added with a laugh.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fisher/Malzahn, FSU/Auburn Contrast in Style

Different events have a different feel.

The Super Bowl is big, corporate, sponsor-driven and engulfs the city it’s in; bringing the national focus on everything that surrounds it.

The National Championship is a mini version of that, but with a much more homey feel. There’s some national media, but not much. Whichever network is televising the game has a big presence but most of the reporters asking questions are from TV stations and newspapers near the two schools, campus bloggers and various dot com’s devoted to college sports and college football.

At their final meeting with the media on Sunday, FSU’s Jimbo Fisher and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn showed the difference in their style, their preparation and even how they approached this week. Both agreed that you have to try to keep the routine the same, but it’s difficult.

“I like to get up early,” Malzahn said of his game day routine. “I’ll look at film and keep it as routine as possible.”

I could tell you what Jimbo’s answer to that was but it might take 5 or 6 paragraphs. In fact, the difference between the two coaches was evident from their opening statements. Malzahn’s was 4 sentences. Fisher’s filled at least 2 pages.

To be fair, Fisher has been around this kind of situation before and has been in the college game for a while. Malzahn’s experience includes a recent hypersonic leap from high school football to head coach of a national championship contender. He likes to keep it simple dealing with the press. He didn’t reveal anything new or give any insight to what might be happening with the Tigers on Monday night.

“We don’t call them trick plays. Our players call them special plays,” he answered when asked about the variety of offensive calls in his playbook.

“She told me I needed to be nicer to my players,” was his response when asked about his wife Kristi’s role in his success. “She’s my accountability.”

And when asked about his first few months on the job as the head coach at Auburn, Malzahn said he and the coaches had done “a lot of Dr. Phillin'” to figure out how to get the program back on track. At least I think that’s what he said. Malzahn has a reputation among his players for making up words to try and motivate them.

Jimbo Fisher is about to lose his voice. And it’s not from yelling at his players. Fisher has answered so many questions this week that he’s probably talking in his sleep. And there’s no holding him back either from the content of his answer or the length of it. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, tempered a bit with some political correctness but if it’s on his mind, it’s coming out.

He bristled a bit when asked about last year’s losses to NC State and Florida and how he “rebuilt” himself and his team. “If 12-2 isn’t good enough then we have something wrong with this business,” was his response.

What is evident with Fisher is how much he likes this version of the Seminoles.

“This is a great bunch of guys to be around. They like each other. They love each other. They know how to have fun and when it’s time to get down to business. I don’t know I’ve ever enjoyed it more.”

And his admiration for Jameis Winston is also apparent. When asked about how Winston copes with everything around him at 19 years old (he’ll be 20 tomorrow), Fisher said Winston is the same no matter what.

“He had pressure when he started against Pittsburgh. With all of the expectations. He approaches every play, every practice as if it’s the National Championship.”

Since his opponent doesn’t have an extensive college resume, Fisher said he doesn’t have a problem looking back to Malzahn’s high school coaching career to see what he might do Monday night.

“We have a book on everybody we play, every coach. I’ve coached with and against a lot of these guys so we just go back and see how they’ve reacted in certain situations.” And if you didn’t think FSU had joined the modern era of college football, Fisher revealed that his graduate assistants are working on opponents, “three, four weeks out” and that the Seminoles (like a lot of schools) employ a “mental coach” on the staff.

“We’re working with our guys all the time, all year round on how to think, how to deal with different situations, how to make decisions in their lives.” FSU’s mental coach works with sports psychologists trying to get that job done.

From how the two coaches see their teams a day before the title game, it would be hard to predict a winner. But either way, it won’t be from a lack of research or preparation.

They’ll both be ready.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Talking Vs. Doing: Does Bradley’s “Conviction” Mean Jaguars Wins Are On The Way?

I was talking to my friend Dennis the other day, dissecting the Jaguars under Dave Caldwell and Gus Bradley and what their plan has been and will be for the future. A season ticket holder, Dennis cut me off saying, “Yeah, whatever, it’s been miserable for the fans.”

You can talk all you want about culture change, phase one and phase two, buying in and staying true to your convictions but when it comes down to it, the experience for the fans is what the NFL is selling. And fans don’t want to get much past win or lose when it comes to what their experience is like. Win and it’s a lot of fun. Lose, especially a lot, and the fan experience is no fun, even if your guys are playing hard.

“We’re going to have passionate, spirited competitive players on our team, that’s for sure,” Bradley said at his year-end press conference echoing what Caldwell said he expected in the kind of players they’ll acquire through the draft and free agency.

As a reporter, you generally don’t become a “fan” of the teams you’re covering. But it makes your job a lot more pleasant and fun when the teams win, that’s for sure. But having covered the Jaguars since their inception, I’ve learned that you can’t help but be come a “fan” of some of the people you interact with. You want success for certain people. Gus Bradley is one of those. Easy to like, easy to root for because he’s authentic.

“Believe me I’d like to see some victories as well.” Bradley said when I asked him what he’d say to fans at this point in his tenure. “But I have so much conviction that in order to get there, we have to do it this way. We all want what they want but we have to stay true to this in order to get there.”

You can talk about conviction to the media and your staff and even to your boss, but the ticket buying public wants wins, wants a competitive team. That’s where Bradley said it’s coming. That this year was a building block and trust that he and Dave Caldwell know what they’re doing.

“I’m into this ‘step 2’ part of it,” explaining his overall philosophy when it comes to building a winner. “What it means to the fans is that they (the Jaguars) completed step one, and they must have vision. OK we completed step one and we have a vision on how this thing is going to play out in step two.”

I’ve said a couple of times this year it was different covering this team because they did a lot of things right but still lost because they were just outmanned. That’s why it was like covering the expansion year. It was fun to see the process but eventually that has to pay dividends with wins.

Bradley says he understands that.

‘We’re looking for sustained success and sometimes that’s a process. I know they’re (the fans) competitive too. They can trust that we’ll compete our tails off, that’s for sure.”

So in other words he’s asking for patience.

I asked Tom Coughlin during the expansion year what he was going to do about a certain personnel weakness other teams were exploiting in mid-season.

“These are our players,” Coughlin answered without another syllable. Which was pretty simple to translate. Hey, I can’t cut everybody.

Nobody knows the team was outmanned better than Caldwell and Bradley. And they’re both well aware that they’re on a time clock when it comes to how long owner Shad Khan will listen to talk about culture and conviction without producing victories.

The ‘step 2’ Bradley talks about is upgrading the roster and having everybody understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Not just knowing, but mastering the playbook on offense and defense. Understanding what the coaches are asking you to do and how you and your teammates can make that happen.

Next season we’ll see a better and more competitive Jaguars team. Upgrades on the roster through “modest” free agency and the draft are expected.

But without more wins, Bradley and Caldwell’s seats will be significantly warmer.