It doesn’t matter how many double-digit deficits they dig themselves against less-talented opponents, it doesn’t matter how many interceptions Jameis Winston throws, or how many sacks their shoddy offensive line allows. After rallying to beat Louisville, 42-31, on Thursday night, No. 2 Florida State is now the surest bet in the sport to reach the College Football Playoff.
While the 2013 national champions rarely played from behind, 2014 FSU doesn’t start playing until it’s behind. The ‘Noles trailed Clemson in the fourth quarter. NC State went up 24-7. Notre Dame took the lead three times. Thursday, though, the champs made it harder for themselves than ever before, trailing Louisville 21-0 late in the first half while dealing with a hostile crowd and several injuries — Winston’s ankle among them.
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But the ever-polarizing Heisman winner led his team back yet again, this time with help from some unexpected contributors.
FSU’s two biggest issues this season have been running the ball and stopping the run, both of which reared their heads again in the first half. Louisville’s Michael Dyer gashed the ‘Noles for 134 yard and three touchdowns on 28 carries but did most of his damage before halftime. FSU tightened up in the second half.
Meanwhile, ‘Noles true freshman tailback Dalvin Cook provided a much-needed big play spark, bursting for touchdown runs of 40 and 38 yards, the latter giving FSU a decisive 35-31 lead with 3:46 left. Two other touted true freshmen, receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane, broke for scores of 68 and 47 yards, respectively. The ‘Noles racked up 574 yards against a Louisville defense that came in allowing a national-low 245.8.
Winston did not look like himself for much of the night. He tossed a career-worst three interceptions (though he negated one by stripping Gerrod Holliman on his return) and could have had more. His touchdown to Lane defied physics, slicing through such a thin hole that two Cardinals defenders crashed into each other like Keystone Cops going for the pick. He completed just 52.1 percent of his passes. But by night’s end he’d racked up 401 yards, second-highest of his career.
That kind of mixed-bag performance has come to define both Winston’s and FSU’s season, but the ‘Noles are now 8-0 with wins over three teams — Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville — that appeared in the selection committee’s first rankings. It has no such opponents left, unless No. 24 Duke reaches the ACC championship game.
Florida State’s biggest obstacles are behind it. The ‘Noles’ four remaining regular-season opponents — 4-4 Virginia, 5-3 Miami, 5-3 Boston College and 3-3 Florida — would have to pull a much bigger upset than the one Louisville nearly pulled off Thursday. And even if FSU somehow manages to lose a game, that might not be a deal-breaker as long as it still wins the ACC. If you haven’t noticed, almost everyone else has already got a loss, and most are going to spend the next six weeks playing multiple opponents capable of beating them.
Like it or not, America, the ‘Noles are probably going to the playoff. Are they actually one of the four best teams? They don’t look it, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning every game. Again.