NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Florida State coaches built close relationships with Jameis Winston during his high school career in Bessemer, Ala.
Football coach Jimbo Fisher and his friend Florida State baseball assistant Mike Martin Jr. were key in assuring Winston that he would be able to realize his dream of playing both sports at the college level.
But Winston also developed a close bond with then-Florida State quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig, whose primary recruiting area for the Seminoles was Alabama. Winston was the top dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2012, and he was playing just 30 miles from Alabama’s campus and two hours from Auburn.
So the fact that Craig, a star Auburn quarterback in the mid-1990s, was able to beat out Alabama and Auburn to bring the state’s biggest star to Tallahassee raised more than a few eyebrows.
"People in Alabama didn’t like me," Craig said. "I went from being one of the most loved persons in Auburn football to one of the most hated persons in the entire state."
Craig understood the outcry, saying "he had a job to do." And it was also a tough decision for him when he opted in January 2013 to leave Florida State and join Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn.
"Coach Craig is still one of the mentors in my life, like a father figure to me," Winston said.
But the two likely won’t share much more than a handshake on Monday when No. 1 Florida State (13-0) and No. 2 Auburn (12-1) face off for the BCS national title on Monday night. Winston said he deleted Craig’s number from his phone.
"I’m not talking to him this week," Winston said.
During his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, Winston thanked his coaches, including Fisher and members of the Florida State football and baseball staff. And even though Winston and Craig spent just a season in Tallahassee together, and it was a year in which Winston was taking a redshirt, he also thanked the man whom he often calls "Uncle Craig."
Craig was watching the ceremony on television and said it was an emotional moment for him.
"He didn’t have to do that," Craig said. "That said a lot about him as a person. For him to share the brightest moment of his life with me meant a lot."
— How good has Florida State’s season been? A win on Monday would put it amongst the best in college football history. The Seminoles are looking to become just the fifth team to win 14 games in a single season. Auburn (2010), Boise State (2009), Alabama (2009), Ohio State (2002) and BYU (1996) have also hit 14 wins in a season.
— Much has been talked about the fact that Florida State hasn’t played in a close game this season. And in some ways the Seminoles’ domination of opponents has led to questioning how the team will react in a close game. Florida State rallied from a 17-3 first-half deficit to win at Boston College 48-34. And Florida State led Miami 21-14 at the half before pulling away to win 41-14. The Seminoles have been in some close games, finding the resolve to either rally or make adjustments at halftime. So don’t expect the "lack of a close game" argument to be much of a factor.
— Florida State has won its past five bowl games and is 26-14-2 in its 42 bowl appearances. While Florida State considers Monday’s game to be the 32nd consecutive year it has appeared in a bowl game, the NCAA disagrees and says that the streak was snapped when it forced the school to vacate wins from the 2006 season (which includes a bowl win over UCLA in the Emerald Bowl).
— The Seminoles have scored 40 or more points in 12 of 13 games this season, with the exception being a 37-7 win at Florida on Nov. 30. And if Florida State is able to score 28 points against Auburn, the Seminoles will have the Football Bowl Subdivision record for points in a season. Oklahoma scored 716 points in 2008 during a 14-game season.
— Florida State opened the BCS era with a national championship in 1999, defeating Virginia Tech 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl. And now the Seminoles are closing down the BCS era on Jan. 6. But the BCS hasn’t been kind to Florida State, which is just 2-5 in BCS games. The only other BCS win came against Northern Illinois in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
— Jameis Winston will turn 20 on Monday. And he looks to become just the 14th player to win the Heisman Trophy and the national championship in the same season. Florida State’s Charlie Ward did it in 1993, but Chris Weinke missed out in 2000.
— Jimbo Fisher and Gus Malzahn are both seeking their first championships as head coaches. But both have both won titles as assistants. Malzahn won in 2010 as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, and Fisher earned a title in 2003 as LSU’s offensive coordinator. This would be Fisher’s second perfect season — he also was part of an Auburn team in 1993 that was 11-0 but was not able to play for the national title due to NCAA sanctions. That’s also the year Florida State won its first title.
— From Fred Biletnikoff to Anquan Boldin, Florida State has had plenty of top-notch receivers. But this is the most prolific trio in school history. Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene each have at least 900 receiving yards. Florida State has never had three hit the 900-yard mark in a season, and the last time that two Seminoles hit the 1,000-yard mark was in 1995, when both E.G. Green and Andre Cooper did it. Auburn has struggled to stop the pass this season, allowing 260 passing yards per game. The Tigers’ defensive backs will have a tough task in keeping Florida State’s receivers out of the end zone.
— Auburn’s Tre Mason has been at his best in big games. Against ranked opponents, Mason has surpassed 100 yards and had a touchdown in games against Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU. The one game he didn’t, against Mississippi, he still had 77 yards and a touchdown. Can he have a big game again?
— Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall has run for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns. But he also is completing 60 percent of his passes. It’s tough to knock an Auburn offense that averaged 335 rushing yards per game, but the big question may be Marshall’s ability to pass. Can he use play-action to catch Florida State’s defensive backs off-guard? If Marshall can’t complete enough passes, the one-dimensional Tigers offense may have trouble keeping up on the scoreboard.
TEN QUICK HITTERS
— Few teams playing for a championship have been this good on both sides of the ball. Florida State leads the nation in scoring offense (53 points per game) and scoring defense (10.7 points per game).
— Florida State hasn’t trailed in a game in more than three months. The Seminoles have been ahead on the scoreboard for the last 571 minutes and 49 seconds, dating to the second quarter of the Boston College game.
— Roberto Aguayo has scored more points (147) than Florida State’s opponents (139). Aguayo is on pace to set the NCAA single-season scoring record for kickers, which is 156 and was set by Quinn Sharp of Oklahoma State in 2012.
— Florida State has played in the Los Angeles area before, facing USC in 1997 (a 14-7 win) and BYU in 1991 (a 44-28 win in a kickoff classic in Anaheim, Calif.). But the Seminoles have never played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.