CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s been 13 years since Florida State last played for a national title.
The No. 1 Seminoles now have a spot in the BCS championship game, and they did it with (what else?) a performance that showed their dominance while thrashing yet another team.
Jameis Winston threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns, further cementing his Heisman Trophy candidacy, and Florida State’s defense held Duke in check in a 45-7 victory in the ACC championship game Saturday night.
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The Seminoles became the first team to win back-to-back ACC titles since Virginia Tech (2007-08). Florida State has 14 ACC titles, tying Clemson for the most in league history.
“This championship means a lot to us,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This is where we want to be every year and we have to get here to keep achieving and going to BCS games.”
Florida State (13-0) will find out Sunday night who it will play in the BCS championship game on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. After No. 2 Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, the Seminoles will likely play SEC champion Auburn (12-1). The bowl matchups will be made official Sunday night.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Fisher said. “I just wanted to win this game and play.”
One thing is certain: Florida State is the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that finished the season undefeated after both Ohio State and Northern Illinois lost in the past few days.
The Seminoles last played for a national title in 2000, falling to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Florida State capped a perfect season in 1999 with a national title and a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
For a decade-long stretch in the 2000s, Florida State was far from the dominant Seminoles teams of the 1990s. After Bobby Bowden was pushed into retirement after the 2009 season, Fisher was promoted.
He emphasized changing the culture, from one that often accepted eight- or nine-win seasons as acceptable. He pushed for ACC titles, and now he has won a pair of them.
“This is what I imagined,” Fisher said. “We always imagine more.”
On Saturday, Winston completed 19 of 32 passes, including two touchdown passes to Kelvin Benjamin (one of them a 54-yard catch-and-run) and another touchdown pass to Kenny Shaw.
In his final game before the Heisman Trophy voting closes on Monday, Winston didn’t deliver his best game. But he surpassed 300 yards for the seventh time and added a 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Considered the leading contender for the Heisman, Winston is a lock to be named a Heisman finalist on Monday and could very well make it back-to-back freshman quarterbacks to win the Heisman (Johnny Manziel won in 2012).
Fisher was asked if Winston is the best player in the nation, and he smiled.
“I’m going to say this,” Fisher said. “If he isn’t, it’s a short roll call. I’ll promise you that.”
The Seminoles also ran for 239 yards on 43 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. It was the 12th time in 13 games that Florida State surpassed the 40-point mark.
No. 20 Duke (10-3) couldn’t get much going on offense, turning it over three times and punting nine times. A Blue Devils offense that had averaged 33 points per game this season was kept off the scoreboard for nearly 59 minutes until Josh Snead scored on a 5-yard run for Duke with 1:01 left.
Florida State has ripped teams by a cumulative 689-139. All of the wins have been by double figures, and it’s notable that kicker Roberto Aguayo outscored teams by himself, 147-139.
The Seminoles went unbeaten despite a number of offseason obstacles. Florida State lost seven defensive starters to the NFL, not to mention a first-round pick in quarterback EJ Manuel. And Fisher had to replace six assistant coaches.
Seniors like Lamarcus Joyner and Christian Jones returned to the defense. The years of top-10 recruiting classes paid off, and Florida State filled the holes on offense and defense.
But Florida State was able to win week after week.
“We lost 11 players last year that got drafted,” Fisher said. “To me that’s a testament to our assistant coaches, how they got these guys ready to play. And how the senior leadership of the team developed a culture and a program that develops consistency.”
Players said they felt in the spring that this team could take a step forward, even improving on Florida State’s 12-2 record of a year ago. That team won an ACC title and an Orange Bowl.
But there was a feeling that, despite all the departures, Florida State could accomplish more.
“We did envision this after last season because we felt like we left a lot out there on the table,” senior linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We felt like it was so much that we were supposed to accomplish that we came back and we had a little — not a vendetta, like coach said, it was a reckoning.”