Jameis Winston asked for a show of hands.
“How many of you,” Winston asked his Florida State teammates before taking the field in The Swamp on Saturday, “have been undefeated in high school before?”
A couple of players raised their hands. But only a couple.
The vast majority of Seminoles — their star quarterback included — couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, they played on an unbeaten team. It last happened at FSU in 1999, when most of them were starting grade school.
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Which is why Winston said after the Seminoles wrapped up their regular season by improving to 12-0 with a 37-7 win over rival Florida that it felt “so good,” especially since “everybody was on our back, everything’s going around in our heads.”
Interpret that anyway you wish, as reporters were once again permitted to ask Winston “football questions only” and nothing about the sexual-assault case in which he has been named a suspect.
With much on his mind, undoubtedly, the redshirt freshman quarterback remained mum on the matter but continued to make noise on the field, throwing for 327 yards on 19-for-31 passing as the second-ranked Seminoles moved one step closer to a BCS National Championship showdown. FSU is likely to be No.1 in the BCS poll Sunday following Alabama’s stunning loss against Auburn.
Next on the agenda: surprising Duke in next Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Winston and the Seminoles got off to a slow start against the Gators on Saturday, but turned it on late and pulled away for a convincing victory over their beleaguered in-state rivals. Florida (4-8) closed out its worst season since 1979 by losing its final seven games.
Gators coach Will Muschamp, who received a vote of confidence by athletic director Jeremy Foley before Saturday’s game, called the latest setback a “difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season. That’s the best way I can sum it up.”
The Gators’ defense held high octane Florida State in check for most of the first half and held the Seminoles to their lowest scoring output of the season. But once FSU got rolling, its talent took over and there was nothing Florida could do to stop it.
Winston found Kelvin Benjamin on a 45-yard scoring play with 4:24 remaining in the half, a play in which Benjamin shook off several tacklers before scampering into the end zone, and the FSU tandem continued the assault in the second half when they put the game away.
Just as Winston predicted he would, Benjamin had a big day, finishing with nine receptions for 212 yards and three touchdowns.
Winston said he singled out Benjamin earlier in the week.
“I said, ‘K.B., you’re our unstoppable force,’” Winston said. “I told him, ‘No one will be able to cover you.’”
Benjamin proved Winston true to his word.
Then again, when it comes to football, Winston has been on target from Day One of the season, blossoming into a top Heisman Trophy contender — his off-field issues aside.
On Saturday, Winston he found himself under considerable pressure early from the Gators’ defensive front, which sacked him twice in two of FSU’s first four possessions. The second of those left the Noles with a 3-and-26 from their own 15. But Winston hit Kenny Shaw on a slant pattern over the middle for 27 yards and a first down, and the Seminoles drove the remainder of the field for their first touchdown.
“I think the more he gets banged, the more the competitor in him comes out,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said of Winston. “He’s a guy who jumps right back in the fight. That’s Jameis. The more heated it becomes, the better he gets.”
Winston said FSU has yet to play its best game.
“We’re not even playing at our prime yet,” he said. “We’ve got to get so much better. But if we keep getting better, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”
And if Florida State wins out, they would finish unbeaten, 14-0.
It’s something most Seminoles have never before experienced, and it’s a vast improvement over where the FSU football program was not so long ago, when it was the other way around and UF ran all over it.
“Those were the dark days of Florida State,” Seminoles center Bryan Stork said of this century’s first decade. “We didn’t have that good of a decade. These days? It’s our time.”