As far as Jimbo Fisher is concerned, the Florida State football team isn’t defending anything.
The 2013 Seminoles, he said, will always be national champions. The crystal football they earned with a dramatic victory over Auburn in January’s BCS National Championship Game is safely housed in FSU’s Moore Athletics Center, and no one is coming to take it.
That’s not to say, though, that Fisher and the Seminoles don’t have eyes on winning another title in 2014. The fifth-year coach is just hoping that a different approach — one that focuses on what lies ahead instead of previous accomplishments — will propel FSU to sustained excellence.
“We don’t say ‘defending national champion,’ ” Fisher said. “Don’t try to be last year’s team.
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“Someone asked, ‘Do you think this year’s team could beat last year’s team?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know and don’t care.’ Because they ain’t on the schedule.”
Still, entering a season fresh off a national title is uncharted territory for Fisher and his program, so the coach hit the books to prepare. Rather than study stories of failure and how previous champions fell victim to satisfaction and complacency, Fisher instead focused on the great athletes and sports dynasties that maintained their high standards across multiple seasons.
He named Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, among others, as examples worth emulating.
Fisher said they all had an “attitude of domination,” a catchphrase he adopted in the offseason.
“Joe Montana, John Elway repeated [as champions],” Fisher said. “Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. Those guys all had that killer instinct and were guys who wanted to be on top, stayed on top, and one championship wasn’t enough.
“We looked back and and studied those guys, the habits that they had. They all have that attitude of domination. That’s what we have to create.”
Despite losing several cornerstones of last season’s title team, the Seminoles, who will begin the season with a No. 1 ranking, are among the heaviest favorites to win it again.
That, of course, begins with quarterback Jameis Winston, the former freshman sensation who rewrote several school, conference and national passing records en route to becoming the youngest Heisman Trophy winner.
A parade of off-the-field news has tarnished Winston’s image somewhat, but he said he has learned from those experiences. On the field, Winston made guiding the Seminoles’ offense look effortless.
“The leadership I have gained from my past mistakes has gotten better,” Winston said. “I learned what it really takes to be a leader and [that] everyone is always going to be watching you, and you have to do the right thing.“
Winston will line up this fall without two of his favorite targets. Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin are gone after a season in which they combined for 44 percent of FSU’s receiving yardage and 50 percent of its receiving touchdowns.
The good news, though, is that top receiver Rashad Greene is back for his senior season. Greene, a former standout at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High, has been FSU’s leading receiver for each of his three years in Tallahassee. And tight end Nick O’Leary, a Mackey Award finalist in 2013, will also be available to help shoulder the load.
Winston, Greene and O’Leary will be joined by one of the nation’s top offensive lines. That group boasts five seniors, including All-American left tackle Cameron Erving, and has 113 combined career starts.
They will be blocking for Winston, as well as for a stable of running backs that features potential star-in-the making Karlos Williams. Williams ran for more than 700 yards and 11 touchdowns after switching from safety to running back early last season.
“Experience, size, athleticism, intelligence, toughness, work ethic, discipline,” Fisher said of the line. “When I think of them, that’s what I think of.”
The Seminoles have more questions on defense, but there are several talented players in line to answer them.
Charles Kelly earned a promotion to defensive coordinator in January and will have one of the country’s top secondaries at his disposal. Despite the loss of leaders Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, FSU is still loaded in the defensive backfield with the cornerback duo of P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Sophomore hybrid Jalen Ramsey and safeties Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter round out the starting secondary.
“We pride ourselves on being the best defensive backfield in the country,” Williams said. “We work hard every day to get better. We all go hard. We have some great young players, great starters, everybody can play.”
Up front, the Seminoles are preparing for life without major contributors — Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle and Telvin Smith and Christian Jones at linebacker. But they also have veterans such as defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and linebacker Terrance Smith to help show the way for the newcomers.
The 6-3, 294-pound Edwards could become a household name with a strong junior season. The former No. 1 prospect in 2012 came on strong by the end of last season and played a big part in corralling Auburn’s run-heavy offense in the title game.
“[Edwards] is very athletic,” Kelly said. “He can run, he can rush the passer. You put him on a tight end, he can power an individual. When you’re up front, that’s what you want — that power.”
There’s little doubt, then, that if Florida State is unable to repeat, it won’t be due to a lack of talent.
Their hopes will hinge on that attitude Fisher referred to, the mental fortitude required to find room for improvement regardless of a game’s outcome.
That can be a challenge for a team whose players are used to lopsided scores. In 2013, FSU won its 14 games by an average of 39.5 points.
With final scores sometimes an ineffective measuring stick, Winston said FSU has learned to mark its progress against itself through competition among teammates and the drive to remember that no performance, no matter how dominant, is perfect.
“We know the ‘whys’ of why we play,” Winston said. “We know the ‘whys’ and why we fight every day, why we have our brothers who support us. We know why we do this. Complacency, being comfortable, we never feel comfortable.”
Neither did any of those Hall of Famers that Fisher and his team studied in the offseason. Montana, Elway, Jordan, Bird and Johnson combined for 20 championships across their respective sports between 1981 and 1998.
College football, meanwhile, has seen only six repeat champions since 1970.
Fisher, though, believes that those lessons learned — as well as a roster stockpiled with some of the nation’s top talent — will allow that number to grow.
“Our natural human nature is not to strive,” he said. “And that’s why we also tell them you have to create those habits.
“If you want to be special, you have to do something different, and be willing to do things other people don’t want to do.”