Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida State Seminoles win ugly, but 12-0 beautiful

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher shouts to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Florida State won 24-19.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher shouts to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Florida State won 24-19. AP

They are undefeated and underappreciated — perfectly maligned.

You can criticize the Florida State Seminoles, doubt them and question how good they are. You can label them unimpressive, call them lucky and downgrade them in your polls.

You can do everything but beat them.

Jimbo Fisher had a phrase for what his 2014 team does after he had coached FSU’s 28th consecutive victory Saturday, the 24-19 denial of the rival Florida Gators here.

“Survive and advance,” he said.

His Noles do it relentlessly.

Not always easily this year, not often dominantly.

But relentlessly.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was mostly awful Saturday, with three early interceptions, four overall, and a career low in passing yards in what would be his final home game if, as expected, he forgoes his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. His team trailed 9-0 in the first quarter.

No worries.

It continued a lurching, hectic, herky-jerky ride of a season wrought by comebacks and games won narrowly and minus style points. FSU has trailed in the second half five times (including at Miami), needed overtime to beat Clemson, trailed Louisville 21-0, trailed North Carolina State 24-7, relied on a heaven-sent officials’ call to escape Notre Dame, and needed a last-second field goal last week to edge Boston College.

But won them all.

That’s not even mentioning all of Winston’s intensely documented off-field issues and turmoil.

Call them the Dramanoles.

Somebody told me the Noles “could be .500.”

Yeah, but they’re not. They are, as a matter of fact, the only unbeaten team left standing in major-college football, 12-0 now heading to Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Georgia Tech in Charlotte, North Carolina.

One more “survive and advance” against the Yellow Jackets, and FSU would have its place in the first four-team College Football Playoff.

Would the team have needed a bunch of good fortune to get there?

Sure. So what.

“We’ve finished every game,” as Fisher put it, meaning finished the right way: Smiling. “Isn’t that the object?”

It is, or should be. It’s time to appreciate FSU’s streak and this season with all its close calls rather than forever harping on the team not being as dominant as last year’s champs. The Seminoles have defended their crown nobly. They are an imperfect perfect, but perfect nonetheless.

Sports’ eternal bottom line — Just Win, Baby — seems to apply to everyone but Florida State, which is the reigning national champion, surfs the longest national winning streak since UM’s Hurricanes won 34 games in a row in 2000-03, and yet somehow is ranked only No.3 in the all-important CFP rankings.

Question: Is it even possible to be an unimpressive 12-0? It is not, by any rational thinking … except apparently in FSU’s case.

“We pull things together,” Winston said. “We always come back at the critics and haters.”

I would hark back a long ways to note that Don Shula and his 17-0 Dolphins of 1972 like to say, to this day, that “perfection ends all arguments.”

If only. Plenty of NFL media-historians still don’t credit the Perfect Season Dolphins as the greatest team ever, for some of the same reasons this year’s 12-0 Noles have a “yeah, but” attached by some.

Sometimes even nothing but winning falls short.

“Good enough’s never good enough,” as Fisher put it.

I thought the Noles won impressively Saturday, if not easily, considering their top player, Winston, had his worst game as a collegian, and considering all that motivated Florida.

The rival Gators, entering at 6-5, would salvage their disappointing season with an upset to knock FSU from the playoffs, “to ruin their little Cinderella thing,” as linebacker Michael Taylor had put it. They also were playing for popular coach Will Muschamp, coaching his final game for Florida after being fired (well, technically allowed to resign).

An emotional Muschamp bid farewell to his players after the defeat, and senior offensive lineman Max Garcia said failing to send Muschamp off a winner “will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

UF let too many chances slide, such as turning three early Winston interceptions into only a 9-0 lead. The Noles erase nine-point deficits as easily as you and I breathe. Pair of field goalds.

Florida appeared ready to make it a 16-0 lead — with first-and-goal at the FSU 9 — when Treon Harris’ deflected pass was stolen and returned 94 yards for a touchdown by the Noles’ Terrance Smith, the play of the game. Smith afterward told Winston on the sideline, “‘I told you I got your back. I’m your brother.’”

Muschamp lamented opportunities squandered. Florida also killed itself with penalties, including three unsportsmanlike personal fouls mirroring a lack of composure.

That’s what losing teams do.

What Florida State did was display its champion’s composure, rise up with great defense, get 144 yards rushing from terrific freshman Dalvin Cook (from Miami Central High), and a pair of touchdown catches by tight end Nick O’Leary, who happens to be the grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

What Florida State did was find a way to “survive and advance.”

As usual.

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