LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It has long been known that the 2014 Florida State Seminoles are very different from the 2013 version. Within the context of this season, it also does not matter.
Left for dead, again, down three touchdowns in the first half at Louisville, the Seminoles did what they did against N.C. State, and they did what they did against Notre Dame. They reminded us of their overwhelming talent, put their foot on the gas and shut the door on yet another hopeful underdog that couldn't last a full 60 minutes with the champs. They are still probably not going to lose this season, at least not before the playoff, seemingly thriving on living on the edge now after blowing everyone out a year ago.
"I don't know, man, I'm convinced, I think we should just give our opponent 21 points for us to come out and play fast the way we want to play," Florida State receiver Rashad Greene said. "We keep finding a way. That's character, that's guts, to go out there and keep your poise and stay into the game and never think you are out of it. This is a different type of team; we figure out a way to win every week."
There was nothing to figure out last year. Florida State played the way it wanted to play almost every game without fail, and every game was over by the second half. Now, in 2014, games don't start until the second half. But here's the proper context of what happened in Louisville on Thursday night, in a game No. 2 Florida State won 42-31 over No. 25 Louisville: Top-ranked Mississippi State very easily might have lost, had it taken Florida State's place. Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama might have too. With a couple more wrong bounces, Florida State might have as well. Every team is vulnerable.
In a season in which it has been proven, over and over, that there is no clearly dominant team, all that matters is what Florida State did, and that's win its 24th game in a row on the road against a good defense and a reinforced Louisville offense now featuring a star WR (DeVante Parker) and star RB (Michael Dyer) who weren't healthy the first half of the season. It won on the road, in a Thursday night upset spot in front of a hostile crowd, against a top-25 team, its obvious talent overcoming its less obvious weaknesses.
"We tell them all the time, 'It's not about winning, it's never about winning, it's about habits," Fisher said, doing his best impression of former boss Nick Saban without actually saying the words "The Process," and also using a much more upbeat tone. "It's about the culture you create, the way you prepare and the way you do things, and the results will be there if you do it. Now, we put ourselves in a lot of very tough situations, but our guys continue to affect each other all the time in a positive way."
Saban is unlikely to ever let a team spiral into as much controversy as Florida State has, of course, but the attitude is nonetheless the same: Shut out the outside, and in the words of, yes, Winston after Thursday's game, "Do anything to win." For all the talk about intangibles, though -- Florida State players followed Fisher's lead in talking about family and supporting each other -- the fact remains that one thing hasn't changed: Florida State's players are still better than just about everyone else's. It may sound simplistic, but it's also true, and combined with the somehwat unsettling ability to shut all the noise out, that's what makes its continued winning so frustrating to everyone on the outside that sees Florida State as the villain, both on the field and off.
"We like the fact that everyone wants us to lose," Florida State cornerback P.J. Williams said. He then echoed the words coach Jimbo Fisher had said moments earlier, separately, saying, "We like the fact that everyone brings their A game."
Notre Dame brought its A game, as did Clemson's defense, as did N.C. State for as long as it could, as did Louisville on Thursday. The Cardinals challenged Florida State's depleted defensive depth in the front seven with Dyer, they challenged a top cornerback in P.J. Williams with Parker, they brought pressure at Winston and they stayed aggressive. No matter how dire the situation looked for Florida State in the first half, and even at times in the second, it didn't matter. The Seminoles trudge on, to 8-0, with games against Virginia (no offense), Miami (freshman QB), Boston College (one-dimension) and Florida (all-around disaster) before a team from the Coastal Division acts as a sacrificial lamb for Florida State's playoff push in the conference title game.
Louisville was the clear obstacle everyone had circled long before the season, a Thursday night game in a charged-up environment late in the season against a solid team with some speed and a bunch of talent capable of pulling off a surprise. For much of the game, Louisville QB Will Gardner looked better than he had all season. He made the right reads, he made accurate throws with the right touch, and with the help of Parker and Dyer he exposed Florida State's defensive weaknesses and depth issues with a rash of injuries (including late scratch Terrance Smith, the team's most experienced linebacker). But with the game on the line, it was Winston, of course, who made the key plays, Winston who again showed flashes of the absurd high level of play he put on display in the second half against Notre Dame, Winston who forced a fumble after his third interception to get the ball back despite his mistake, then went on to shake off a lousy first half and throw for 401 yards.
Everything but the score feels familiar. Last year, Florida State was the juggernaut. This year, Florida State is the national contender that fell back to the pack ... but not far enough to allow teams like Louisville to actually take it down.
The 2014 Florida State team is always going to get compared to the 2013 team. That was exactly what a national championship team is supposed to look like. It never left any doubt and was rarely challenged until it played Auburn in Pasadena last January. It's that perception that continues to dog the 2014 Noles, a brand new team stuck trying to get out of the shadow of what came before. Considering all the connections -- from the Heisman Trophy winner on down -- it's natural, and easy to say Florida State does not measure up. But what do great teams do? They respond to getting hit in the mouth, methodically crawling their way back and leaning on their large supply of blue-chippers and All-Americans. The Seminoles are unflappable, with the most talented quarterback in the country, and pair of veterans among the best in the country at wide receiver (Greene) and tight end (Nick O'Leary), and now, of course, a running game thanks to the breakout night of blue-chip freshman Dalvin Cook, who had 150 total yards and two touchdowns.
A 21-0 deficit can never be called a favorable situation, but with a team like Florida State, you can never shake the feeling that a comeback is inevitable. That's how the Seminoles started 2014, with their comeback against Auburn, and that's how it appears they'll finish 2014 too.
"We play better when we're down because we like winning," Winston said. "We do anything to win. We don't enjoy being down. When everyone is against you, it's a reality check. We get that chip back on our shoulders. We don't think about negative stuff, only positive thoughts. Positive thoughts got us to 8-0."
Maybe Florida State won't continue to get away with this, but it's a team that is still supremely talented, and over the course of a 60-minute game, that talent is almost always going to win out. Just because it looks different than last year, and just because it all seems to be falling apart from the outside, doesn't mean the end result is going to be all that different.