Such was the conventional wisdom coming into Monday night's national championship game. Florida State was Mike Tyson, the undefeated champ with lots of early-round KOs on its resume. But what would happen once the Seminoles faced an opponent who would walk in the ring and hit them in the mouth?
After Monday's 34–31 win over Auburn, we have our answer. Florida State is not only a great frontrunner—this team absorbed the best body blows and uppercuts an outstanding Auburn team could deliver and came back to outlast the challenger on points in the final frame.
The Early Rounds
Make no mistake, Florida State's high powered offense did not play well through most of this game. After an efficient first drive ending in a field goal, the Seminole offense found itself starting its second possession from its own two-yard line. From that point until the final drive of the first half, the FSU offense was out of sync.
Winston struggled with his accuracy, his receivers dropped the passes that were on target, and the offensive line struggled in pass protection—particularly RT Bobby Hart, who struggled mightily with Auburn DE Dee Ford. FSU had some success in the running game but not enough—nor did they stick with it enough—to sustain drives.
That first three-and-out led to a poor punt that gave Auburn the ball on the FSU 25 yard line, setting up the Tigers' first touchdown and putting the Seminoles on their heels for the rest of the half.
Auburn used a combination of quick "sugar huddles," varied tempo, and new formation looks to kept the FSU defense off-balance, with the biggest play a 50-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to a wide-open Melvin Ray on a blown coverage from the Seminole secondary. Winston fumbled just over midway through the second quarter, with Auburn again capping a short drive (27 yards this time) with a touchdown, handing FSU its largest deficit of the season at 18. The champ was reeling at that point, with the challenger aggressively seeking to end the fight.
An inspired fake punt call—not only the decision to fake it but to it as a reverse to Karlos Williams—helped regain momentum with around three minutes to play in the first half, and the offense finally scored a touchdown just under two minutes later.
The third quarter was only slightly better, with one 67-yard drive ending in a field goal to put the Seminoles within eight at 21–13. By this point, the defense was lining up more quickly, stiffening up against the continued body blows of the Auburn running game.
The Final Round
Thus the Seminoles found themselves staring the pregame questions about their ability to take a punch in the fourth quarter directly in the face. And instead of folding, the battered favorite stood tough and finally began to land its own power punches.
First came a Winston pass to fullback Chad Abram for a touchdown, bringing the Seminoles within a point after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Devonta Freeman forced Florida State to kick the extra point rather than go for two. Auburn responded with yet another solid body blow, a 13-play, 69-yard drive for a field goal that took over six minutes off the clock.
Florida State again could have folded but instead responded with their best punch yet as world-class sprinter Levonte Whitfield demonstrated what 10.15 100m speed looks like in football pads en route to a kick return for a touchdown, giving the Noles their first lead of the game at 27–24.
Although staggered, the challenger from the SEC stayed upright and responded with yet another flurry of blows, this time knocking the Seminoles to the mat with an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive punctuated by a tackle-breaking 37-yard Tre Mason run.
At this point, no one would have blamed the Seminoles for staying on the mat. It just wasn't their night, they hadn't been at their best, and Auburn was a team of destiny built to win close games just like this one.
But that's not where this story would end. Rather than staying down on the mat, Winston and the Seminole offense marched 80 yards in 1:06, keyed by a 49-yard Rashad Greene catch-and-run and concluding in a 2-yard Kelvin Benjamin touchdown reception with 13 seconds remaining.
Auburn was finally knocked down, with too little time remaining to land a response. After falling behind by 18, the Seminoles had outscored Auburn 31–10, and Florida State, though bloodied, is the 2014 National Champion. Instead of a glass jaw, the Seminoles have a third crystal football, testifying to this team's now thoroughly proven ability to take a punch and keep fighting.