As the national anthem ended before the ACC Championship Game between Florida State and Georgia Tech on Saturday night, a brilliant red fireworks display shot up from the field. The smoke from the explosions combined with fog and rain in the North Carolina sky to make the field at Bank of America Stadium invisible for several minutes. It cleared – mostly – by the time the game started.
But by the time the game ended, that murky view served as an apt metaphor for Florida State's status as a national championship contender. With a 37-35 win, Florida State reached 13-0 and cemented its hold on one of the four spots in the new College Football Playoff. But the win also showed, as Florida State has all year long, that just because a team is undefeated doesn't mean it's national championship-caliber.
Florida State already had dropped to fourth in the national rankings heading into the game because its three previous wins were unimpressive. When the four-team playoff field was revealed on Sunday afternoon, the Seminoles – a team that finished 13-0 and just won the ACC – got in as the number three seed. Why? Because they flunk the eye test.
The thinking goes like this: Florida State has barely won games against several teams it is supposedly far better than, therefore it will get crushed when it plays a good team. If it will get crushed when it plays a good team, it should not be given that opportunity. Put another way: Nobody who watched Oregon rip Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game thinks the Seminoles can withstand a Ducks onslaught in the Rose Bowl. And yet, on New Year's Day, FSU will once again get a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
But let's be honest; nobody would cry if the least popular team in America lost. (Well, #FSUTwitter would.) The Seminoles needed a convincing win over Georgia Tech to stop the questions about its place among the best teams in the country, and they didn't get it.
The Seminoles pummeled the Yellow Jackets with a national championship offense (488 yards) and a wilted against them with a Heart of Dallas Bowl defense (465 yards allowed). Georgia Tech's three-card monte offense left Florida State defenders grasping and missing. Quarterback Justin Thomas performed so much sleight of hand the refs kept checking to make sure they had their wallets. In one play in the second quarter, a receiver started in motion in one direction, then went in the other, then Thomas faked a handoff to the left, took off to the right and faked a pitch to the outside. He fooled half the crowd, three-quarters of the press box and the two defenders in front of him so completely that neither one of them made a move toward until he had already split them.
Now, let's be fair: Georgia Tech's offense does that to a lot of opponents. Every play Tech runs has so many moving pieces you expect the subs to bring a can of WD-40 with them to the huddle keep the whole machine lubed-up between plays.
Georgia Tech clearly entered the game hoping to hit Florida State in the mouth to see how it reacted. It ran the ball on the first 27 plays and remained so devoted to the ground game that "as lonely as a Georgia Tech wide receiver" should be a thing.
So, too, should "as bored as a Florida State pass protector." Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston faced virtually no pass rush, and he was brilliant all game long. There were at least two critical breakdowns in Georgia Tech's pass coverage, with a blown assignment and a defender falling down leading to touchdown passes of 44 and 46 yards. But even when the coverage was good, Winston, who completed 21-of-30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns, had so much time for receivers to get open that the Tech secondary had no chance.
Then there was the incredible Florida State freshmen running back Dalvin Cook. He ran 31 times for 177 yards and one score, slicing through openings in the line and then running past Tech's linebackers. Florida State should be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs just so the country can see more of him.
Afterward, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher strode into his postgame press conference wearing a garnet hoodie, a gray ACC champion hat and a bright-eyed smile. He opened his remarks with a stream of consciousness love letter to his team.
He said last year's undefeated national championship team was dominant but that that this one competes and excels and is resilient. He used the words "love" and "trust" and "believes" and "blood" and "sweat" and "tears" and "elite," and he heaped praise on his players for picking one another up when they're down, which they have been often this season.
He was asked for his reaction to the idea that his team is 13-0 and ACC champions and still won't be the No. 1 ranked team in the country. "I'm not worried about being No. 1," he said, with such a straight face. "That's an opinion. Ours are facts."
Reporters tittered as if it was an epic burn of the selection committee for under-ranking his team, but it was actually, in point-of-fact, gibberish. Just like his team's 13-0 record, it sounded better than it was.