TELVIN SMITH strode across the confetti-covered field at the Rose Bowl on Monday night, looking for the perfect chunk of Tifway 419 Bermudagrass to take home to Tallahassee. The senior linebacker had signed with Florida State in 2010, during one of the program's lowest points. Now, he would commemorate one of its greatest moments.
Since 1962, the Seminoles have collected chunks of sod and snippets of artificial turf from fields on which they've earned major road wins and bowl victories. Those artifacts are interred in the Sod Cemetery between Doak Campbell Stadium and the team's practice field. Before Monday, the two most cherished pieces were a hunk of grass from Florida State's Orange Bowl win against Nebraska on Jan. 1, 1994, and a swatch of carpet from the Sugar Bowl win against Virginia Tech on Jan. 4, 2000—victories that clinched national championships and confirmed the program as one of the country's elites.
The piece Smith gouged from the Rose Bowl would also land in the Cemetery, a memorial to the Seminoles' return to the top of the college football world. "You go to the 50 and look at the rose," Smith said as he eyeballed the flower in the BCS championship logo at midfield. "Give me some of this stuff."
Getting that stuff required the Seminoles to overcome a kind of on-field adversity they hadn't experienced in almost 14 months. The No. 1 team in the BCS had won each of its first 13 games this season by at least two touchdowns, but on Monday, Auburn jumped to an 18-point lead and then went up 31--27 on a seemingly backbreaking touchdown run by Tre Mason with 79 seconds remaining. But Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Jameis Winston led Florida State 80 yards in 66 seconds, throwing the touchdown pass that won the title with 13 seconds left to a 6'5", 234-pound power forward in cleats named Kelvin Benjamin.
Moments before the Marching Chiefs struck up "We Are the Champions," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan stood in front of his band, reflected on the 34--31 win and trumpeted his team's resilience. "Everybody said we've never been in tight games, and they don't know how we'll react to it," Jernigan said. "But we fight. We're Seminoles. That's what we do."
Shortly before Jernigan spoke, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher held the crystal football from the final BCS title game on a podium near midfield. His team had just snapped the SEC's string of seven consecutive national titles, and it had proved his premonition correct.
FOR A man who had just lost 11 stars to the 2013 NFL draft, Fisher looked awfully relaxed. With the May sun baking the beach outside the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla., Fisher lingered in a hallway during a break between ACC coaches' meetings. His West Virginia twang punctuated a call-and-response that he hoped might explain how the Seminoles could lose all that talent and still wind up better.
"Rashad Greene, just gon' be a what?" Fisher asked.
"Junior," a group of reporters replied.
"Nick O'Leary gon' be?"
"Cam Erving gon' be?"
"Josue Matias gon' be?"
"Tre' Jackson gon' be?"
"Bobby Hart gon' be?"
"[Devonta] Freeman gon' be?"
"[James] Wilder gon' be?"
Florida State's coach had made his point. Then he smiled. "I'm not predicting anything," Fisher said. "But I like our team."
In listing all those contributors, Fisher never mentioned seniors such as cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and linebackers Smith and Christian Jones, the three players who gave the Seminoles defense its soul. Fisher also failed to bring up a certain redshirt freshman quarterback whose spring-game theatrics had Florida State observers speaking in hushed tones about the second coming of Charlie Ward—the two-sport star who won the Heisman Trophy in 1993 while leading the Seminoles to a national title.
At the time, Fisher hadn't anointed Jameis Winston his starting quarterback. He knows no one believes him, but he wanted to give redshirt sophomore Jacob Coker a fair shot to win the job in preseason camp. Fisher knew the quarterback who emerged victorious from that competition would be piloting a team stacked with talent. The coach had spent four years building this group. Choosing the correct signal-caller was akin to laying the final brick.
Fisher embraces the program-building philosophy that his mentor Nick Saban calls the Process. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000 to '04 and stayed for the first two years of the Les Miles regime before taking the same role with the Seminoles in 2007. When Florida State president T.K. Wetherell forced Bobby Bowden out following a 6--6 regular season in '09 (Bowden coached the team to a 33--21 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl), Fisher took over as coach and began to rebuild the program the same way Saban had done it in Alabama a little less than three years earlier. Fisher hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He bulked up the strength staff so players would get more individual attention. He hired Trevor Moawad, the mental-conditioning consultant who also works with the Alabama program. "The way Coach Fisher did it and Coach Saban did it are almost identical," Moawad says. "Coach Fisher has a similar skill set to Coach Saban."
And just as Saban did when he set up shop in Tuscaloosa, Fisher ordered his assistants to stock the roster with "grown-ass men," which senior wide receiver Kenny Shaw describes thusly: "Just a guy who's tough, he's coachable, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win."
AS DECEMBER 2009 arrived, Florida State reeked of failure. In the Seminoles' regular-season finale on Nov. 28 they had been destroyed by Florida in Gainesville 37--10. How large was the gulf between Florida State and its chief rival? Leading 24--0 with three timeouts and time remaining on the clock late in the first half, Florida coach Urban Meyer ordered quarterback Tim Tebow to take a knee. Bowden's pending retirement was announced three days later.
The next weekend Fisher, in one of his first acts as head coach, hosted a group of top recruits on official visits. One of them was Jeff Luc, a Bunyanesque linebacker from Port St. Lucie, Fla. Fellow recruits in the class of 2010 treated Luc like a rock star. They delighted in his slobberknocker-heavy highlight video and shared it on social media. They marveled at his 6'1", 240-pound physique, which resembled that of a five-year NFL veteran's. Fisher wanted a grown-ass man, and Luc fit the bill. When he committed to the Seminoles while in Tallahassee on Dec. 5, the other recruits noticed.
The next domino to fall was Joyner, who committed to Florida State four days later. "I was actually surprised that Jeff committed at the time he did," Joyner says. "But he was like, 'Joyner, we're both going to Florida State. We've got to make a change together.' I gave him my word that if he committed, I would also, and I had to be a man of my word." Suddenly, Fisher had two of the nation's most sought-after defenders—and much-needed recruiting momentum. The amazing part? He didn't even have a defensive coordinator; he hired Mark Stoops two days after Joyner committed.
The commitments of Luc and Joyner inspired others. Smith, from Valdosta, Ga., backed off his Florida State commitment and visited Georgia but wound up signing with the Seminoles. Safety Terrence Brooks had visited South Florida and Ole Miss and gotten an offer from Notre Dame but ultimately chose to head to Tallahassee. On national signing day, Jones, a five-star recruit from Winter Park, Fla., chose FSU over Florida, Tennessee and Notre Dame. "I was skeptical," Jones says, "but Jimbo promised he was going to do all he could to get us in this position we are in right now. Ever since I've been a freshman, we've talked about getting to this point. Off-season, through spring ball, for the past three years, and he told us this is where we would be. We're going to win our conference, we're going to win a BCS bowl and go to a national championship."
That 2010 class, which produced seven current starters, would need help. Early on the afternoon of national signing day 2011, Fisher sat behind his massive desk overlooking the field at Doak Campbell Stadium when a staffer entered to inform him that another signee had faxed his paperwork. The player was Jackson, a 6'4", 300-pound offensive lineman from Jessup, Ga., who had suffered a knee injury in high school that initially had scared many top programs away from him. He had committed to Georgia Tech, but late interest from Florida State, Alabama, Georgia and N.C. State made him reopen his recruitment. He chose Florida State because he liked offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a diminutive former Marine who routinely cajoles the best out of men twice his size. "We're going to be really glad about that one in three or four years," Fisher told a visitor.
Thirty-five months later they're really glad. Jackson, the starting right guard, has blossomed into one of Florida State's best linemen. Fourteen of his 2011 classmates started at least one game in '13, and a 15th, safety-turned-tailback Karlos Williams, averaged 8.2 yards a carry and scored 11 touchdowns in his first 12 games at his new position. In the locker room a friendly rivalry has developed between the '10 and '11 classes over which group has done more to return the Seminoles to the top. Smith, who signed in '10, only laughs. "For them, it may be a rivalry," he says. "For us, we know who solidified the rock." Wilder, the class of '11 tailback, says, "We made the stepping stones." How many, regardless of class, are grown-ass men? "We've got 85 of them," Shaw says.
JEFF LUC isn't part of the '10 versus '11 argument. After two unproductive seasons in Tallahassee, the Pied Piper of FSU's turnaround transferred to Cincinnati. He's not the only one who missed the Seminoles' party. Stoops left to become the coach at Kentucky after the 2012 season. Enter Jeremy Pruitt, who was an assistant at Hoover (Ala.) High until '06 and then spent three years coaching defensive backs at Alabama. He became Fisher's defensive coordinator in December 2012, part of the continuing Sabanization of Florida State's staff—though Fisher didn't hire Pruitt to run Saban's 3--4 defense. He hired him to run a version of Saban's defense that Fisher thought would be better-suited to the lighter, faster defenders on Florida State's roster. The Seminoles use a 4--3 scheme, but like the Crimson Tide, they feature multiple fronts based on personnel. "Everybody talks about how we tweaked the defense," says Pruitt, who turned Jones into a hybrid linebacker--defensive end and moved Joyner from safety to cornerback. "Jimbo laid out exactly what he wanted for us as far as the tweaks. This is Jimbo's philosophy."
By last summer Fisher had spent years putting the other pieces in place, but he needed a player to tie it all together. Enter Winston, a football-baseball star from Hueytown, Ala., who arrived in Tallahassee in '12 and sat for a season behind EJ Manuel, an eventual first-round draft pick by the Bills. During a Labor Day game at Pittsburgh, the quarterback known to friends and family as Jaboo served notice to the nation that he was every bit as good as his advance hype suggested: He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. He was just getting started. On Oct. 19, Winston silenced Clemson's Death Valley by throwing for 444 yards and three touchdowns in a 51--14 Seminoles win. Florida State steamrollered every regular-season opponent, winning each game by an average of 42.3 points. But as Winston emerged as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, an event from his past resurfaced and threatened to torpedo his Heisman candidacy and the Seminoles' BCS hopes.
On Dec. 7, 2012, a female Florida State student reported a rape to the Tallahassee police department. She did not name an alleged assailant until January, when she identified Winston. Police investigated but moved the case to inactive after, a city official said, the accuser stopped responding to requests for information. Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, thought the case had been closed and the matter settled. But in November a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times requested the police report from the case. Later, TMZ requested the same report. After news outlets broke the story, the case was turned over to the state attorney's office.
State attorney Willie Meggs and his staff reviewed DNA evidence and toxicology reports and interviewed witnesses. The woman maintained Winston had committed sexual battery. Though Winston never spoke to investigators, Jansen argued the sex was consensual. So did teammates Chris Casher and Ronald Darby, who told investigators they witnessed the incident. On Dec. 5, Meggs reached a decision: He would file no charges against Winston. "I knew I did nothing wrong," Winston said the following week in a pre--Heisman ceremony press conference. "That's why I knew that I could respect the process, and I'd eventually be vindicated."
The next night Winston won the Heisman in a landslide. He raised the trophy high above his head, and he later thanked his parents for sticking by him through the investigation. When he returned to Tallahassee, he thanked all those grown-ass men who helped him win. When teammates took photos with the 50-pound sculpture of former New York University fullback Ed Smith, Winston covered the name tag, telling them it was their trophy. "I know without them, I'm nothing," Winston says.
With him, they are national champions.
WINSTON WAS born five days after the Seminoles won their first national title, in January 1994. On Monday he and Matias—who is one year older—celebrated their birthdays by winning Florida State's third. After Winston, 20, yanked off his shoulder pads in the locker room, he walked toward his left guard. "Josue!" he yelled. "Happy birthday, man!" Then they hugged and began to sing in unison. Happy birthday to us. Happy birthday to us.
Until the fourth quarter Winston had played perhaps his worst game as a Seminole. Through 45 minutes he completed 11 of 24 passes for 120 yards, lost a fumble and was sacked four times. Mason, who struck a Heisman pose after he put Auburn ahead with that dazzling 37-yard TD run, looked like the best player on the field while running for 195 yards and also catching a touchdown pass. But on Florida State's final drive, Winston completed six of seven passes for 77 yards. How did he cap the march that brought Florida State back to college football's summit? By throwing to Benjamin—the quintessential grown-ass man.
An hour later the stands sat empty. Smith knelt at midfield. "This has been a long time coming," he said as he took scissors to sod and claimed the Seminoles' prize.
A friendly rivalry has developed between the '10 and '11 classes over which group has done more to return the Seminoles to the top.
"The way Coach Fisher did it and Coach Saban did it are almost identical," Moawad says. "Coach Fisher has a similar skill set to Coach Saban."
When teammates took photos with the Heisman, Winston covered the name tag, telling them it was their trophy. "Without them, I'm nothing," he says.
Get championship game analysis, recruiting updates and the latest coaching carousel news from SI college football experts Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples and Pete Thamel at SI.com/mag
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HUGE GRAB Benjamin, a 6'5" target with great leaping ability, made 54 catches for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns during the season, none of them bigger than the one he scored in the final seconds.
COVER INSET BY GARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RETURN TO GLORY Freshman Levonte Whitfield wasn't a headliner on a star-laden team, but his 100-yard dash with a fourth-quarter kickoff flipped the game after Auburn had dominated.
COURTESY FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY (FSU HELMET)
TAYLOR BALLANTYNE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (AUBURN HELMET)
GARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DONALD MIRALLE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BIG GAIN HUNTER The Seminoles got the ball back with just 1:19 on the clock, but a 49-yard catch and run by Rashad Greene quickly set up the final score.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TRE BON Mason put on a show, rushing for 195 yards, including a late 37-yard TD run that appeared to seal the game for Auburn.
GARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TROPHY COLLECTOR Winston, who struggled early, completed six of seven on the final drive and grabbed an MVP award to go with his Heisman.