From historic start to furious finish, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston's freshman season was as close to perfection as possible on the playing field.
As his touchdown pass in the final moments of the final BCS Championship Game landed safely in wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin's hands, sealing the Seminoles' 34-31 victory over Auburn, Winston completed the greatest freshman season in college football history, leaving an incredibly high bar for every first-year player who follows.
While the 24/7 nature of sports media today often results in a rush to place players and moments on historic scales, Winston did reach three milestones, any one of which is indicative of an outstanding campaign, and did so as a redshirt freshman.
Undefeated season? Check.
Heisman Trophy? Check.
National championship? Check—though it wasn't easy.
Winston appeared consumed by the moment early, badly missing his targets and taking a few bone-rattling hits from Auburn defenders. His first-half performance was a harsh reminder, and one of the few this season, that Winston is indeed a first-year quarterback.
That was a fact sometimes easy to forget. From the moment he first took the field, going 25-of-27 with four passing touchdowns and a fifth score on the ground in a 41-13 rout of Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, Winston was on a different plane than other first-year players before him.
Following Winston's debut, FSU cornerback Lamarcus Joyner told Sports Illustrated that Winston first stood out as a freshman, making incredible plays as the scout team quarterback. “Fifth-year senior EJ Manuel wasn’t making throws like that, and I said to myself, this guy’s going to be special," Joyner said.
Every week, he made plays that freshmen simply don't make, like his half-ending touchdown toss against Boston College on Sept. 28.
Before falling behind Auburn 21-3 at halftime Monday, the largest deficit Winston had faced was Boston College's early 17-3 lead. Winston responded in Chestnut Hill, Mass., leading the Seminoles to a 48-34 victory, and he responded again in Pasadena, Calif., on the biggest stage with a steely resolve that belies his 20 years of age.
Both of his touchdowns and 185 of his 237 passing yards came after intermission. In the course of 30 minutes, Winston underwent an on-field maturation—fitting, given Monday was his 20th birthday and he is no longer a teenager.
Because of the challenge Auburn presented Winston early, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher called the BCS championship the quarterback's best game all season.
Jimbo Fisher - "It’s the best football game (Jameis Winston) played all year." WOW! #BCSChampionship— Russ Mitchell (@RussMitchellCFB) January 7, 2014
In a season of so many standout performances for Winston, that's particularly high praise. It's also the most fitting cap to a benchmark that every freshman who lines up on Saturdays will strive to match for years to come.
The reality is players are ready to contribute more, and quicker. Elite prep recruits arrive to the college game bigger, stronger and faster than they were even just 10 years ago. Instant-impact freshmen aren't just here to stay; soon, there will be more of them.
Someday, another freshman will win the Heisman Trophy. Perhaps a true freshman can trump Winston and 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, both of whom won college football's most coveted individual honor after redshirt years.
Someday, another freshman quarterback might register more impressive overall statistics than Winston.
Someday, another freshman will lead his team to a national championship, perhaps in the culmination of a perfect season.
But will another freshman accomplish it all in one season? Until it happens, Winston's 2013 can definitively be touted as the best ever for a freshman.