Jameis Winston, Florida St. May Find Path to Keeping Title as Hard as Winning It

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Jameis Winston, Florida St. May Find Path to Keeping Title as Hard as Winning It
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Unbeaten? Very possible.

Invincible? Not so fast, my friend.

When preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Florida State opened its season against Oklahoma State on Saturday night, the Seminoles were poised to parade a variety of assets for the world of college football to view:

• A 16-game winning streak—the longest in FBS football.

• A national championship trophy won last January in Pasadena.

• A returning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston.

• Fifteen returning starters.

Though they entered their game against Oklahoma State an 18-point favorite, the Seminoles seemingly wanted to show everyone they were just as good and just as mean and just as hungry as last season. Players even noted that the site of the game, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will be the site of the first championship game in the new College Football Playoff, adopting the slogan "Dallas to Dallas" as a way to frame the season ahead.

Well, coach Jimbo Fisher's team might indeed make it back to Texas in January, but if FSU's 37-31 win over Oklahoma State proved anything, it was that this season will not be a leisurely stroll back to Dallas for the Seminoles.

They certainly played like it would be, taking a 17-0 lead that seemed to leave the 'Noles satisfied they had established themselves as the best team. Winston got sloppy after that, throwing his second interception (the first came at the end of the first quarter) to open the door for Oklahoma State. It wasn't enough of a letdown to lose, but it was far from the razor-sharp performance Winston had in demolishing Pittsburgh a year ago in his debut game, which made him and FSU a factor from the start.

Fisher had tried to put some space between last season's success and this season's goals with words of warning for his players before the game.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Jimbo Fisher saw his Seminoles race out to a 17-0 lead before allowing Oklahoma State close the gap to 20-17 in the third quarter.

"Don't eat the cheese," Fisher told his team, per Tim Linafelt of The Miami Herald. "It means don't buy into everything everybody's telling you. How great you are, how this, how that. Don't eat the cheese."

After a win that wasn't assured until Winston's final clock-killing pass bounced on the stadium turf, Fisher conceded that his team may have been nibbling on the cheese.

"I think they felt the pressure of being No. 1," Fisher said in his postgame press conference. "I really do. Now I think we can relax and play football."

Yes, they can, since FSU will host The Citadel on Saturday in its home opener next week and has a bye week before returning to regular-season business with its ACC conference opener against Clemson on Sept. 20.

Being No. 1 is hard enough; staying No. 1 is even tougher. In the 16-year BCS era, only two teams managed to put back-to-back national championship seasons together—USC in 2003 and '04 (but that accomplishment has an asterisk next to it since the NCAA forced USC to vacate the '04 championship because of improper benefits given to Reggie Bush) and Alabama with a repeat effort in '11 and '12.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Miami came within a delayed and questionable penalty of pulling off a repeat in '01 and '02.

Before that, you have to look back to Nebraska in 1994 and '95 and Alabama in '78 and '79 to find repeat national champions (although Alabama split the '78 crown with USC).

With the steady drain of players leaving for the NFL before their eligibility expires, more and more teams are having difficulty maintaining continuity in their programs, even for only a two- or three-year period.

Auburn used a one-and-done Cam Newton to win the national championship in 2010 and then tumbled out of sight until it put together another dream season last year, which took the Tigers to the BCS title game against Florida State.

Even the vaunted Crimson Tide have found it difficult to retain the crown. In the fall of '10, Alabama entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to defend a championship it had won the prior year thanks to quarterback Greg McElroy and a 14-0 record. A total of 54 (out of 60) first-place AP votes were cast for 'Bama, which won its first five games before losing at South Carolina on Oct. 9 and dropping to No. 8 in the polls.

The Tide finished the season No. 10 with a 10-3 record.

A year ago, Alabama again started the season as defending national champion and ranked No. 1 with 58 of the 60 first-place AP votes. Even with a sluggish win over Virginia Tech in their opener, the Crimson Tide held the No. 1 spot through 14 weeks of polling before their last-second loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl dropped them to No. 4. With a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, the Tide finished at No. 7 in the final rankings.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Blake Sims and Alabama were among the top-ranked teams to find themselves in tighter games than many expected in Week 1.

Indeed, Winston and FSU have company on the road they face. Nor were they alone in their opening-week struggles. No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Auburn and No. 7 UCLA all experienced some tense moments into the second half before taking control of the proceedings.

And No. 9 South Carolina never got out of the box, getting routed by No. 21 Texas A&M, 52-28.

The early trouble wasn't completely unexpected.

Alabama was breaking in a new QB. So was Ohio State, which also had to deal with an always feisty Navy team and its tricky option offense. Auburn was playing an SEC opponent in Arkansas, and UCLA was playing a noon Eastern start game on West Coast body time. Still, everyone but South Carolina figured it out.

While there might be some gloom and doom among the poll leaders after bumpy efforts in the first week of the season, consider the "challenges" ahead next week:

• Florida State faces The Citadel at home.

• Alabama faces Florida Atlantic at home.

• Auburn faces San Jose State at home.

• South Carolina faces East Carolina at home.

Florida State can and will improve in Week 2, but who will notice against a team FSU likely could beat with its scout team?

No. 3 Oregon and No. 5 Ohio State will need to pay attention in facing No. 8 Michigan State and Virginia Tech, respectively, but on the whole, next week should bring a lot of bounce-back performances.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Florida State receiver Rashad Greene had 11 catches for 203 yards in the Seminoles' 37-31 win over Oklahoma State.

But the championship won't be won on a September Saturday against The Citadel. It will be won against the likes of Clemson on Sept. 20, in back-to-back games against Notre Dame and at Louisville in October, at Miami in November and in the regular-season finale against Florida.

Maybe the Saturday night scare against Oklahoma State was just a matter of scraping off the rust. Winston again proved he is still a Heisman-caliber quarterback by matching every mistake he made with a Heisman-worthy play that kept the Seminoles in control. Despite the two picks, Winston also had 370 passing yards, while running and passing for a touchdown each.

The Seminoles aren't short on confidence. They know who they are and what they have done. As Fisher said in his postgame press conference, "It's not about being great, it's about playing great."

FSU has the players to do just that. Now all the Seminoles have to do is do it while playing with the target on their back that is part of the No. 1 team's wardrobe.

 

Mark Blaudschun covers college football as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has more than three decades of experience covering sports at a variety of newspapers in New Jersey, the Dallas Morning News and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @blauds.

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