LOS ANGELES -- As the only unbeaten team in the country and the defending national champion, it almost seems farfetched to think Florida State — winner of 29 in a row — lacks for respect.
Yet when the Seminoles take on Oregon in Thursday’s Rose Bowl, the first semifinal in the inaugural College Football Playoff, skeptics outnumber believers.
Las Vegas oddsmakers don’t like the Seminoles (the Ducks are eight-point favorites).
College football analysts pooh-pooh them.
Fans not outfitted in garnet and gold seem poised for the reign to end.
No wonder FSU quarterback Jameis Winston acknowledged that the Seminoles have “got enough chips on our shoulder” as they return to the same spot where they defeated Auburn in January for the school’s third national title.
“We got a lot of stuff to motivate us to win this game,” said Winston, who has never experienced defeat as Florida State’s quarterback.
Though they ran the table during the season, finishing 13-0, they barely scraped by in a good handful of their wins, eking out victories when defeat stared them in the face.
Notre Dame. Clemson. Louisville. Miami.
All were positioned late to take down Florida State, only to fall short.
What’s more, the Seminoles faced only three teams — Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville — that finished the year in the Top 25.
And yet, despite a moderate schedule, their average margin of victory was only 11.7 points, a sharp drop-off from last year’s staggering 42-point average win margin. The Seminoles won their final five games by five points or less, creating an impression that they’ve been more fortunate than good, deft at dodging bullets but less-than-impressive at putting away opponents early.
“It’s simple,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said of the widespread perception Florida State, despite its winning streak and unblemished record, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “They haven’t played well.”
Part of the impression has to do with these Seminoles being sized up against last year’s juggernaut.
“Think about where the bar was set a year ago,” Pollack said. “ Last year, the competition they played was weak, but they pulverized the competition. Every game was over at the half.”
“Yes, (they) win,” Pollack continued. “But when you struggle against bad teams, I think that leaves a taste in people’s mouths that you’re not as good as we think you are.”
Florida State junior linebacker Terrance Smith agrees with Pollack on one count, that being compared side-by-side with last year’s team hurts the perception.
“When you come out last year and do things we did, and set the standard that we set, people expect the same thing from you the next year,” Smith said.
The playoff committee, which ranked teams weekly before coming up with a final field of four, sure weren’t smitten with the Seminoles. FSU kept sliding down the rankings ladder each week — going from No.2 to No.4 before finishing at No.3 — even though it kept winning, and was the only team to do so.
Former FSU quarterback Danny Kanell, who also works for ESPN, said he thinks part of the problem is the program’s stained reputation, much of it stemming from Winston’s off-field issues.
“There’s been so much criticism about the program, the way things have been handled, that it has gone overlooked when you look at how many games this team has won in a row,” Kanell said. “If they’re able to pull it off — if they can go to 31 [consecutive wins] and win the championship — I think the conversation has to turn to, is this one of the best teams ever?”
All it adds up to a Florida State team that arrives to the Rose Bowl, not so much with a swagger, but with a feeling of bitterness over their lack of respect.
“To [have] people calling us the underdogs and having us on upset alert, that’s been one of the biggest things that’s kind of annoyed us this year,” Smith said. “It really just adds fuel to our fire when people say stuff like that. We’re going to let the scoreboard settle it.”
Even though Pollack is unimpressed with the Seminoles, he doesn’t rule out their winning the national title a second consecutive year with a win Thursday and another in the championship game.
“They don’t hold a candle to last year’s team, and that doesn’t mean they can’t win the national title,” Pollack said. “That’s a stupid statement.
“They’re still good enough to win the whole thing. There is no dominant team in college football this year.”