CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They talked about Pasadena, spoke about the final destination within the confines of their team meeting rooms and practice fields.
Now that the moment had arrived, what unfolded seemed surreal. Florida State players dangled roses and put on championship hats and T-shirts after a 45-7 rout of No. 20 Duke in the ACC title game Saturday assured them a spot in the BCS national championship game.
But senior receiver Kenny Shaw admitted afterward what he and his teammates had accomplished was still hitting him. He flashed back to his freshman season, arriving on campus as part of Jimbo Fisher's first recruiting class.
The first week brought the first surprise: a conditioning test. Nobody passed. Not even close. "We died," he recalled. The first thought: Florida State was going to be miserable place to be for the long haul. But he knew, and the players in his class knew, Florida State ultimately would win championships again. The misery would have a payoff, somehow, some way.
Shaw and his senior class kept working, and each successive class kept working, too, until Fisher had assembled the most talented team in America headed into 2013. Fisher knew it, and so did the players.
"We did envision this after last season, because we felt like we left a lot on the table," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We felt like there was so much that we were supposed to accomplish that we came back and we had a little -- not a vendetta ... it was just a reckoning. We tried to put ourselves back to where we were supposed to be."
Anybody with any doubts about the schedule Florida State plays should check out Florida State itself, brimming with one NFL prospect after another, a year after losing 11 players to the draft.
Though Florida State did not play its best game against Duke, leading just 17-0 at halftime, you got the feeling the onslaught would be a formality given the sheer talent advantage on the side of the Seminoles. Indeed, Florida State scored 21 third-quarter points to effectively put the game out of reach, extending its domination over a Duke program that has never won a game in the series.
It seems only appropriate, then, that Florida State will get to face off against the SEC and Auburn in the BCS national title game. The conference that has lorded over not only college football but the ACC in particular has boasted for seven consecutive years that it has the most talent in America and the best teams in America.
Florida State, finally, seems ready to answer that argument. Nobody had more players drafted into the NFL last year. Not Alabama. Not LSU. When asked about the prospect of taking down the SEC, Seminoles players were not quite ready to start trash-talking a league that has come to dominate the ACC during regular-season matchups. Just last weekend, the ACC went 1-3 against the SEC, with Florida State posting the only victory, over Florida.
"I feel like the ACC is one of the best conferences in the nation," Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. "We've got a lot of great players."
So from a players' vantage point, is it irksome that the SEC is declared the best in America without much question or debate?
"Not even, not at all," Benjamin said. "The national championship is not here yet. We'll show them who the best is."
Fisher has molded his program into an SEC program, learning under Nick Saban and coaching at SEC schools. He served as quarterbacks coach at Auburn from 1993-98. He is intricately familiar with how the conference works, and how many of the programs in the conference work. It is no coincidence he has gotten to this level, then, following a similar framework.
The ACC has not had a team play for a national championship since Florida State faced Oklahoma following the 2000 season. It has watched every other conference get a swing at the SEC in the BCS national championship game and miss.
Now it finally gets its turn, with the undisputed No. 1 team in America, loaded with prospects and the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Jameis Winston. The ACC has waited on this moment, to finally stand on the top of the college football world.
Stepping on the SEC and ending its championship hold would make the victory all the more rewarding.
To Pasadena, then.