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Seminoles under scrutiny, no matter how they win

Florida State blew through its regular-season schedule a year ago, beating its overmatched opponents so completely that many called into question the strength of its record.

Although it beat an SEC team to win the national championship, doubts remain a year later -- but for an entirely different reason.

This season, Florida State is playing close games, so many that pollsters have dropped it from preseason No. 1 to No. 2, without a loss. The Seminoles also are No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Where exactly is the happy medium, then? When Florida State blows out teams, its validity is called into question. When Florida State plays close games, its validity is called into question. Maybe pundits want Florida State to win a little more convincingly . . . but not too convincingly. Not with a schedule that is mercilessly knocked as weak.

Lost in there are wins over Top 25 teams and Power 5 nonconference opponents (more than Mississippi State). Oh, and one more thing: an incredible 24-game winning streak, the longest such streak in ACC history. The Miami Hurricanes were the most recent team to win 25 straight (32 straight from 2000 to 2002, when they were in the Big East).

The streak is remarkable given how difficult it is to win every week, regardless of schedule. Every weekend there is an upset or an unexpectedly tight game. It happened again in Week 10. Teams often win close games; teams often lose close games.

Florida State has not lost.

Nobody will argue that Florida State is as good this season as it was in 2013. But last season is part of the problem. Although the winning streak is a tribute to what Florida State has done and continues to do, these Seminoles are different.

They thrive, not on blowouts but on close victories. They want everyone to count them out. They want to wag their fingers and prove everyone wrong when they roar back and rip their opponents’ hopes to pieces. Florida State fell behind 21-0 against Louisville on Thursday night before coming back to post a double-digit victory -- the fourth time this season the Seminoles needed a second-half comeback to win.

In his postgame news conference, quarterback Jameis Winston had a question of his own. "When they’ve got the No. 1 defense in the country and we’re down 21-0, what were y’all saying?" he asked reporters. "It was crickets. Everyone was saying it," Winston said with uncommon satisfaction.

"But we bounced back. The Seminoles rise again."

It is quite an adjustment to go from the team that blows everybody out to the team that has to learn how to win close games. Florida State won one close game last season -- the biggest game of the season.

Auburn took the Seminoles down to the wire in the BCS title game. Nobody knew then that it was a preview of what was to come in 2014 for the Seminoles.

"Last year, the championship game, that was a big turning point," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We’re a different team because people look at us differently. Last year, we were the team that was trying to climb, so sometimes they know you’re a good team, but when you’ve won a championship and you’re winning the way we’re winning now, people are going to give you their A-game. They’re going to come prepared, and our kids are learning to do that and learning to persevere in those situations."

Perhaps teams are playing Florida State harder. But the Seminoles also have had to deal with more issues than a season ago. They are playing more freshmen in key roles, and there is no vocal leader on the defensive side like Lamarcus Joyner was last season. The team does not have as much game-ready talent, nor does it have much depth at key positions.

Winston also has had more off-the-field trouble, and Fisher has had to deal with increasing negativity directed squarely at him.

Florida State knows it has become a national villain, but players just shrug their shoulders. "Definitely we like the fact that everybody wants us to lose," cornerback P.J. Williams says.

What could make Florida State more villainous?

More wins.

More than that?

Winning close games.

The other problem, of course, is Florida State is not playing an SEC schedule, or even a Pac-12 schedule, for that matter. Winning a close game against 5-4 NC State or even 6-3 Louisville does not make anyone stop and say: "Wow! What a nice win for Florida State!" The Seminoles get hammered in ways Mississippi State did not for its close win over Arkansas, which is 0-5 in conference play.

On the other hand, perception hardly matters at this point. If the Seminoles win out, they will be in the College Football Playoff, and that would present an opportunity the BCS did not. They would have a chance to beat two upper-echelon teams, perhaps two from the SEC. If Florida State could repeat, maybe it would receive more credit.

Until then, there should be an appreciation for what Florida State has done in two-plus seasons.

"We find a way to win football games," Winston said.

That should be all that matters.