Let's play the What-If Game. (Florida State followers can play, too, but first they have to take off their "The World Is Against Us" T-shirts and quit being so sensitive about everything.)
There's only one rule: You have to be brutally honest.
If Florida State played Mississippi State on a neutral field, who would you take?
If FSU played Ole Miss, who would you take?
If the Seminoles played Notre Dame again, or Georgia, or Alabama, who would you take?
Would you like their chances if they faced Auburn, Kansas State, Baylor or TCU?
How about Arizona, Oregon or Michigan State?
I can already hear some of FSU's most paranoid fans: "Is this a trick question?"... "I'd like to use a lifeline." ... "Lose to Kansas State? Hell, we could beat the Kansas City Chiefs."
Those people can't play this game. But the FSU realists, even the most ardent FSU optimists, have to admit that the 2014 version of the Seminoles isn't anywhere near as good as the 2013 national championship version.
Resiliency? They buy it in bulk. Combative? Like a junkyard dog. Fearless? The Noles would swim across a river stocked with piranha -- and wear sirloin steak floaties doing it.
But that gets you only so far. It gets you to a moment like this: Notre Dame has fourth-and-goal on your 3-yard line with 17 seconds remaining, runs a pick play (similar to an earlier Irish TD pass route) and scores to take the lead with 13 seconds left.
Your 22-game winning streak is finished. Your chances of reaching the College Football Playoff are instantly reduced. Your aura of football invincibility is compromised.
But wait -- a penalty flag!
The Seminoles remain unbeaten today because at least one, and maybe two, Irish players looked more like blockers than receivers on that critical fourth-down play. Had they been a tiny bit more subtle in how they ran the same type of pick play that everybody runs from Tallahassee to Pullman, Notre Dame would be 7-0 and FSU would be 6-1.
Instead, an official made the controversial call (I swear I saw the referee ask the official who threw the flag, "Are you sure?" before breaking the news to America and the two teams on his ref mike). The Irish were faced with another fourth-and-18, but unlike the earlier near-miracle conversion in the drive, this Everett Golson pass settled into the arms of FSU's Jacob Pugh.
Six seconds later, the game was finished. But the questions about FSU's chances of winning a second consecutive national title remain.
PREGAME SPEECH -- PART II
It doesn't matter whether you despise the Seminoles or want to take them to the senior prom. All that really matters, from a pure football standpoint, is this: Would you take them against the field?
I wouldn't. Not after watching FSU trail five times in its own stadium. Not after watching Jameis Winston make some spectacular throws, but also some spectacularly ill-advised throws. Not after watching FSU rush for a grand total of 50 yards, or convert just three of eight third downs, or need a penalty flag to win the game.
You can't deny the Seminoles' heart. They overcame those five ND leads. They overcame a Winston interception. They overcame the loss of their offensive line coach (longtime assistant Rick Trickett had a medical emergency). They overcame the pressures of being the defending national champions.
But Golson outplayed Winston. And at some point you have to be able to run the ball. And did you notice that Notre Dame rushed for 157 yards, gained nearly 500 total yards and scored 27 points (or 34, depending on your view of the final penalty) against FSU's defense?
Right now, I'd take Mississippi State over FSU on a neutral field. I'd take the Irish in a rematch. I'd take TCU (but only if the scoreboard allows for triple digits) and Oregon (in Marcus Mariota, I trust). I'd go coin flip on Georgia (good pass rush, iffy secondary) and Ole Miss (in Landsharks, I trust). I'd think hard about taking Auburn and K-State (if the Wildcats can beat Oklahoma, they can beat FSU). I'd take the Seminoles over Bama, Baylor, Arizona and Michigan State.
The reality of FSU's season is this: It could win all of those matchups, or lose them all, too. At the moment, the Seminoles' margin of error is as thin as football laces. Plus, there is a cumulative effect of taking everybody's best shot.
If FSU had to play this Thursday at Louisville, it would be on fumes. But the game isn't until Oct. 30. Then it plays Virginia at home, Miami on the road, and Boston College and Florida at home, and then, presumably, will play in the ACC championship.
Do you see a loss there? Probably not. But that's the thing about this year's FSU team. The Noles' "sure thing" days are done.
Bad for them. Good for those trying to end their national title run at one.
Things we thought we knew:
Baylor versus Oklahoma on Nov. 8 is going to be a HUGE game. ... Texas A&M's Kenny Hill could win the Heisman. ... OU's Trevor Knight has made exponential improvements in his game. ... Keep an eye on Virginia Tech. ... Despite his father saying in June that Winston intends to return to FSU in 2015, no way he returns as a redshirt junior. ... OU could win it all! ... Baylor could win it all! ... UCLA could win it all! ... Notre Dame will finish 8-4, tops. ... LSU's Leonard Fournette is going to be a star. ... FSU transfer Jake Coker will be the answer to Alabama's quarterback concerns. ... Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace is a turnover dispenser -- you can't trust him. ... Two SEC teams could make the first four-team College Football Playoff. ... Morgantown and upsets go together.
Things we know now:
K-State at TCU on Nov. 8 is going to be a HUGE game. ... A&M's Hill isn't going to win the Heisman (his past three games: six TDs, six interceptions, three losses). ... Virginia Tech is 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the ACC's ordinary Coastal Division. ... No way Winston returns in 2015. ... OU and UCLA aren't going to win it all. Baylor will need to run the table to squeeze into the playoff conversation. ... Notre Dame could win double-digit games. ... Fournette is going to be a star, but he isn't there yet. ... Coker sat behind Winston at FSU, and is sitting behind Blake Sims at Bama. ... Wallace has now gone four consecutive SEC games without committing a turnover. ... Two SEC West teams could make the College Football Playoff. ... Morgantown and upsets go together.
Winston's stats in the second half versus Notre Dame (15-of-16 for 181 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions). ... A maximum of two undefeated Power 5 teams in the College Football Playoff (and that's only if FSU runs the table and Ole Miss and Mississippi State are unbeaten when they reach the Egg Bowl -- and then one of those two teams wins the SEC championship game). ... Marshall QB Rakeem Cato (39 consecutive games with a passing TD). ... Bama fans saying, "We never had a doubt." ... West Virginia QB Clint Trickett, wide receiver Kevin White and defensive end Shaq Riddick. ... Ohio State's Big Ten win streak (18 and counting). ... FSU's win streak (23 and counting). ... Winston's win streak as a starter (20 and counting). ... Arkansas' SEC losing streak (16 and counting; Bret Bielema is now 0-12 versus SEC teams). ... Texas A&M's free fall. ... Georgia's Nick Chubb (Gurley who?). ... Missouri running back Marcus Murphy (rushing TD, kickoff return TD, punt return TD in 42-13 win against Florida). ... Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, who won his 100th game in just 106 games (someone will add his name to the Michigan or Florida coaching search). ... Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (first Cornhusker with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons). ... USC's Cody Kessler (seven TD passes versus Colorado). ... Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. ... K-State's Bill Snyder. ... Duke and Minnesota bowl eligibility. ... Oregon dominance over Washington (11 straight wins and counting). ... Oregon freshman running back Royce Freeman. ... Oregon throwback unis. ... Ole Miss at LSU this Saturday. ... Separated at birth: ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
Winston's stats in first half versus Notre Dame (8-of-15 for 92 yards, one touchdown, one interception). ... Oklahoma's special teams. ... Bama-related depression. ... Florida (the Gators dropped to 3-3 after giving up 42 points, including a fumble return for a TD, an interception return for a TD, and kickoff and punt returns for TDs). ... Undefeated teams (we're down to four: FSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Marshall). ... Tennessee's rushing attack (zero yards versus Ole Miss). ... Archie Manning from the CFP selection committee (season-ending surgery). ... UCLA's losing streak to Cal (the Bruins had lost seven consecutive road games against the Bears). ... Stanford's mojo. ... Baylor's manual on how to avoid penalties (18 flags for 215 yards in a loss at Couchtown). ... Big Ten bashing (I'm not saying being 6-1 in the Big Ten is the same as being 6-1 in the SEC, but the idea of a Big Ten team making it into the College Football Playoff isn't so silly anymore). ... Kentucky optimism. ... LenDale White's alumnus gift to USC. ... National buzz about Michigan versus Michigan State.
Call it the Famous Jameis Effect.
Maybe it's a coincidence, but have you noticed how other schools have dealt with the off-field issues of players who have had their own Winston moments?
By now, you know the Winston timeline by heart. Some of his issues are roll-your-eyes petty, some are life-changing in scope:
• Accused of sexual assault in 2012. (The state attorney's office for the Second Judicial Circuit chose not to prosecute the case.)
• Accused of taking part in a 2012 BB gun incident that resulted in property damage.
• Accused of leaving a fast food restaurant in 2013 without paying for soft drinks.
• Issued a civil citation for stealing seafood from a Tallahassee grocery store in 2014.
• Last month, shouted a vulgar sexual comment on campus.
• Investigated this month for possible autographs for pay.
In short, lots of controversy, but not much else. Winston's misdeeds and alleged misdeeds have cost him exactly one football game -- and it would have been a half-game suspension had school officials not determined that the Heisman Trophy winner had lied about the circumstances of the aforementioned lewd comment.
Depending on what side of the FSU fence you occupy, the punishment has been laughably lax, or outrageously excessive. Enabled by FSU, or a victim of administrative and media overkill, take your pick.
But one thing is for sure: Other athletic directors and university presidents have been paying attention not only to Florida State's responses, but also to the public reaction and fallout.
• Oklahoma's Frank Shannon, the team's leading tackler in 2013, was suspended the entire 2014 season after he was accused by an OU student of sexual assault. It didn't matter that the county district attorney didn't prosecute the case. And OU didn't blink when it petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court to reverse an earlier lower court stay that allowed Shannon to remain part of the Sooners' program. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court ruled in OU's favor.
• Oklahoma star recruit Joe Mixon was suspended for the 2014 season after he was charged with misdemeanor assault. It didn't matter to OU that he later pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor.
• Kentucky, NC State and East Carolina suspended a combined total of 14 players after they were linked to a BB gun shooting spree.
• Kentucky suspended defensive end Lloyd Tubman after he was charged with first-degree rape.
• Georgia suspended then-leading Heisman candidate Todd Gurley after allegations surfaced that he had taken money for autographs.
Meanwhile, Florida State's Fisher has been adamant in his defense of Winston. To hear Fisher, there are no gray areas.
In the alleged sexual assault case (a student judiciary process is underway), Fisher dismissed it all by saying, "There is no victim because there was no crime." It is a startling public declaration for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that it leaves Fisher with no wiggle room.
In the autographs-for-pay investigation, Fisher said Winston has "never taken a dime for anything." Again, zero wiggle room.
Who knows how any of this will shake out? And to be clear, just because there are similarities between the cases doesn't mean the facts surrounding them are the same.
Still, Winston's transgressions and alleged misdeeds, as well as Florida State's action and inaction, have been noted by other ADs and school presidents. In some cases, the philosophical divide is glaring and telling.
And the Heisman Trophy goes to ... Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
Prescott was absolutely flawless during the bye week. Got some much-needed non-contact time as the Bulldogs prepare for their trip to Kentucky.
Also in attendance for the presentation ceremony (and we're going to need a lot of chairs): Oregon's Mariota, FSU's Winston, Notre Dame's Golson, Marshall's Cato, TCU's Trevone Boykin, West Virginia's Trickett, K-State's Jake Waters and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
In a parallel universe in which only redshirt freshman quarterbacks can win: Ohio State's Barrett.
1. Mississippi State
Will the Bulldogs benefit from the off week, or will the time off disrupt the momentum of having beaten then-No. 6 Texas A&M and then-No. 2 Auburn in consecutive weeks? Kentucky will play better at home than it did at LSU (it can't play much worse).
2. Florida State
Based on the quality of opponent, I bumped FSU over Ole Miss. Based on the quality of the final score, you can make the argument -- and no hard feelings if you do -- that the Seminoles' four-point win at home against Notre Dame wasn't as impressive as Ole Miss' 31-point win at home against Tennessee. Let's just say it's a soft No. 2.
3. Ole Miss
You knew the Landsharks would terrorize Tennessee's offensive line -- and they did, to the tune of seven sacks. It may be the lone, legitimate championship-quality defense in the country. Or put it this way: Find me one better than Ole Miss'.
4. Notre Dame
I had the Irish ranked fifth last week and moved them up after a loss. They played well enough to beat FSU at Doak Campbell. But they also made just enough mistakes to get beat, too. If nothing else, the loss doesn't eliminate them from the College Football Playoff discussion. Despite the defeat, they actually made believers out of ND skeptics.
Chubb is a freshman freak. Hutson Mason has his moments. And whatever they're paying defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (a reported $850,000 per year), he's earning every penny of it.
Texas A&M is still trying to find all the flaws Bama supposedly has. The Crimson Tide actually looked like the Crimson Tide again, which is never a good thing for the rest of the SEC West. But can Bama keep that same level of focus moving forward?
Like Mississippi State, the Tigers have had some bye week downtime. South Carolina comes to the loveliest village this week.
8. Kansas State
Yeah, OK, it took some OU special-teams disasters for K-State to win, but that's how it goes. Now the Wildcats face a Texas team that finally looks as though it has a pulse.
Over the history of the AP poll, the Bears are 4-4 as a top-five team. That stinks. Of course, they're not top five after the upset at West Virginia. The good news: They face Kansas in their next game on Nov. 1.
If not for the collapse against Baylor ... Still, a nice bounce-back win against Oklahoma State. TCU faces Coach Handsome at home on Saturday.
Waiting list: Arizona, Oregon, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska.
No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
A hundo to anybody who had this playoff matchup at season's beginning. And I'll need notarized documentation.
No. 2 FSU vs. No. 3 Ole Miss