When a college football coach drops the word “integrity” into a conversation, people instantly perk up like bobbleheads. Since when is anyone interested in moral principles when boosters are human ATM machines and TV networks are throwing billions at megaconferences? This is especially shocking when a coach has something lucrative and magnificent at stake, such as a national championship and a quarterback gunning for a Heisman Trophy.
Meet Jimbo Fisher, a willing victim.
For now, anyway.
In position to produce a rare perfecta this season at Florida State, Fisher insists he won’t do two things to gain an edge in the Bowl Championship Series standings. He won’t run up the score against opponents, despite the presence of Jameis Winston, who seemingly could lead a potent offense to 50 or 60 points a game if required. And he won’t necessarily vote his team No. 1 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, which counts for a whopping one-third of the BCS formula. In what could be the perfect chaotic storm in the system’s final season — two undefeated teams playing for the national championship, while at least one undefeated team is aced out — Florida State risks becoming the last team screwed by a process that has mocked and damaged the sport far too long.
This past week, when a case could be made for the third-ranked Seminoles as America’s best team, Fisher wanted to make a larger point: All voters should detach themselves from emotion, including those with teams in the title hunt. So the FSU coach did not place FSU atop his ballot. You can hear the gasps already from Tallahassee.
“That’s a job I have,” he said. “I don’t look at it through our team. You can’t let emotion get into it. You have to do what you think, from your study, evaluation, opinion and expertise, where you should fit in that poll.”
While he wouldn’t reveal his ballot, Fisher appeared most impressed by top-ranked Alabama, coached by his former boss, Nick Saban. “Alabama’s been very consistent, playing great defense right now, they have playmakers that can run the football, they’re very physical, and they’ve done it and earned it for two years,” he said.
Here in autumn, still several weeks and many big games from the announcement of who’s in and who’s out, his stance sounds refreshing — admirably above coaching’s self-absorbed fray. I just want to see where Fisher stands come the second week of December, when, quite possibly, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State have finished their regular seasons and conference title games with identical 13-0 records. If that happens, it seems Alabama, with an SEC schedule that will have included enough big wins over ranked opponents, figures to be in the Jan. 6 championship game in Pasadena. But the margin between Oregon and Florida State at that point could be miniscule. Oregon will have had victories over ranked Washington, UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State. FSU will have had victories over ranked Clemson, Miami and, presumably, Virginia Tech, but would be penalized because it scheduled two non-conference gimmes in Bethune-Cookman and Idaho while Oregon — playing in a Pac-12 conference that is stronger than the ACC — scheduled only one non-league gimme in Nicholls.
At that point, will Fisher vote his team No. 1 to help overcome Oregon and lift the grand cause? And will he have to start taking advantage of his potent offense and roll up ridiculous numbers — not only to help FSU’s title chances but to bolster Winston in his two-man Heisman race against Oregon QB Marcus Mariota? He vows to keep prioritizing integrity over professional gain, though you wonder how his university bosses feel about that.
“I’m not going to go out there and embarrass this game and the integrity of how you’ve got to play,” said Fisher, who had a chance to go scoreboard-daffy last week against North Carolina State but pulled his starters early in the second half. “If that’s the way they’re going to do it, they need to re-evaluate. If they can’t tell we dominated that game early and put it away — I just think that’s bad for college football, in my opinion.”
Further, he says voters should study film of the teams involved — “the eye test,” in his words — instead of basing conclusions on final scores and statistics. “People watch and know when you’re playing well,” Fisher said. “It’s important you prepare to play well, play well and put a great product on the field. From that standpoint, you do have to impress. But I think that’s how you win football games.”
Next year will bring more order to the madness. Projecting our current mess a year from now, all three surely would make the four-team playoff, with the selection committee left to determine if Ohio State or Baylor is the worthiest fourth team. It makes perfect sense in a non-sensical system to have one last year of disarray, but in the middle of it all, at least, is a sane voice.