The Heisman Trophy quarterback from Florida State never seemed to sweat through public scrutiny over a sexual-battery complaint. He flashed his confident demeanor while becoming the second freshman to accept the Heisman Trophy.
On Friday, his presence filled a room full of reporters covering lead-up to Monday’s Bowl Championship Series title game showdown with Auburn.
“Well, my life hasn’t changed at all because our goal as a team, it still isn’t over yet,” he said. “At Florida State, we began the season as everybody was looking at us as, like, ‘OK, they’ve got a freshman quarterback. Nobody is going to pay any attention.’
“Now, we’re in the National Championship.”
And now, Auburn’s way to minimize Winston’s powerful arm and fleet feet becomes clear. Start with his head.
“I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone,” Auburn's Robenson Therezie said. “With our front four, I don't think he’s seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th. … It's completely different from all the other leagues he’s played in.”
Auburn’s statistics for the season don’t add up to a defense that should sound so confident against the nation’s top-rated passer. Auburn ranks 38th in scoring defense, 87th in total defense and 104th against the pass.
Then again, meet confidence with confidence. Remind Winston that he doesn’t play in the SEC, the conference that has produced the past seven national champions and seeks to make it eight.
It’s a start toward working on Winston’s comfort level. The rest comes with pressure, both from Auburn’s offense and its defensive line.
Auburn’s top-ranked rushing offense has to make Winston uncomfortable by making him and Florida State’s offense keep pace rather than set pace. The undefeated Seminoles are used to setting pace, scoring an NCAA-best 53.0 points a game and winning by an average of 42.3.
Auburn’s defense, led by rush end Dee Ford, has to do the rest.
“What the key is going to be is, can we get pressure?” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “And we need to get pressure with four (down linemen). We need to get pressure with pressure (blitzing).
“It’s going to be a big factor, the play in the box. They have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have.”
Protecting the quarterback isn’t Florida State’s specialty. The Seminoles rank 76th in sacks allowed (2.23 a game).
Though Auburn’s defense is just 55th in sacks (2.15), Ford is 17th with 8.5.
But it’s not all about sacks. Ford showed his ability to affect a good passer with six hurries against Georgia’s Aaron Murray, including the hit that forced Murray’s incomplete pass on the game’s final play.
For nearly three quarters, Murray looked uncomfortable. Auburn has to make Winston do the same.
“Pressure makes any quarterback average,” Ford said. “We definitely want to put pressure on this quarterback, really affect his decisions, and that’s what we’re working to do.”
While Auburn’s defense has played its best in the fourth quarter, the Tigers can’t wait to make Winston feel uncomfortable.
“The goal of my teammates is to get him out of his comfort zone and have him rattled early,” safety Jermaine Whitehead said. “I think it’s going to be a great day for us.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.