USA Today -- It all seemed strangely familiar to former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, who spent an afternoon at Florida State in September observing the Seminoles' early-season preparation for perhaps the most successful regular season in the Bowl Championship Series era.
Fulmer, who went 152-52 during 17 seasons with the Volunteers and entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012, had seen this show before, up close and personal - first when his team knocked off the Seminoles to win the 1998 national championship, and again during the Southeastern Conference's dynastic run as the nation's premier conference.
What Fulmer saw in September was a team built in the SEC's image: big, strong, physical, deep and focused.
"They've got the cornerbacks, they've got an aggressive style on defense, they've got the tailbacks that have come through for them, and then the receiver-quarterback combination," Fulmer said. "They're a really dynamic football team."
This blend of depth, talent and athleticism draws parallels between Florida State's title-game blueprint and the national perception of the SEC, which sends Auburn to Pasadena, Calif., in quest of the league's eighth consecutive national championship.
In general, the SEC's long-held position atop the Football Bowl Subdivision has been a byproduct of prospect evaluation - a task made easier by the Southeast's recruiting bedrock - and player development. In specific, however, SEC teams like Alabama, Florida and LSU have excelled due to an ability to throw waves of top-level talent at opponents with a decidedly physical and aggressive approach.
In appearance, style, talent and depth, FSU is a team cut from the SEC's cloth.
"They physically look like an SEC football team," said Nevada coach Brian Polian, who faced FSU in a September loss and spent the 2012 season at Texas A&M. "The one thing that struck me was that in today's world of spread-out, basketball-on-grass, they were physical in all three phases of the football game. They were physical in the kicking game, they were physical on offense and they were physical on defense."
A physical formula has become part of the SEC's mystique, one hammered home by the old-school, between-the-tackles play from recent champions like Alabama, Florida and LSU.
"They play SEC-type football, for what it's worth, whatever people think that means," Polian said. "They can line up with a fullback and come downhill and knock you backwards. In the ACC, where you see so much spread and people want to turn it into a space game, this team has the ability to line up and be physical with you on both sides of the ball."
In Monday's BCS National Championship Game, FSU will put its SEC-like credentials - and perfect record - on the line against Auburn, which has the offensive potency to complete the league's dominance of the BCS era. But Florida State, winners of all 13 games by two or more touchdowns, has matched the league's tried-and-true formula for supremacy better than any SEC outsider in BCS history.
That fourth-year coach Jimbo Fisher has built Florida State in the likeness of an SEC power is unsurprising: Fisher spent 13 seasons as an SEC assistant, including seven years at LSU, from 2000-6, under current Alabama coach Nick Saban and Les Miles.
After three seasons as former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator and the Seminoles' coach in waiting, Fisher inherited Bowden's position in 2010 and quickly and forcefully began remaking FSU's roster - bringing in high-profile talent, particularly along the defensive line.
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"In a lot of ways, I think Jimbo being at LSU and Auburn, he knows about recruiting in the Southeastern Conference," Fulmer said. "It looks like that's what he's done. They're athletic. He's got speed all over the field."
It's Saban's touch that seems particularly evident in Fisher's approach to rejuvenating Florida State after the program's extended period of drowsiness. Saban used a similar plan - a "process," in his words - to bring the Crimson Tide back to the forefront of college football after a generation of unacceptable mediocrity.
"I don't know if he's publicly said this, but it's been pretty clear that (Fisher's) blueprint for Florida State football was to build a team that looks like an SEC team," said Danny Kanell, an ESPN college football analyst and former FSU quarterback.
"You look at some the dominant defensive linemen that he's got, the bigger linebackers and the exceptional guys in the secondary, and it's clear to me that's where it was derived from. And it shows in the success. I mean, that's why they plowed their way through the ACC."
Like Saban and Alabama, which won three of the past four national championships, FSU has succeeded at identifying, recruiting and developing key skill players - like a Jameis Winston, or wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw - but excelled in developing talent along the line of scrimmage.
Of the nine Florida State defensive linemen listed on its depth chart for the championship game, eight received at least a four-star ranking from the recruiting Web site Rivals.com; of those eight, all but two ranked among the nation's top 70 recruits as high school seniors, and three earned five stars.
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Though slightly less star-studded, each of Florida State's starting five offensive linemen earned All-ACC honors in 2013, with left tackle Cam Erving named the league's offensive linemen of the year.
Boiled down, this is the SEC approach - one utilized to great effect by Saban's Crimson Tide, Les Miles' LSU and Urban Meyer's Florida: win with skill players, but dominate by controlling the point of attack.
"They're big across the board," Polian said. "The wide receivers, the cornerbacks, the offensive line looked like an SEC offensive line. It looked like some of the teams we had seen the year before. They were as well-coached a team in all three phases as any group I've seen over the last couple years."
But college football is nothing if not cyclical: Florida State might be built in the SEC mold, but the SEC's unprecedented run - the conveyor belt of NFL picks, the physicality, the dominance - was built in the image of Florida State's heyday, a decade-plus streak of supremacy starting in the 1980s that was defined by the same traits the Seminoles exhibit today.
FSU finished with at least 10 wins and among the top five each season from 1987-2000, a run of national contention unmatched in the poll era of college football.
Rather than being defined by one positive trait, like a prolific offense, the Seminoles' run came about via superb balance, a team-wide evenness between offense, defense and special teams.
This dominance was built on the practice field, where the Seminoles' first-team offense and defense would engage in "bloody wars," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, an FSU assistant from 1990-2000.
"Not that we weren't on the same team - we loved each other on Saturday, but still," Richt said. "Those Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when we would do competitive drills, the eleven on elevens, the one on ones, the team run, whatever it was, I mean, everybody was trying to win the drill. So I think that was huge part of the success at Florida State during that time."
Competition stemmed from a simple yet crucial concept now seen among the SEC's premier programs: Florida State bred intra-squad rivalry by reeling in five-star recruits by the dozens, at every position, and promoting an environment where backups pushed starters - even established starters - for snaps.
By stressing on-field competition - between Richt's offense and the defense run by then-coordinator Mickey Andrews, whom Richt called "the most competitive human being I've ever been around" - the Seminoles developed a belief that no opponent, whether during the regular season or bowl play, could replicate the intensity and challenge the team experienced within its own walls.
"The thing I remember most is just the confidence on both sides of the football," Kanell said. "When you played under Coach Bowden and you played at Florida State, we really had in our minds every season that we were going to contend for the national championship. It wasn't even a thought that we would possibly only win a conference championship, it was always, year in and year out, contend for national titles. And that mindset, it ran deep throughout the whole program from the top to bottom."
One character trait ties together FSU's glory teams and its current title contender, which stands one win away from completing one of the most impressive seasons of the last two decades of college football, and it's one that's not actually physical.
"There's the confidence, they absolutely have a confidence," Kanell said. "And really, more so than Seminole teams in the recent past, they have this laser focus and this expectation of competing for the national championship. They've had it all season long. They have not let anything get in their way. They've had their eyes set on something special."
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