CLEMSON, S.C. — Telvin Smith did not even wait for the fourth quarter to come around before seeking out Lawrence Dawsey to reminisce. With their Seminoles routing a top-five opponent on the road, the Florida State linebacker and passing game coordinator could afford a quick back-and-forth on the early ’90s, dominance and the long-awaited ascension.
“On the sideline, I was talking to Coach Dawsey about how they used to play and how they used to beat guys,” Smith said. “I said, ‘This is how it felt when y’all were doing it.’ He said, ‘Yeah, this is definitely how it was.'”
Dawsey, who was a part of four 10-win seasons as a receiver in Bobby Bowden’s evolving dynasty, need only look around at the state of Clemson Memorial Stadium late Saturday night, a Death Valley all but void of orange- and purple-clad spectators in the closing minutes, and know that his standout linebacker was onto something. There was a connection to be made. After years of waiting and waiting and promising then waiting some more, Florida State truly looks like it’s back following the fifth-ranked Seminoles’ 51-14 destruction of No. 3 Clemson in the nation’s most impressive win of the 2013 campaign.
Back to preeminence. Back to Bowden. Back to the top of the ACC mountain.
For the first three seasons under coach Jimbo Fisher, the FSU machine revved in the preseason and sputtered at one point or another during the year — falling to five unranked opponents since 2010, including a devastating loss to N.C. State last season when ranked No. 3 nationally. That Wolfpack team fired its coach at the end of the season. The Seminoles, on the other hand, bounced back from the loss to finish with a 12-2 record, win an Orange Bowl title against Northern Illinois (not an overwhelming achievement) and enter this season with redshirt freshman Jameis Winston under center.
The 6-foot-4 phenom is propelling himself toward a Heisman ceremony while the team blows past the best the conference has to offer. In consecutive games against ranked ACC opponents (Maryland, Clemson), Florida State has scored 114 points and allowed just 14. With both a top-five scoring offense and defense, the doubts are subsiding.
“We said it, now we’re doing it,” said Smith, who led the Seminoles with 11 tackles against Clemson. “And we just ran with it. We just ran with it and ran and ran. And we just ran away.”
The powers that be in the ACC wouldn’t mind if FSU does the same thing with the conference title, so long as it means one of its teams remains in the national title race. It’s been a league prone to kicking itself in the worst of late-season moments recently, but in this case, walking dizzily out of one the most-hyped matchups in league history and into a Seminole-centric world, even a 51-14 result achieved positive outcomes.
For the first time in the past decade, the ACC — a conference that has not sniffed a national championship game since the turn of the century — finds itself in very favorable position past the halfway mark in the season. Over the past 10 years, only four ACC teams have entered the ninth week of the season undefeated and ranked in the AP Poll’s top-10 (2011 Clemson, 2007 Boston College, 2005 Virginia Tech, 2004 Miami).
Following the Seminoles’ all-around clinic in Death Valley and No. 10 Miami’s survival in Chapel Hill on Thursday, the ACC looks poised to place two unblemished records among the national top-10, especially following a landscape-shifting week that saw nine ranked teams fall.
This is the semi-perfect storm the conference configured nine years prior when it invited Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to join the league in the early-2000s. This was how things were supposed to play out: FSU-Miami, or Miami-FSU, year after year, title after title, forever. That has yet to pan out, though, as Virginia Tech hit its stride, the Hurricanes fell off the map (zero ACC title game appearances) and the Seminoles have fluctuated between good to very good … but never great.
Things look differently now, though. Finally.
The Seminoles once again resemble past greatness.
The two Florida teams are poised for a top-10 showdown in Tallahassee on Nov. 2, and then a potential rematch in Charlotte in the conference title game. These are good days for ACC football. When the polls are released on Sunday, only the SEC will mirror the highly-ranked, undefeated duo.
But Fisher and his players have experienced the bad times; they know how quickly this season could redirect itself with an unseemly loss to N.C. State or Wake Forest or Idaho. Things have turned on an unsuspecting dime before, remember?
Of the aforementioned undefeated, top-10 ACC teams entering Week 9, they wrapped up their respective seasons by losing 12 of the remaining 24 games on the schedule, including losses to 10 unranked opponents. So forgive Jimbo for dancing around, though not quite dismissing, questions concerning his being the best team around.
“I think we have a heck of a team. I’m not doubting our team or anything,” said Fisher, who is now 36-10 at Florida State. “We got a lot of ball to play. And if we keep taking care of our business, the country will see and we’ll get to where we gotta go. … I’m not scared to play anybody. We got a good team.”
Or, as his Heisman-contending signal-caller put it: “I feel like our team is legit. Too legit to quit.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who held similar lofty goals entering Saturday’s game, could do nothing but tip his cap. This was not a “Clemson” moment. This was not a letdown. This was a good team beating a lesser team without leaving one shred of a doubt.
The Seminoles led 17-7 after one quarter, 27-7 at halftime and 41-7 after three. Led by Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, the Seminoles defense held the potent Tigers’ offense (16th in scoring nationally) to just 326 total yards and forced four turnovers. Again, never a doubt.
“We knew they were good coming in. You don’t have a lot of room for error against a team like that,” Swinney said. “Once they got up 17-0, the way the game was called was changed on both sides. They took advantage on all of our mistakes. They might be the best team in the country.”
So now Florida State pushes forward into the national forefront, looking every bit a legitimate threat to the Alabama-Oregon showdown the preseason predicted. They’ve fallen flat on their faces plenty of times before, but the Seminoles confidently state this time is different. Death Valley’s scoreboard would beg to agree.
“That’s what we said in the locker room: ‘They want it just as bad as we do, but they’re not willing to do what we’re willing to do to go get it,'” Smith said. “That’s what this team showed. We’re willing to go the extra mile or whatever it takes; we’re willing to go get it.”