CLEMSON, S.C. – The flying Florida State blitzer was cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, and he was on Tajh Boyd before the Clemson quarterback even saw him. Joyner blasted Boyd to send the football squirting free, and there was startlingly agile 277-pound defensive end Mario Edwards to scoop it and sprint 37 yards to the end zone.
“It was textbook,” Joyner said.
It was also talent. If you’re scoring at home, that was a five-star forced fumble leading to a five-star recovery and score.
Eleven minutes of clock time later, brilliant Seminoles freshman quarterback Jameis Winston was firing a bullet over the middle to receiver Rashad Greene. He stepped through three attempted tackles and ran away from everyone in orange at breathtaking speed, going 72 yards for a touchdown.
“I don’t consider him a freshman,” Greene said of Winston. “That’s a grown man.”
That was a five-star throw to a four-star catch-and-run touchdown.
Those two big plays in a record-breaking, 51-14 crushing of Clemson illustrate why Florida State is quickly regaining glory-days form. The spectacular recruiting classes culled by coach Jimbo Fisher – all in the Rivals.com top ten, including the No. 2 class in 2011 – are growing up, moving up the depth chart and taking over team leadership. These are players everyone wanted, and they are living up to the hype.
Even after having 11 players picked in the 2013 NFL draft, this is a much better team and a rapidly maturing program.
They are mowing down Atlantic Coast Conference competition in brutal fashion – scoring more points Saturday night than any visiting team in Death Valley’s considerable history. And when it was over, they added this sack dance to Clemson’s wounds: several hundred Florida State fans rushed the home team’s field to celebrate with the players. It was a surreal sight and sound, all that tomahawk chopping on the orange paw at midfield at the end of a day Clemson fans had anticipated for so long.
“This was a huge missed opportunity for our team,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said.
It was also Florida State seizing a huge opportunity and making a persuasive argument that the garnet-and-gold monster is back to rule the ACC.
There are blue chippers all over the field and all over the two-deep for the Seminoles. After misplacing the program’s identity in the latter Bowden years and struggling to transition in the early Jimbo years, Florida State has finished the rebuilding process.
“Because of the tradition here, there’s so much pressure to pick that back up,” said Joyner, a senior who was part of Fisher’s first recruiting class. “This has been the first team to embrace that.
“It was very frustrating. … You had the talent with no belief. We lacked leadership.”
There is leadership now that is commensurate with the available talent. Interestingly, a lot of it comes from redshirt freshman Winston – who may have stepped past Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel to the head of the Heisman Trophy contender class with another sensational performance. Winston threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns and had his teammates laughing at the bedlam that rained down on them before their first offensive snap.
“We starting smiling,” Winston said. “We don’t play against noise. We’re playing against the Clemson Tigers.”
With Clemson crushed, Florida State can move on to playing against stiffer competition. Not on the field, but in the polls and the computer ratings.
There are three teams that now merit consideration to be ranked No. 1.
It’s tough to take down two-time defending champion Alabama, which has done everything right after entering the year on top of every poll. You can’t knock Oregon, which has blazed out to a dominant 7-0 start. But how do you deny the Seminoles, who probably turned in the single most impressive performance of the year against the previously unbeaten, third-ranked Tigers?
Florida State’s schedule is weaker the rest of the way than either Alabama’s or Oregon’s, which can be a blessing or a curse. If all three remain unbeaten, the Seminoles may still be stuck in third. But after another tumultuous weekend in college football, what are the chances of having three unbeatens at season’s end?
From that standpoint, Florida State may be well-positioned to get into the BCS title game over a one-loss champion of the SEC or Pac-12 (and certainly over an unbeaten Ohio State). There are still three noteworthy games remaining for the Seminoles: home against unbeaten Miami on Nov. 2; at Florida on Nov. 30; and a potential ACC championship game matchup with either Virginia Tech or the Hurricanes.
If Florida State can navigate that to go 13-0, it has a great chance of ending the year in Pasadena. And it wouldn’t surprise Swinney.
“Florida State might be the best team in the nation,” he said. “We knew they were good coming in. You don’t have a lot of room for error against a team like that. You can’t make the mistakes that we made unless they’re making them too, and they didn’t. … They took advantage of all our mistakes.”
Because of those mistakes, and the dominance of the Seminoles, the night in Death Valley ended with 80,000 orange-clad pall bearers filing out early and solemnly, leaving the field to the visitors. The Clemson fans were so pumped for this game, arguably the biggest ever played here.
And then they kicked off, and it all went to hell in a heartbeat. This was a case of not just superior talent, but maturing talent capable of handling the big moment better than any Florida State team in years.