CLEMSON, S.C. -- Sometime after the crowd thinned, when most of the noise came from the Florida State band playing the Seminole war chant, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith asked Seminoles receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey a question. Dawsey played receiver for Florida State during the first four years of a 14-year run of top-five finishes. He shared the locker room with Deion Sanders and LeRoy Butler on that day in 1988 when the Seminoles silenced Death Valley with a punt-return touchdown and a trick play for the ages. Dawsey was there for the dawn of perhaps the most dominant stretch in college football history. Smith wanted to know one thing.
"I said, 'Is this how it felt when y'all were doing it?'" Smith said. "He said, 'Yeah, this is definitely how it was.'"
An entire generation of college football fans has come of age with no recollection of when Florida State was the baddest team in the universe, when Sanders and Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn and Peter Warrick and Peter Boulware steamrolled nearly every team they played. It has been 13 years since the Seminoles finished a season ranked in the top five of the AP Poll. Within the ACC, the fear of Florida State dissipated with each random loss to NC State or Wake Forest. People forgot how thoroughly a fully realized Florida State team can destroy a quality opponent. On Saturday, when Florida State receiver Rashad Greene put a finger to his lips when he reached the terminus of a 72-yard second-quarter touchdown pass and the Clemson crowd complied with silence, the memories came flooding back.
For those too young to remember the 1990s and for those whose football fandom somehow missed the golden years of Bobby Bowden's dynasty, Saturday's 51-14 win at Clemson looked exactly like the glory days. The Seminoles walked into Death Valley and turned it into Dead Valley before the end of the first quarter. Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd completed his first pass to receiver Stanton Seckinger only to see Smith jar the ball loose and safety Terrence Brooks recover for Florida State. Then Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston grabbed the spotlight and never gave it back. Winston's first pass of the night landed in the outstretched arms of Kelvin Benjamin for a 22-yard touchdown. When he finally stopped chucking, Winston had thrown for 444 yards and three touchdowns, cemented himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and lent more credence to the notion that he might someday lead the Seminoles to the same hallowed ground as fellow two-sport star Ward.
Winston pitches and plays outfield on Florida State's baseball team, and he began building his legend this past spring when he mowed down a Clemson base runner at third from right field. On Saturday, Winston added to his highlight reel with a systematic dissection of a Clemson defense that had made significant improvements since Winston's predecessor, EJ Manuel, picked it apart last year in Tallahassee. The much-hyped -- by me and just about everyone else -- duel between Winston and Boyd fizzled as the redshirt freshman humbled the fifth-year senior. Boyd went 17-of-37 for 156 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Winston never showed any butterflies even as a hostile crowd unleashed a jet-engine roar at the game's start. "We don't play against noise," Winston said. "We were playing against the Clemson Tigers." By game's end, there was no noise save for the cheers of the small clutch of Florida State fans near the Seminoles' bench. That's when Winston sought out each offensive teammate on the sideline for a handshake or a hug. He finished the tour by climbing onto a bench to bearhug center Bryan Stork. "We have so many assets on our offensive squad," Winston said later. "From the offensive line to our three great running backs to our great fullback. We have great tight ends. Our wide receivers are off the charts. We've got so many weapons."
Winston has quickly made Florida State his team, and even the older Seminoles don't mind following his lead. "He's a natural leader because he's being himself," senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "He's not coached up to be a leader that way. He's being himself. It's very rare in this culture to have someone that's genuine in their heart like that. We respect that, and we go off that. Guys walk around all serious. You see Jameis all goofy before a big-time game like this, you're like, 'OK, that's beautiful.'"
Winston's emergence has turned an already good offense into a great one, but the ability of the Seminoles' defense -- which had seven players taken in the 2013 NFL draft -- to plug in players and keep dominating is the other key factor in Florida State's rise. Joyner, who moved to cornerback from safety this season to help his draft stock and to fill a position of need while loosening a logjam at safety, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass. The first forced fumble came on a sack of Boyd late in the first quarter, and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. scooped up the ball and ran much faster than a 277-pound man has a right to run for 37 yards into the end zone to give Florida State a 17-0 lead. Joyner was happy Edwards hit paydirt, but he grew impatient waiting for the big man to pick up the bouncing ball. "It was going in slow motion -- almost like the matrix," Joyner said. "Are these guys going to ever pick up this ball? I was like 'Get it!'" Afterward, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher could only smile when he saw Joyner's big-play total. "Lamarcus," Fisher said, "is the Energizer Bunny."
On the other sideline, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and his staff couldn't energize their team enough to even challenge the Seminoles. "Florida State might be the best team in the nation," Swinney 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 we were making unless they're making them, too -- and they didn't."
Now, Fisher and his staff must work to keep the Seminoles grounded. If the past two weeks have taught us anything, it's that no team is invincible. The Seminoles know this all too well. Their national title dreams were derailed last year when they flatlined in the second half at NC State. The Wolfpack come to Tallahassee next week, and if the Seminoles get too happy about this win over Clemson or look ahead to the matchup with Miami on Nov. 2, no amount of Winston Heisman hype or defensive draft stock will save them from embarrassment.
But if these Seminoles truly are playing like their forebears, then they won't let one win keep their heads from fitting inside their helmets. They'll want to prove, week after week, that they are the baddest team in the universe again. "We definitely are the best team in the country," Florida State's Greene said.
The next seven weeks will decide that, but the Seminoles looked an awful lot like it on Saturday.