FSU matures in win over Clemson but still faces battle of perception
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Marching Chiefs thundered the Seminole War Chant from their perch in the end zone at Doak Campbell Stadium. On the field, Florida State cheerleaders elbowed one another aside to be the first to hug Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher. Diminutive Florida State back Chris Thompson, who almost quit football a few months ago and then played the game of his life in perhaps his team's most important contest this season, sauntered into the tunnel as fans called his name.
Saturday felt like the old days, when Florida State swaggered its way into the national title picture on an annual basis. The Seminoles took Clemson's best shot, fell behind and roared back for a 49-37 win. Was FSU's defense as good as advertised? No, but few defenses look great against the Tigers' array of playmakers. But no one counted on the Seminoles gaining 667 yards, either. Quarterback E.J. Manuel, who missed FSU's 2011 loss at Clemson with a shoulder injury, abused the Tigers for 380 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and 102 rushing yards.
Now comes the hard part. Until Florida arrives in Tallahassee two days after Thanksgiving, the Seminoles will face two opponents each week. They'll face the team on the schedule -- which will prepare for and play the Seminoles like they are the 1985 Bears -- and they'll face perception. Two years from now, Florida State probably won't have to worry about that second foe. Finishing as an undefeated ACC champ, as the Seminoles have an excellent chance to do given their remaining schedule, probably would be good enough to make the four-team playoff that begins in the 2014 season. In 2012? It might not be good enough to make the BCS title game. Not only will the Seminoles have to win all their games, they'll have to rack up so many style points that the voters look past a lackluster schedule.
We'll pause here to discuss Florida State's scheduling of Savannah State, the worst team in all of Division I football, in Week 2. That game will be an anchor weighing down Florida State's national title aspirations, but it wasn't entirely the Seminoles' fault. Florida State was supposed to play West Virginia in Tallahassee, but when the Mountaineers left the Big East for the Big 12, they had to shed nonconference games to accommodate their new league's nine-game conference schedule. Guess who got chopped? The Seminoles scrambled, and they chose the worst possible opponent from a limited set of options. Florida State's players can't control that. Nor can they control the fate of the Florida Gators, whose fortunes could matter to Florida State in the long run. Sorry, Seminoles, but you'll need to be the biggest Florida fans between now and Nov. 24. The better they are, the bigger the perception bump if you can beat them.
All Florida State's players can control is their next game, and they talked about that constantly in the wake of Saturday's win. Sure, they tossed around some praise for the defense's lights-out period in the second half and the two bumper-car touchdown runs from prodigal back James Wilder Jr. But mostly they talked about how they have to forget all of this before they play South Florida in Tampa next week. The Bulls, coming off a humiliating loss to Ball State, will treat that matchup as a season-maker. If the Seminoles still hear the cheers from the Clemson win, they might slip. They swear the silence begins Sunday. "Guys will go to sleep tonight," Manuel said. "In three hours, it will be over with."
That, say the players, is the difference between the 2011 Seminoles and the 2012 group. Last season also began with tremendous hype and promises of FSU's return to the national stage. Then, in Week 3, Florida State lost to an Oklahoma team -- which turned out to be merely above-average in its own right -- and spiraled. The following week, Florida State lost at Clemson, and the Tigers rolled to the ACC title. Now, Florida State has pole position in the ACC Atlantic Division. A visit to young-but-getting-better-every-week Miami Oct. 20 and a Thursday-night visit to Virginia Tech Nov. 8 are the only games that should remotely challenge the Seminoles between now and the regular-season finale. And because the games in between aren't so interesting, the conversations on television or on sites such as this one will revolve around Florida State's perceived worthiness of a shot at the national title relative to the powers in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12. "Some of us love football," Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "Some of us love to watch ESPN. ... They're going to talk about us." The key, Rhodes said, is not listening. "If I worry about the hype," I'm not ready for the next game," he said. "I'm ready for the national championship, but I'm not ready for the next game." And if Florida State can't win the next game, it has no chance at the national title.
For a moment, it seemed the Seminoles' dreams of ACC and national titles would die Saturday. After Clemson tailback Andre Ellington caught a pass from receiver Sammy Watkins -- who had caught a backward pass from quarterback Tajh Boyd -- for a 52-yard touchdown pass, Florida State looked as if it might fold. The cavalcade of cupcakes had done the Seminoles no favors in preparing for the Tigers. "They looked slow as hell on film. They didn't look like they were running," Rhodes said of Clemson's receivers. "When they were on the field, they were running. Especially Sammy."
But Florida State struck back on its next play from scrimmage. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin took a shovel pass and shot toward the left sideline. Sixty-four yards later, Florida State had a first down at the Clemson 11-yard line. Thompson, who broke his back in a loss at Wake Forest last year and almost gave up football during a brutal rehab, scored on a nine-yard run. He would finish with 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
On the ensuing kickoff, Watkins blazed down the middle of the field and looked ready to break free when Florida State freshman cornerback Ronald Darby snagged him by the ankles and dragged him to the ground. The touchdown-saving tackle wound up conserving four points when Clemson had to settle for a 50-yard field goal and a 31-21 lead.
Florida State scored the next 28 points.
Late in the game, Manuel could have scored an exclamation-point touchdown, but he showed his maturity by cutting off his run after 28 yards and sliding in bounds on the Clemson nine-yard line. Had Manuel scored and FSU kicked the extra point, it would have given Florida State a 19-point lead, but Manuel realized giving Clemson's offense the ball back -- however far-fetched the Tigers' chances -- was the riskier proposition.
"It's easy. You've got the game. There's no point in being selfish and trying to get a touchdown," Manuel said. "I'm not a statistical kind of guy. Today, it's all about stats and numbers, but we already had the win. That's the biggest stat to me."
Given the choice between style points and certain victory, Manuel and the Seminoles took the win. If they keep making that choice for the rest of the season, they could wind up in the national title picture come November. It will be up to everyone else to decide whether they amassed enough style points along the way.