‘Noles Must go Back to the Basics
By BJ Bennett
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Making it over each obstacle is what once defined FSU. In some respects, whether or not this team can recapture that intensity is what will tell the tale this fall.
Florida State football has spent the last decade-plus desperately chasing its past. For a program that finished in the top four every season from 1987-2000 and won national titles in 1993 and 1999, that pursuit has been especially draining. The end of the Bobby Bowden era and the start of Jimbo Fisher's tenure brought some trying times to Tallahassee. The painful coaching transition aside, the Seminoles went a baffling 16-16 in ACC play from 2006-2009 and suffered through a frustrating six-game skid against archrival Florida from 2005-2009. Last year, Florida State had a losing record through their first five games of the year for the first time since 1976 -- Bowden's garnet and gold debut.
Through some slight growing pains in his first two seasons, Fisher's Seminoles are a combined 4-0 against Florida and Miami, 2-0 in bowl games and have considerable momentum, along with a ranking in the national top four, heading into Saturday night's showdown with defending ACC Champion Clemson. Dating back to mid-October of 2011 and their aforementioned three-game losing streak, Florida State has since gone 10-1 with their lone blemish coming in a one-point loss to Virginia via a last-second missed kick.
This weekend offers a spotlight showcase for the program that once set the bar everyone else measured up to in college football. In addition to Saturday night's primetime national television platform, ESPN College Gameday will broadcast live from campus that morning. The visiting Tigers, ranked 10th in the country, will offer a great barometer for a team that has defeated its first three opponents by a combined score of 176-3. Fisher's squad currently ranks first in the nation in scoring defense, second in scoring offense.
"It looks like there is a lot more leadership on the team as far as people just being in the right place and being disciplined," explained former FSU All-American and four-year starter at offensive tackle Brett Williams. "Their goal for so long has been 'we have to get back, we have to get back to being on top' and I think sometimes you go out there and you try to do too much. I think they have a lot more upperclassmen with them now. Since they have played together and experienced what they went through last year in having a lot of hype and not meeting up to the standards, I think they have learned a little bit more how to deal with the hype and they are trusting their athletic ability."
In the likes of quarterback E.J. Manuel, end Bjoern Werner and safety Lamarcus Joyner, the Seminoles undoubtedly have one of the game's most talented teams. The potential of transitioning that physical prowess into consistent production awaits. Clemson, the reigning conference champions, is challenge number one. Florida State is just 2-5 in their last seven meetings with the Tigers. While the press may very well be talking about the Seminoles as national title contenders, a more modest focus for the 'Noles is an absolute must. Florida State has exactly one conference crown since 2003, baffling considering their dominance their first dozen years through the league.
Making it over each obstacle, task-by-task, is what once defined Florida State football. In some respects, whether or not this team can recapture that intensity is what will tell the tale this fall.
"One thing we had in 1999, we had an accountability with each other as players. There is only so far the coaches can take you. You have to have this mentally of excellence among each other. That every little detail is important. You have to have a hunger and desire to be excellent in all of the little things. That is what separates a bowl-winning team from a national championship-winning team, just the little details," Williams, who played for two national titles, continued. "There was accountability, everybody was expected to be the best in the nation at their position. In practice we worked that way. No little detail would we overlook and say 'we're FSU, we can get away with this because we have so much talent'." We really pushed ourselves to be good in every aspect of the game. I think that is what we are seeing more of this year, guys learning from their mistakes and holding themselves accountable to the little details."
In last season's game with Clemson, one where they were reeling from the letdown of losing at home to Oklahoma, Florida State had eleven penalties for 124 yards. The Seminoles' enter this weekend as near-consensus favorites, a sometimes-dangerous position to be in. In the latest national polls, only Alabama, LSU and Oregon ranked ahead of FSU. Keep in mind two of this team's three wins have come against FCS competition. One key to success not only this Saturday, but possibly all season long for Florida State, will be insulating themselves from all of the publicity and pressure that comes with their slotting and their story.
"It's very difficult. You have the media telling you how awesome you are all of the time. In 1999, we were expected, our expectation was to win the national championship. So when we did it there wasn't even this great feeling of exhilaration, like 'oh we did it!'. It was kind of like, 'OK we checked that off, that is what we were supposed to do'. You have a lot of people saying good things about you, expecting you to do well. It's hard sometimes, when everybody is telling you how great you are, to keep that edge and keep that hunger like you have never won a game before. That's the key to going undefeated and winning a national championship, blocking out all of the outside stuff and staying focused on what you are supposed to do. Having that hunger every week and not being satisfied with what you did the week before," Williams stated.
If current trends continue, the likelihood of a photo finish in this ACC clash of the titans is quite good. The last two games have been decided by three points and five points, with one victory a piece for each side. The winner here certainly doesn't clinch the Atlantic Division, though the early leg up tilts the odds heavy in the victor's favor and forces the loser into a proverbial must-win situation throughout the rest of conference play. Last season, then-freshman Sammy Watkins caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Two years ago, FSU kicker Dustin Hopkins drilled a 55-yard field goal as time expired. Big plays are nothing new for these two.
"One thing I will always say about Clemson, and when I was there we beat them every year, but after we played Clemson we always felt like we played a tough game. You were always a little more sore after the Clemson game than the others because they always played pretty physically. The greatest memory I have is when we were playing them in 2000 and Snoop Minnis had the long touchdown," Williams recalled. "We were backed up and coach Richt put in a play, it was a play-action. He put in this play before we went to the stadium, it wasn't anything we practiced all week, we were just watching film before we headed to the stadium. He said 'hey guys, look how this safety runs up when we are in two-tight formation and he totally doesn't respect the pass. We're gonna put in a play where we are going to fake the run, have Minnis run up like he is going to block the safety and at the last second run by him'. Sure enough, just like coach Richt called, we ran that play and it was a 90-something yard touchdown. It was pretty fun."
With two similarly-exciting teams, the stage is now set for the ACC game of the year. Fans from coast to coast will be watching and -- Saturday's brand of play should be about as good as you will find anywhere in college football. From the outside looking in, many are touting this is a national springboard for Florida State. The idea is that a win could catapult them to an unscathed finish and a chance at their first national championship since 1999. We've seen numerous prominent media members make that distinction. While that mantra may have merit, the Seminoles must maintain a steady hand.
"I think we are better talent-wise than Clemson. My attitude isn't that this game is going to put us back on the national stage because we can get up for this game and play great and get beat next week. Every week they have to have that hunger that I'm talking about. Every week is their chance to prove themselves. I have a good feeling, I think they are going to come out and play well against Clemson. I'm hoping that it's going to be a lot bigger of a butt-whippin' than even what some people are thinking," Williams laughed. "I think we are going to win pretty convincingly if we play the way we can because I think our talent level is just so high right now. But, they have to get past that mindset of trying to 'get back' and play with that mindset of being perfect at everything they do. If they do that, come the end of the year, they may find themselves in the national title game."
As Saturday approaches, anticipation is building in Tallahassee. For Florida State, week four can't be a one night return to glory. It must, instead, be the beginning of a season-long return to the basics.