FSU quarterback Jameis Winston (photo courtesy USA Today Sports)
LEMSON, S.C. - They had stacked elite recruiting classes on top of one another, re-established their identity as a dominant defense and even won an Atlantic Coast Conference title last season. And still, Florida State had been the forgotten program in the national title chase the first half of this year.
After spending so many years out of the discussion, after building a well-earned reputation as perennial underachievers, it was easy to dismiss what the No. 5-ranked Seminoles had accomplished. But that all changed Saturday night, when Florida State went into Memorial Stadium as a question mark and emerged as a legitimate national title contender.
Never have the Seminoles looked more like the 1990s, Bobby Bowden-era version of themselves than in a 51-14 waxing of No. 4 Clemson, which is to say they looked like a team that would stack up very well against the Alabamas and Oregons of the world.
While Florida State has rarely lacked talent in Jimbo Fisher's 3 ½ years as head coach, he has never had such a combination of offensive playmakers, defensive studs and a quarterback who can both process a gameplan and execute under pressure.
Indeed, the Seminoles are back.
While there were certainly signs of what was to come Saturday, including a 63-0 victory over Maryland two weeks ago, few could have expected Florida State (6-0, 3-0 ACC) to handle Clemson (6-1, 4-1) as easily as an ACC also-ran.
After all, this was the same Clemson team that had been on an epic roll dating back to the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season when it beat LSU, spent all offseason preparing for a national title run and beat a full-strength Georgia in the opener. This was an offense led by senior quarterback in Tajh Boyd, who will end up as the conference's second-leading passer of all-time, and an array of playmakers who had always shown up in big moments. And this was an environment with more than 82,400 full-throated Clemson fans, desperate to see their program take the next major step toward championship contention.
But none of that mattered to Florida State or redshirt freshmen Jameis Winston, who was once again spectacular with 444 passing yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-34 completions. With a lot of help from the Tigers - who dropped passes, fumbled at inopportune times and missed a boatload of tackles - the game was never competitive, sending Clemson fans to the exits en masse halfway through the third quarter.
After the season-long buildup to this game, it was undoubtedly a letdown. But in terms of the sheer display of power by Florida State against a quality opponent, nobody in the country has looked better.
In the game's opening 12 minutes, the Seminoles rattled off a 17-0 lead off two turnovers, forcing a fumble on Clemson's first play from scrimmage that they converted for a quick touchdown and then returning a fumble 37 yards for a score off a vicious hit by cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who blitzed from the blind side and knocked the ball loose from Boyd with a vicious hit.