Florida State still waiting for first big test

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- After the 54-6 shellacking of an FCS opponent had ended, Jimbo Fisher perched himself in front of cameras and reporters and grimaced as he studied the statistics from the game.

Receivers dropped three potential touchdowns.

The freshman phenom at quarterback made too many bad decisions.

The defense coughed up 18 first downs.

The special teams hasn't delivered enough big plays.

"I'm still not happy," Fisher lamented. "We're not clicking on all cylinders."

Florida State is 3-0, ranked No. 8 in the nation, the victor in three blowouts in which reserves spent nearly as much time on the field in the second halves as the starters did, but none of that really matters. Fisher knows the season is just now beginning, and his post-game critique of the Seminoles thumping of Bethune-Cookman was a necessary mix of honest insight and psychological manipulation.

Enthusiasm surrounding Florida State is on the upswing since Jameis Winston's magical debut against Pitt in the opener, and only the most pessimistic dissection of the results since then would offer much cause for concern. But the truth is, these first three games probably haven't offered much insight into what's still to come for Florida State, and the only lesson players are taking is that there's still ample room for improvement.

"I don't know if we've been tested enough yet," said tailback Devonta Freeman, who has posted consecutive 100-yard outings. "But I know in the couple games we had, we've got some stuff out there we need to clean up and get better at. I know that."

On offense, Florida State has been meticulously efficient, averaging 8.8 yards per play -- the third-best mark in the nation -- and Winston has been a revelation, accounting for 10 touchdowns and just one interception in three games.

But consider the opposition. Pittsburgh ranks 103rd nationally in total defense this season. Nevada is worse yet, checking in at No. 113. Bethune-Cookman was marginally better than expected, but it's still an FCS team. If anything, Winston said, things have come too easily so far.

"Everything was going our way," Winston said after Saturday's win. "I probably came out and took them for granted."

Winston's biggest tests may still be on the horizon, but he doesn't lack confidence and his teammates are sold on his ability. The defense, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

When Jeremy Pruitt came on board as FSU's new defensive coordinator, it was with the promise of an all-out, aggressive attack. So far, that plan hasn't developed on the field.

Missed tackles frustrated Fisher against Bethune-Cookman, though Florida State played the game with three defensive starters absent and a fourth, Tyler Hunter, on the sideline for the bulk of the contest with a neck injury.

Still, the defensive line has accounted for just one sack thus far. FSU has created three takeaways against clearly overmatched competition. The defense is allowing 43 more rushing yards per game than it did a year ago. The missed tackles in space became so prevalent that Fisher suggested personnel changes could be in store.

The Seminoles have allowed just 26 points on the season, but they're hardly satisfied.

"We say bend but don't break," linebacker Telvin Smith said, "but we've got to kill the bending."

For all the nitpicking, however, the end result is the same. Florida State has done what was expected in three games that weren't supposed to be particularly tough.

Perhaps the best thing to happen for the Seminoles thus far is what's happened around them. Clemson knocked off Georgia to establish its credentials as a national-title threat, and FSU's date with the Tigers on Oct. 19 looms large. Meanwhile, Maryland dominated its first four games, too, ensuring the Seminoles will have at least one true test before it heads to Death Valley.

And when those dates arrive, Florida State figures to have a few more tricks up its sleeve, too.

"There's still a lot left," Fisher said of the relatively tame defensive effort so far. "These teams [FSU has played so far], you have to be very careful not to just load up on them. There's a lot more things to come -- a lot more."

These first three games have been a prologue, hinting at what's to come. The story's climax is still a ways off, Smith said, but there are enough details to dissect that no one's looking too far ahead.

"Any time you step onto the field, it's a challenge -- but to the level of the challenge, you have to just keep playing and every week is going to teach you something new," Smith said. "It's a continuous learning process, so we've got to continue to learn."