TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The premise for last week's game was set in advance by the lingering critics of Florida State's fast start. The quality of competition hadn't been great, the theory went, but No. 25 Maryland would offer some real insight.
In the wake of the Seminoles' 63-0 dismantling of Maryland, however, Jimbo Fisher isn't entirely thrilled with how emphatically his team provided those answers.
"Now we're going to be world-beaters," Fisher said. "We've got to remember why we've been good."
Such is the life of a football coach, particularly one coming off a dominant win with a bye week standing between his team and its most significant game of the season. The thin line between confidence and comfort becomes microscopic, and Fisher began working to ensure the Seminoles stayed on the right side of it from the moment Saturday's game against Maryland was over.
There was virtually no aspect of the game Florida State didn't win handily. Jameis Winston burnished his Heisman credentials with a career-best 393 yards passing and five touchdowns. The defense pitched a shutout, allowing Maryland just 33 yards on the ground one week after Boston College racked up 200. Even the special teams looked improved after a shaky game against the Eagles, and nothing gets Fisher more concerned than when everything's coming easily.
So when it was over, Fisher offered sufficient praise, then began the task of downplaying everything Florida State had just accomplished.
"Sometimes a few inches here and there can be drastic, and the momentum of the game, things that go on and your focus -- we were much more consistent," Fisher said. "We had a chip on our shoulder and we did what we had to do. That's what you've got to do all the time."
Up next for Florida State is a trip to Clemson on Oct. 19. It's a battle likely to decide the ACC Atlantic Division, and the winner will vault into the center of the national championship discussion. The stakes couldn't be bigger, and Fisher wants his team to forget its impressive win over Maryland and eschew the hype that promises to build until kickoff in Clemson.
"Our goal is not on Clemson right now," Fisher said. "It's on what we do in practice Tuesday."
Fisher will do his best to insulate his team, but the national hysteria is already working toward a crescendo.
Start with Winston, whose highlight tape keeps getting longer with each game. His brilliant game against Maryland offered everything from the mundane (a willingness to check down to his backs more often) to the sublime (a dazzling escape from a sack before a TD throw to Nick O'Leary). Fisher, of course, suggested Winston played well but had much more work to do.
"That's one thing I love about Coach Fisher," Winston said with unwavering earnestness, "even if I make an outstanding play, or we make a great touchdown, he's always going to correct me, and I need that."
Winston knows all too well the dilemma his coach faces this week.
A year ago, Winston was on the bench as a redshirt. He watched his predecessor, EJ Manuel, lead a triumphant win over Clemson that certified Florida State had regained its prominence on the national stage. Then, two weeks later, it all unraveled in a moribund performance at NC State.
The difference was emotion, energy and focus, and even Winston knew it. In that game, he marched the sideline, going from player to player pushing them to get their heads in the game and avert disaster, but it wasn't enough. This year, though, Winston will have the ball in his hand, and he's eager to ensure there's no letdown during the long wait between FSU's most impressive win and its biggest game of 2013.
"The team is so ready," Winston said. "We've been ready for this, and now the time has come. Everybody told us, don't look forward to the Clemson game. The time is here, and we know we've got to get everything right."
Game: Florida State at Clemson
What’s at stake: For both teams, the season will likely be defined by the outcome of their Oct. 19 showdown in Death Valley. Clemson has already felt the enthusiasm of a big-game environment, toppling Georgia at home in the season opener. Florida State is riding the wave of excitement its freshman QB has generated. The winner of this matchup has won the Atlantic Division in each of the past four seasons, and this year a win could be the biggest accomplishment on a national-championship résumé.
Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Clemson's stumbling block is obvious. The Tigers still have a game to play, with upstart Boston College paying Clemson a visit this weekend. The Tigers are heavily favored, but BC is no pushover. The Eagles pushed Florida State just two weeks ago, and their power running game should be a good test of Clemson's defensive front. For Florida State, the stumbling blocks are more abstract. Players admit they've gotten too enamored with their own hype in years past, pointing again and again to a 2011 loss to Oklahoma as evidence. The Seminoles have two weeks to hear how good they are, and their biggest goal will be to tune all of that out.
How it unfolds: The battle will almost certainly be sold as a showdown between two of the country's top quarterbacks. Winston and Tajh Boyd are Heisman favorites, and the two have combined for 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But while the QBs figure to get the hype, the game might be decided by the defenses. Clemson's pass rush, led by Vic Beasley, is among the nation's best, and the Tigers will be eager to rattle Florida State's young quarterback in his biggest game to date. Boyd isn't nearly as likely to be intimidated by the surroundings, but FSU's dominant secondary still quieted him a year ago. The Seminoles D is fresh off a shutout against Maryland, and it appears to finally have a firm grasp on new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's system.
With almost half the season in the books, the Coastal Division race is starting to become more clear. Georgia Tech has lost two straight games to Coastal Division opponents, joining Duke and North Carolina with two league losses each. The only teams left in the division that haven’t lost a conference game yet are Virginia Tech and Miami, setting those programs up on a collision course for a season-defining game next month.
- -David M. Hale
Game: Virginia Tech at Miami Nov. 9
What’s at stake: The lead for the Coastal Division title and a chance at the ACC championship game could be on the line, as Miami and Virginia Tech are currently the front-runners to win the division. Miami has not played for the ACC title since joining the conference, and for Virginia Tech it would be validation for a team that many had doubted entering this season. The Hokies’ offense has long been its Achilles’ heel, but so far this team has proved it has enough to be a contender.
Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Virginia Tech will face its toughest roadblock on Saturday, when Pitt comes to Blacksburg. The Hokies have lost four straight to the Panthers, including last year’s game in which Virginia Tech was ranked No. 13. A road trip to Boston College also won’t be easy, as the Eagles are a gritty home team, but their one-dimensional offense should be overmatched by Virginia Tech’s defense. Miami’s biggest obstacle will be the Nov. 2 game at Florida State, but the Canes also have a tricky Thursday night game at North Carolina coming up. Considering how much the Tar Heels have struggled, though, Miami’s best chance at a loss before hosting Virginia Tech is in Tally.
How it unfolds: Virginia Tech’s defense will force Pitt quarterback Tom Savage into a key interception, and the Hokies will snap their losing streak to their former Big East foes. The Hokies will head to Miami on an eight-game winning streak, but their inability to run the ball will finally catch up to them. Miami, fresh off a loss at Florida State, will rebound at home against the Hokies and Duke Johnson will be the game’s MVP.
-- Heather Dinich