Florida State running back Devonta Freeman has rushed for 650 yards and nine TDs this season for the Seminoles, who are four wins away from an appearance in the national championship game. (Reuters)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State has passed every test and chopped down every giant in its path this season, looking almost unstoppable en route to a perfect 9-0 record and No. 2 BCS ranking.
And with only Syracuse, Idaho and Florida — teams with a combined 10-18 record — remaining on the regular-season schedule, it appears FSU could cruise to the finish line.
Instead, this is when the real pressure begins.
Any slipups, looking ahead or successful distractions won’t just be an “L” — it will also mean losing a chance to play for the national title.
Lucky for the Seminoles, their coach has prepared them all year for these very moments.
“This team is doing a really nice job of eliminating that clutter, and we have to continue to do that — and we will continue to do that,” FSU’s Jimbo Fisher said of his secret to keeping his guys focused when everyone can see the proverbial finish line, where a chance to play — or be — the No. 1 team in the nation at the end of the season awaits. “In all three phases, we still want to work on and improve on and clean up (any mistakes).”
The loss by then-No. 2 Oregon to Stanford allowed FSU to move up in the BCS polls, and Florida State’s 59-3 rout of Wake Forest also locked up the ACC’s Atlantic Division title for the Seminoles, who could play any one of five Coastal Division opponents for the ACC championship on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C. So while FSU (9-0 overall, 7-0 in the ACC) watches the conference title race shake out, the road to finishing strong begins today at home with the Orangemen (5-4, 3-2).
And just like almost every other week prior, Fisher didn’t change his tune when talking about the Seminoles’ next seemingly overmatched opponent, peppering Syracuse — which will enter the game as whopping 40-point underdogs — with compliments aplenty.
All part of staying locked in on the task at hand, Fisher says.
“We’ll have a great game with Syracuse,” said the coach, whose team has beaten its first nine opponents this season by an average of 40 points a game. “Syracuse is playing extremely well. They come in on a two-game winning streak. They’ve give up three points total in their last two games. And they’re tough to defend.”
All that might be true, but there’s also no denying the Seminoles are simply playing on another planet right now. FSU freshman quarterback and likely Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jameis Winston leads the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense that’s averaging 52 points a game and has outscored three top-25 opponents by a combined 155-28 in a span of four games, while the Seminoles’ fourth-ranked total defense seems to have a new star every week.
Last week it was freshman safety Nate Andrews, who made the most of his first career start by picking off two passes — including a pick-six — and forcing a fumble. Of course, FSU’s defense intercepted Wake’s QBs six times last Saturday to move them into a tie for the FBS lead with nine, and they also got their first boost from special teams this year when Kermit Whitfield returned a kickoff 97 yards for a score, adding to FSU’s arsenal of weapons.
“Obviously, that’s a great team,” Wake Forest offensive lineman Frank Souza said after Saturday’s game to surmise the Demon Deacons’ 56-point beat down.
Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer feels the same way — and he’s only watched FSU on film.
“They’re one of the best college football teams I’ve seen in a long time,” the Orange’s first-year coach said this week. “I thought (earlier in the year) when we saw Clemson (and lost 49-14) that that group was really special, but this group (at Florida State) is unbelievable.”
Syracuse is coming off back-to-back wins against Wake Forest and Maryland, giving up just a field goal against the Terps and blanking the Demon Deacons. The Orange also boast the ACC’s fourth-leading rusher in Jerome Smith, who is second in the conference in touchdowns with 11.
Florida State almost saw its season derailed earlier this year by another talented running back, ACC leading rusher Andre Williams. Williams ran for 149 yards and helped Boston College jump out to the biggest lead any team has had on the Seminoles this year, 17-3, in late September before FSU stormed back to win, 48-34.
“Physical, hard, tough, downhill … ” Fisher said when asked to describe Smith. “They bring it now.”
FSU must do the same, now more than ever.
Even at home against a four-loss team. Even against a first-year ACC school like Syracuse. After all, the pressure’s officially on like never before.
“Where we’re at (in the BCS) should not matter. How we play and prepare is what should matter. If they ever believe in our system, if they ever believe in eliminating the clutter, if they believe in what we’re teaching, then now is the time,” Fisher said. “Success, to me, reveals what you really are, where you’re at, what you’re doing. If you can keep the selfishness out of it and then (have) the ability to focus and play one at a time, then that’s the key. And that’s what we have to do.”