Florida State vs. Clemson: Seminoles Prove Worthy of the Big Stage
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Since the inception of the BCS, the SEC has been most talked about as the power football conference. However, other than a few good years from Southern Cal, no team has challenged that assumption.
That may have changed Saturday night.
The ESPN/ABC family of networks gave the national stage to the ACC and Florida State improved to 4-0 for the first time since 2006 with an exciting, come-from-behind 49-37 victory over previously unbeaten Clemson.
Clemson got an early advantage through razzle-dazzle, running trick plays and unorthodox formations. The ran double passes, fake field goals and even had the offensive line sit still in some form of a smoke-and-mirrors screen.
The Tigers took their largest lead on a 52-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Sammy Watkins to running back Andre Ellington early in the third quarter, extending their advantage to 14 points.
But when the Tigers ran out of tricks, they ran out of steam, and the Seminoles began to dominate.
By no means are the other teams in the ACC as talented as Florida State and Clemson. But these two programs showed that the SEC is not the only conference with flat-out speed.
Florida State, however, is big as well. Having been built the last few years in the mold of an Alabama or LSU, the Seminoles are catching up to the SEC powerhouses.
Can Florida State Win a National Championship this year?
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher learned how to build a dynasty from the master, Nick Saban, who built both the LSU and Alabama programs. As the head coach-in-waiting at FSU, Fisher was pivotal in recruiting, beginning a shift to speed and size rather than just speed that had allowed Bobby Bowden's Seminoles to dominance in the 1990s, a stretch that included 14 straight top-four finishes.
With the new breed of athletes who can be found to some extent in nearly every program, Fisher knew things needed to change in order for FSU to become relevant again.
It starts up front for the Seminoles, who, before star defensive end Brandon Jenkins went down for the season with a foot injury, had what many considered the nation's best and deepest defensive line.
Even without, Jenkins, players like Bjoern Werner, Tank Carradine and Timmy Jernigan have continued to prove just how deep the Seminoles are.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line, while young, moves in unison opening massive holes and in providing pass protection. Line coach Rick Trickett, who was brought in when Fisher became offensive coordinator, has revamped this unit from the ground up.
Where the Seminoles are scariest, perhaps, is outside the trenches.
They are loaded with speed on both sides of the ball, with several players who have yet to scratch the surface of their abilities. Players like Xavier Rhodes, Christian Jones, Rodney Smith and Chris Thompson are on their way to becoming first-round draft picks, not to mention the best fullback in America in Lonnie Pryor, who may bring relevance back to the position should Florida State make a title run.
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Even more future pros are still learning the game, some of whom have just started to earn playing time.
Some of those young talents were on display against Clemson Saturday night. True freshman Ronald Darby was impressive in coverage and could become one of the best corners in the program's history. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has said that he has never seen a defensive back so far along at such a young age.
That's high praise from someone who coached five first-round draft picks in his defensive backfield at Miami, including Ed Reed, Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle.
Most impressive, however, was James Wilder Jr.
Son of the former NFL running back of the same name, Wilder showed off why he was one of the nation's most sought-after recruits. Last year, Wilder struggled to earn playing time while coaches experimented with him at multiple positions on both sides of the ball.
With one run Saturday night in which he broke several tackles and carried four defenders on his back, Wilder introduced himself to America. The duo of Wilder and Thompson, a Heisman trophy dark horse, is a formidable one.
But where this program differs from the dominant members of the SEC is at quarterback.
In his fifth year in Tallahassee, E.J. Manuel has never quite lived up to the billing he had coming out of Virginia Beach, Va.
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One of Fisher's first recruits as offensive coordinator at Florida State, Manuel was labeled as the No. 2 quarterback in the 2008 recruiting class, behind only former Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor. He was ranked ahead of NFL first-round signal-callers Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Blaine Gabbert.
And on Saturday night against Clemson, Manuel finally showed why this is the year that Seminole supporters have been waiting for since Fisher took over the program. Manuel and Fisher have worked together from Day 1 to build a program that could one day bring FSU back to championship form.
Under unbelievable pressure, when it mattered the most, Manuel finally put the program on his back, putting on an amazing display against Clemson, throwing for 380 yards and rushing for 102 more. This had not been done by a Seminole since Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.
Like Ward and Chris Weinke before him, Manuel looks like he can bring Tallahassee a glass football and perhaps a Heisman Trophy of his own.
Manuel has become a leader and that is exactly what this program needed.
SEC supporters will say that Florida State needs to prove it on the field against a team like Alabama or LSU before it can be called elite.
While that may be true, this just might be the year they get that chance.
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