CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the third quarter of Saturday’s dismantling of No. 3-ranked Clemson, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith approached wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey on the sideline and asked him a question about his playing days with the Noles, an era in which the program experienced its first four 10-win, top-five poll finishes.
“I said, ‘This is how it felt when y’all were doin’ it?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely how it was.’”
They’re back -- Florida State AND Clemson.
On Saturday night in Death Valley, on the biggest stage college football had to offer in the first half of the season, both No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State reverted back to their signature ways. For the Seminoles, that meant playing with a confidence and swagger not seen since the ’90s. It meant an elite group of athletes who simply looked superior against what was expected to be their toughest opponent of the season. For Clemson, it meant imploding like it was 2008. It meant another monumental collapse when it mattered most -- an embarrassing 51-14 loss on home turf with national title implications at stake.
Florida State didn’t just look like the best team on the field on Saturday. The Seminoles looked like one of the best teams in the country. Period.
“We’ve got that swag,” quarterback Jameis Winston said with a smile.
This would have been a different story had Clemson lost a close, exciting, hard-fought game, but the Tigers were flat-out dismissed at home by a better team. From the opening play of the game, a Clemson turnover that led to an FSU touchdown, the Tigers looked rattled and out of sorts -- exactly how many expected FSU to look on the road. FSU proved that the gap between the two programs was far wider than their top-five rankings have indicated. The Noles proved that they are good enough to be great again.
“Since my four years here, I think this is the first brotherhood I’ve been a part of to embrace that challenge, because of the tradition and the history we have here,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “There’s so much pressure to pick that back up, and this has been the first team to embrace that. And we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”
For all of the hype surrounding this game, all of the build-up and questions swirling around Winston, whether or not the 19-year-old would be able to handle the unforgiving environment of Death Valley -- the rookie redshirt literally smiled in the face of it before taking his first snap. Winston practically scoffed at the notion crowd noise might fluster them.
"I said, 'Guys, we don’t play against noise,'" Winston said. "'We’re playing against the Clemson Tigers.'"
This team is not cocky, but it’s good and it knows it. So does anyone who watched the game. Florida State’s receivers seemingly can’t miss. As good as the offense was, the defense was the story of the game. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was sacked four times. He threw two picks and one touchdown and completed just 17-of-37 attempts for 156 yards. It was arguably the worst game of his career, considering he was the veteran at home, and he was outplayed by Winston.
“I just didn’t perform the way I was capable,” Boyd said. “As a leader, it’s my job to go out and lead and perform, and I just didn’t do that tonight. There were a couple moments that I would like to have back, but you just have to keep on working.”
Florida State had the edge in just about every matchup. Offensive lineman Cameron Erving kept Vic Beasley at bay, and while Winston was sacked three times, none came from Beasley. The Noles had two 100-yard pass catchers as tight end Nick O'Leary had 161 yards on five catches and Rashad Greene had 146 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches.
Sammy Watkins was limited to eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.
“I feel like I have the best receiving corps in the whole land,” Winston said. “It tells. Stats tell. Sammy had a great game, he’s a great person. Our defense had an even better game. Tajh had a good game, but my guys -- I feel like our team is legit, too legit to quit. They are playing amazing.”
No team left on the Noles’ schedule -- including Miami or Florida -- has looked comparable to Florida State so far, and FSU further distanced itself from the rest of the ACC on Saturday night with the country watching.
Nobody got a closer look, though, than the Tigers.
“Florida State might be the best team in the nation,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “... They might be the best team in the country.”
Clemson certainly did its part in helping them look like it.