Preliminary bouts are over

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The week leading up to Saturday's win over Wake Forest was a constant reminder of what might have been a year ago.

The questions all surrounded last year's loss and Wake Forest's recent run of success against Florida State. The first two games of the season, both massive blowouts over FCS foes, did little to sooth the doubters. The arrival of ACC play was going to be a test, quarterback EJ Manuel said, and the Seminoles wanted to deliver an emphatic answer.

"We wanted to make this a statement game," Manuel said. "We lost to Wake last year, had some injuries, but this year, it was a statement."

The 52-0 final score served notice that Florida State was as talented as the preseason hype suggested and as focused as coach Jimbo Fisher had demanded throughout this early season run through a less-than-daunting schedule. In that sense, Manuel's statement was loud and clear.

But as the Seminoles now turn their attention to what might be their biggest game of the year, a conference showdown with No. 10 Clemson, the tests get tougher.

After Saturday's win, Fisher praised Wake Forest as breathlessly as he had five days earlier.

"I know we won 52-0," Fisher said. "But Wake Forest is a good football team."

The sentiment is somewhat incongruous on its face. If Wake Forest was a true test, that outcome seems impossible. If the Demon Deacons were just another speed bump like Murray State and Savannah State before them, then precious few answers can be derived in advance of Clemson's arrival at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Florida State is off to its first 3-0 start in seven years. The No. 4 team in the nation has outscored its first three opponents 176-3. But are the Seminoles really that good?

"I don't think we have reached any part of the iceberg -- and not the tip of it," Manuel said. "We are scratching the surface right now. Once we get everything clicking, as an offense, I think we will be hard to handle."

That's a bold prediction given the 612 yards Florida State put on Wake Forest, but Manuel is right to suggest there is room to improve.

The Seminoles' offensive line allowed three sacks, and pass protection was a problem throughout. Three plays from inside the 2-yard line came up short in the second quarter, forcing a field goal. Several potential big plays in the passing game were dropped during the first three weeks of action.

"When we do stuff to hurt ourselves, we're not that great," fullback Lonnie Pryor said. "But when we're all on the same page, we'll be hard to stop."

While the offense has its share of quirks to work through, the defense has been nothing short of dominant. Bjoern Werner has led a ferocious attack that is allowing the opposition just 1.91 yards per play thus far -- nearly a full yard better than any other team in the country.

But is that a product of facing three overmatched offensive lines, including a Wake Forest unit that had three backups starting Saturday's game, or is this a defense that can match preseason hype so inflated that Fisher suggested no team could live up to such lofty expectations?

Sammy Watkins, Tajh Boyd and Clemson should help provide some clarity, but the Seminoles certainly aren't intimidated.

"We're ready to show everybody we're ready to live up to those high expectations," safety Lamarcus Joyner said.

Through three games, the hurdles haven't been great, but Florida State has cleared each with plenty of room to spare.

For a decade, the same questions have reverberated through the Florida State fan base, but after three dominant performances, the answers to whether the Seminoles are really ready to contend for a national title finally are coming into focus.

"It's motivation," Pryor said. "We're 3-0 right now, and it just gives us confidence. But that game is over, and we're on to Clemson."