|Jimbo Fisher has the Florida Seminoles back to playing at a national championship level. (AP)|
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was fun and all that, but really, there's only question the 86,000 that choked Doak on Saturday night should be asking themselves: Is Florida State worthy of playing for a national championship?
Those words sound strange because they haven't been spoken here with any real meaning in about a decade. Roll them around in your mind. They're probably echoing in Doak Campbell Stadium anyway after FSU's 49-37 win over Clemson.
The conclusion now is obvious: Yes, yes, a thousand yards yes.
It just seemed that the Seminoles had racked up four figures in a second-half comeback that clearly established them as the newcomer in the national championship race. Alabama: For now, untouchable. LSU: Clunky against Auburn. Oregon: Business as usual.
Florida State? Amazing, fast, dynamic, 667 yards of total offense. No. 4 and rising.
“They got their money's worth,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The 'Noles got their swagger back too after about, oh, 10 years. It was that big. Fireworks went off afterward like it was a bowl game, a championship bowl game.
"I told you," a cheerleader screamed as she ran off the field, "it was going to be like a bowl game."
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Sophomore tailback James Wilder Jr. was the last player off the field, running half a victory lap, slapping hands with fans on one side of the stadium.
We're not out of September yet, but it felt like the first week of January.
“That was really our first time being tested, being down,” Wilder said. “This is what we love to do, get a free education, have fun.”
The 'Noles hadn't trailed this season (outscoring opponents 176-3), but there they were down 28-14 less than four minutes into the second half. There was even a depressing blast from the past. Kicker Dustin Hopkins missed both wide right and wide left.
Meanwhile, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was busy auditioning for the next big job opening. His play-calling was brilliant until the fastest team this side of Oregon adjusted.
FSU went on a run, scoring 35 of the next 38 points. What we know for sure: Quarterback EJ Manuel, as a senior, has developed into one of the best in the country. With 380 passing and 102 rushing, he became the first FSU quarterback to go 300-100 since one Charlie Ward did it in 1992.
Coincidentally, FSU's legendary Heisman winner has become close to Manuel.
“Charlie has always talked to him since EJ has been here,” said his dad, Erik Manuel Sr. “He kind of mentors him. I don't think they even talk much football.”
A lot of it is about keeping a level head. With a minute and change left and the game already tucked away, Manual broke free down the right side. His way was free to another touchdown, one that would have pushed FSU over 50. Instead, he slid down at the Clemson 9. That kept the clock running.
“Maturity,” Manuel Sr. said. “He's running the clock and not taking a hit.”
A play later, the 'Noles' biggest win in a decade was complete.
FSU has disappointed us before in its long, slow descent from relevance but this seems different. Way different. Manuel made himself a Heisman contender (or more of a Heisman contender). The world was introduced to tailback Chris Thompson, and not in a 197-yards-against-Wake-Forest kind of way. Against a quality (at least for a while) defense, Thompson ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think you learned what we already knew: The 'Noles are good,” Manuel Sr. said.
“Nothing's changed,” stressed defensive end Bjoern Werner, who grew up playing the game in Germany.
Actually, a lot has changed. FSU came into the night a top-five team. Now it can think about getting higher, a lot higher. Jerry Palm has bought in.
“Of course I understand [the BCS],” Werner said. “I've been here for a couple of years now.”
But not when it mattered here. It suddenly does. There is always a chance that FSU has that clunker in there somewhere. It's their history, basically since the last ACC title in 2005. But there's not a team left on their schedule they can't beat, based on Saturday.
The issue now is not whether the 'Noles can beat No. 1 Alabama; it's that it's possible they could play the Tide. They are suddenly worthy.