Senior College Football Columnist

For Florida State to return to prominence, beating Clemson is a must


Florida State needs to beat Clemson. For Bobby Bowden, for the ACC, for college football, for its own peace of mind.

Yes, Florida State needs to beat Clemson. College football tends to get all teary-eyed about its history -- in this case, its tradition-filled, dog-eared, Seminoled history. In this season of "Is [fill in name here] back?" FSU has a chance to be the latest throwback with a future.

"I hope so," Jimbo Fisher said this week. "We plan on being back. I think it's always good to have traditional powers and national brands playing well."

If this reads like rooting, it isn't. It is another form of realignment -- this one with all the football factories in a row. FSU is No. 4 in the polls. Look familiar? The top four is a lofty place the 'Noles haven't been for seven years. It is the range they resided in at the end of every season from 1987-2000. Top four, at least, for 14 consecutive seasons.

It has been too long. Way too long for Florida State, which hasn't been 3-0 since 2005. Also since the end of that season, FSU is 8-12 against ranked teams, 1-4 against top-10 teams. That was its last conference title in a league that used to be a springboard, not an end, to its national aspirations.

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Florida State needs to beat No. 10 Clemson because the Tigers have had their chance. They tripped on their high heels walking the Orange Bowl cat walk last January. The fall was spectacular and injurious. You may have heard -- West Virginia scored 70.

The Tigers are 3-0, too, but can they be trusted? How many ACC champions' psyches have been in rebuilding mode? In the offseason, Dabo Swinney pried away defensive coordinator Brent Venables from Oklahoma.

Florida State needs to be back. The ACC could use an identity. It initially expanded in 2004 with the idea that FSU and Miami would dominate. That didn't happen. It would be nice if the state's Big Three were all humming. With Miami down and Florida rebuilding, Fisher was asked if he was now playing in the shadow of the SEC.

"We're Florida State," Fisher said. "We're not operating in the shadow of nobody."

We'll see. This is an enormously talented team that is fun to watch. The quality of the defensive line is inching up there to the point it could endure the loss of defensive end Brandon Jenkins for the season. Quarterback EJ Manuel has a running game to rely on. Tailback Chris Thompson is an inspiring story having returned from a broken back last year to rush for 254 yards in three games, 197 of it last week against Wake Forest.

"He's a 195-pound guy who's rocked up hard as a rock," Fisher gushed. "Before we talk about all the long runs, before the big play, I'm talking about what he does in the huddle. [It's] always knowing I can count on him to be where he's supposed to be, doing what he's supposed to do, how he's supposed to do it. Then when you hand him the ball he's got the ability to hit the home run.

"It's great to be able to hit home runs."

Still ...

We need a body of work. We need a sign. We need an Atlantic Division title for starters. FSU has had monster games each of the past two seasons with Oklahoma. It lost them both, last year to the No. 1 Sooners at home by 10. This week has the same big-game buildup. What's different?

"The team is a year older," Manuel said. "We kind of understand what Coach Fisher expects from us week in and week out, whether we're playing Clemson or whether we're playing a team that's not Clemson. It's an awesome feeling."

This coach-in-waiting scheme has worked so far. The 'Noles have swept the Gators and Hurricanes in back-to-back years for the first time since 1998-99. Fisher is 22-8 since replacing Bowden. Saint Bobby was 19-11 in his first 30 games. The difference being that Fisher isn't just chasing a number. He's chasing that legacy left behind by Bowden. In his next 30 games, Bowden lost only three times.

If Fisher does that there's a BCS/playoff berth waiting.

Clemson-FSU is the game of the week but both teams got here playing games against the weak. The Tigers and 'Noles have combined for 3,183 yards and 38 touchdowns in six games. Only two of them have been BCS opponents. FSU has had to almost apologize for beating Savannah State, a 70-point underdog.

FSU has outscored the opposition 176-3. It is No. 1 in scoring defense and rushing defense. When those numbers were mentioned on Twitter this week, they got this kind of response:

FSU deserves no cred in the stat dpt bc the dismal opponents they have faced.

"It's not like we're playing against air," Manuel said.

OK, then, let's say there was a slight headwind. The season has kicked off with Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest. Those three have converted five of 44 third downs. That's another national stat department leader.


Manuel warned last week that only three percent of the playbook had been used. Following a 52-0 drubbing of Wake, he asked the percentage of plays used after three games.

"I'd probably go 4.8 [percent]," he said.

Florida State needs to beat Clemson because the national championship hasn't been shared in nine years. Kids, you may not remember this but Bowden won two of them. Florida State was the BCS in the beginning (1998-2000), playing in the first three Bowl Championship Series title games.

The Tigers are not FSU in terms of that national brand, tradition and excellence. The 'Noles need to win but, gosh, those words are getting old.

FSU remains on a long, hard climb back to what it was, something it might never be again. Fourteen consecutive top fours? Borderline impossible. FSU has been at this pinnacle before in recent years, but is this another tease?

FSU needs to be bigger than the ACC, so big that the conference can draft behind it. A 'Noles win following the Notre Dame announcement last week would give the conference its biggest boost since ... FSU played in that third consecutive BCS title game in January 2001.

"I think we're light years ahead of where we were last year," said linebacker Vince Williams.

Where they were last year in a nine-win season was losing at least four games for the seventh consecutive season. Four losses to a top-four ranking? First, Florida State needs to beat Clemson.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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