LAST WEEK, SEMINOLES senior center Bryan Stork reflected on the night of Oct. 19, when Florida State visited Clemson. While the orange-clad fans at Memorial Stadium bordered on delirium, the Seminoles—who have a history of recent flops in ACC road games—remained poised. "They were trying to break the record for the loudest stadium," says Stork. "We're just smiling at each other, not saying a word. But we were laughing."
Stork & Co. had reason to be merry. In outclassing the unbeaten Tigers 51--14, they injected themselves into the thick of the national-title conversation. After beating Duke 45--7 in the ACC championship last Saturday, Florida State is 13--0 and bound for the BCS title game in Pasadena.
One factor in FSU's success has been obvious: the emergence of redshirt-freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. If the Seminoles can hang 28 points on Auburn, they will surpass Oklahoma in 2008 (716 points) as the highest-scoring team in history. But there's another development just as important. Since taking over as coach in 2010, Jimbo Fisher has worked to instill a more unwavering focus in his troops. "I think our team has been conscious of not taking any team less seriously than others," says Stork. Over the past few years Florida State has suffered baffling losses to N.C. State (17--16 in 2012), Wake Forest (35--30 in '11) and North Carolina (37--35 in '10), making it clear that the Seminoles were struggling to reach Fisher's goal. That hasn't been the case in 2013.
In turn, several players have taken significant steps in their on-field growth. "Playing football, you're always told how good you are," says senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (above), a defensive leader who converted from safety this year. "And as a young, immature kid, that can get to anyone's head. I think that I took the time out to be coachable, which has been the turning point of my career, period."
Tailbacks Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. gain a combined 6.7 yards per carry, and the receiving corps, headlined by Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, has as much talent as any in the nation. And the defense, which lost seven starters in last spring's NFL draft, ranks first nationally in scoring (10.7 points per game).
While its FBS opponents had a combined winning percentage of just .490 (71--74), Florida State did shut down Clemson, which finished the year tied for 11th in scoring (40.2 points per game). The other team that finished 11th? Auburn.
And that's the point. The Seminoles are done playing up or down to the level of their competition. They're playing to their own standard—one that could have more than a few players laughing on the Rose Bowl field. "Now we just get to smile," says Joyner, "because we defeated all doubt. There's no better feeling than that."
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED