GREENSBORO Aside from all the smart phones and sleek laptops and the web cam on the table, it could have been a scene from the 1990s: reporters surrounding a Heisman Trophy-winning Florida State quarterback, asking questions about national championship expectations.
Jameis Winston would get to that. Before anything, though, he called for applause. He had just walked into the hotel ballroom at the ACC Kickoff at the Grandover Resort on Sunday and waded through a throng of reporters who’d been waiting for him.
He reached his seat and smiled and said, “Before I say anything …”
And then Winston, the quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national championship, broke into his routine. How did it feel, he asked those gathered before him, to have an ACC team walk into the conference’s preseason media event with the national championship?
College football superiority resided in the ACC, he said. And that’s when Winston asked for applause, a request that was met with a few laughs but mostly with silence.
It was a fitting moment during a daylong theme. John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, celebrated Florida State during his annual state-of-the-ACC address. Players answered questions about the league’s improved reputation, bolstered by FSU’s undefeated season.
For years, the ACC had been waiting for a team to excel nationally. It happened, finally, but Florida State’s resurgence has come with consequence, too. Now that the Seminoles are the Seminoles of old, so are the questions: Can anyone beat Florida State?
Can anyone even compete with the Seminoles? P.J. Williams, a cornerback who was Winston’s sidekick at ACC Kickoff, laughed when asked if any ACC team could stay within three touchdowns of FSU this season.
“I’m not sure,” Williams said, before repeating himself. “I’m not sure. I haven’t looked at film of everybody. We’ve got to see them play. We’ve got to watch them. Because I know all the teams are going to be much better this year, I believe.”
It was a diplomatic answer. The numbers, from the far past and recent, are less kind.
Florida State beat up on the league throughout the 1990s, winning its first 29 conference games by an average of 32.7 points. Then, in the mid-2000s, the dynasty crumbled and Bobby Bowden, the most victorious coach in college football history, was forced out in 2009 amid a string of mediocre seasons.
Then came the resurgence. On their way to the national championship last season, the Seminoles beat ACC opponents by an average of 39 points. The last team to dominate the ACC the way Florida State did last season was, well, Florida State.
When FSU joined the league in 1992, the hope was that its arrival would strengthen the rest of the conference. It didn’t happen that way, not exactly, and again the rest of the league is hoping it can still compete – just like it hoped, futilely, that it could 20 years ago.
Still, there was optimism Sunday, and even a hint of awe. North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams looked across his table at the crowd surrounding Winston and called it “impressive.”
What the Seminoles did last season gave him hope.
“Everybody (in the ACC) knows that they have an opportunity to win a national championship because Florida State won one last year,” he said.
The Seminoles lost seven players who became NFL draft picks, but Winston is back and several of his favorite receivers are back, and so, too, are a slew of talented players from top-ranked recruiting class after top-ranked recruiting class. These Seminoles, though, aren’t yet the dynastic ones of old.
Not because of lack of talent, necessarily, but lack of time. During the best of times for FSU, it finished 14 straight seasons ranked among the top four teams in the Associated Press top 25 poll. It will take a while to match that history, and despite last season, the rest of the ACC doesn’t seem intimidated.
“This is a new year,” Wake Forest fullback Jordan Garside said. “And that’s why we go out and play the game. I think we’re all excited to get our shot at them because they are the reigning national champion. But again, they’re just like us.”
Garside conceded that wasn’t exactly true. He sat nearly alone, while the crowd of reporters around Winston and P.J. Williams hardly thinned, even an hour into a long session between players and writers.
“It’s a testament to their success in the past,” Garside said. “But next year, that may be around this table, for Wake.”
It was an optimistic thought, after Florida State’s 56-point victory against Wake Forest last season. Still, Garside and other Atlantic Division players bristled at the thought that they were already playing for second place – that the Seminoles already had secured their place in the ACC championship game.
Boston College defensive back Dominique Williams scoffed at that talk. A longtime Boston College fan, he can remember when the Eagles went down to Florida State and won in 2006 and 2008. But could any ACC team stay within three touchdowns of these Seminoles? Williams thought about it for a moment.
“That’s a tough question,” he said with a smile. “I have no comment.”
The ACC has grown up, in a literal and figurative sense, since the days when FSU treated conference opposition like the JV. The league has expanded from nine to 14 teams. Facilities have improved. Stadiums have expanded.
Still, FSU’s resurgence has a ’90s feel to it, in that the rest of the conference seems about as well prepared to compete with the Seminoles now as it did then. FSU won two ACC games by 56 points last year, another by 63 and three others by at least 37.
But, Winston said, “I expect every team that we play against this year is going to play their best game. No doubt about it.”
Will that matter? It was only two seasons ago that Florida State collapsed in the second half of a loss at N.C. State, and only three seasons ago that the Seminoles couldn’t get out of their own way in a befuddling defeat at home against Virginia.
Those inexplicable performances, though, seem to be a thing of the past. They were last season, at least. Even so, the recent past – those strange losses and, before that, a string of underwhelming seasons – can be difficult to forget.
Tony Creecy, for one, remembers well the Wolfpack’s victory against FSU in Raleigh in 2012. Creecy, a senior running back, rejected the thought that the Seminoles have separated themselves from the rest of the conference.
“I don’t think it’s a gap at all,” Creecy said. “Last year was just their year. They came to play. They were a really good team. But, I mean, when you come to Raleigh, anything can happen.”
The Seminoles, who beat the Wolfpack by 32 points last season, come to Raleigh again this season. Wherever they go, they’ll be a moving target – a fact that Winston expressed delight in.
He said he welcomed the challenge, the thought that a victory against the Seminoles could make other team’s seasons. That’s the way it used to be, when Florida State’s place in the ACC was unquestioned, and when other teams merely hoped to be competitive.
And that’s how it was a season ago, too, when the difference between the Seminoles and the rest of the conference was “glaring,” Duke linebacker Kelby Brown said. The Blue Devils won the Coastal Division and then endured a 45-7 defeat against FSU in the ACC championship game.
“It seemed like they were miles ahead of everyone,” Brown said. “This season will be a telltale; we’ll see if everyone can come back and give them a run for their money.”
If not, it won’t be unprecedented. It would be like old times again, like two decades ago, when the Seminoles left their ACC competition chasing and wondering when they’d ever catch up.
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this article.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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