- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Six miles east of this weekend's center of the college football universe, two high school teams met on a muddy field Friday night with a half-broken scoreboard and no visitors locker room.
At halftime, with nowhere else to go, the players from Tallahassee's Florida High School huddled and rested on chairs behind the north end zone.
In the same space, when play resumed in the third quarter, kids in Florida State jerseys chased and tackled each other. Behind the bench, they hummed the Seminole War Chant.
The field at Tallahassee Lincoln High School seems a world away from Doak Campbell Stadium, where No. 1 Oklahoma on Saturday night defeated fifth-ranked Florida State 23-13 in a game labeled by FSU types as the biggest here in a decade.
[EJ Manuel] told me he went to Florida State for one reason -- Coach Fisher. That was a great recruiting tool for them.
”-- FSU commit Jameis Winston, the No. 1 QB and No. 11 overall prospect
Yes, it's been a long, tough stretch for the Seminoles. And as Florida State struggled to regain its place in the national spotlight, the kids at these high schools suffered with the Seminoles.
"That Florida State legacy and dynasty was just something our kids heard about," said Lincoln coach Yusuf Shakir, whose team won 27-21 Friday night on a game-ending defensive stand near midfield. "It would be great for them to be able to see it again.
"Their success means so much to our community. Florida State is a driving force for us. It seeps all the way down."
Reminders exist everywhere that these schools are oh-so-close to FSU. The Seminoles of Florida High sent fearsome defensive end Brandon Jenkins down the road to Florida State, where he collected 13½ sacks last year as a sophomore en route to preseason All-America recognition this season.
Shakir's Lincoln program, the reigning Florida 4A champion, produces a list of major-college signees every year. Lincoln graduates include former Florida defensive end and NFL All-Pro Kevin Carter and ex-Seminole Antonio Cromartie, a starting cornerback for the New York Jets.
Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Georgia are in pursuit.
Florida State, too. Williams and Hearns, both with FSU offers, attended the Oklahoma game on Saturday night. A huge group of headliners joined them in Tallahassee on the pregame sideline.
"To be honest," Hearns said Friday, "I want to see them come out and beat Oklahoma. I think they can do it.
"They're a whole different team this year under [FSU coach Jimbo Fisher]. He humbled them and let them know they've got a chance to do something special."
Fisher, now in his second year at FSU, is winning the battle in recruiting. He landed the No. 6-rated class after taking over for Bobby Bowden at the end of the 2009 season. From that signing class of 25, 15 have cracked the published depth chart, largely limited to the top two at each position. Six have started on defense for Florida State this season.
The next class ranked No. 1 nationally and produced 14 true freshmen who are playing this year. Perhaps you noticed receiver Rashad Greene. His 56-yard touchdown grab on third-and-28 tied the game at 13 with 9½ minutes to play.
Fisher's latest group, set to sign in less than five months, rates No. 2 behind Texas.
Florida State has collected pledges from 10 members of the ESPNU 150. The Seminoles remain in contention for more, including defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (Washington, D.C./Friendship Collegiate Academy), the No. 2 overall prospect, and ESPNU 150 running back Barry Sanders (Oklahoma City/Heritage Hall), son of the Pro Football Hall of Famer by the same name.
Absent Saturday night was No. 1 prospect Mario Edwards (Denton, Texas/Billy Ryan), who committed to Florida State in March but said last week he's looking at other schools -- primarily Oklahoma.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Is Fisher ready to bridge the precarious gap between recruiting superiority and a return to dominance on the field?
Before the largest crowd ever to watch a game at this stadium, the events of Saturday night suggested the Seminoles are getting closer. Much closer.
They've made impressive strides from a year ago, when Oklahoma housed FSU 47-17. It was no such mismatch this time, in large part because Fisher's recruits have matured.
Several Seminoles from that 2010 signing class played well Saturday. German-born defensive end Bjoern Werner was all over the field against Oklahoma; safety Lamarcus Joyner intercepted Landry Jones and caused another pick with his pressure; receiver Kenny Shaw made two early catches before the Sooners sent him to the hospital with a double hit to the head; and receiver Jarred Haggins came alive in the second half upon the entry of backup QB Clint Trickett, another 2010 signee.
There were others, including Greene and fellow true freshman tight end Nick O'Leary, who contributed a key third-down catch on the Seminoles' opening-possession drive for a field goal.
After finishing 14 straight years with a top-five ranking and at least 10 wins, the Seminoles have lost at least three games every season since 2001 and last won a conference title in 2003. For a program that's made a nation-best 29 straight bowl appearances, its past five -- Emerald, Music City, Champs Sports, Gator and Chick-Fil-A -- don't inspire confidence in a return to glory.
But the dark days may soon end.
Fisher is recruiting athletes to play an electrifying brand of football -- and he's earning the trust of young players.
In July at the Elite 11 finals in California, FSU junior EJ Manuel, among a select group of college quarterbacks, served as a counselor to 24 of the nation's top high school QBs in a five-day competition and showcase.
Jameis Winston of Hueytown, Ala., arguably the most impressive high school player there and co-MVP of the event, developed a relationship with Manuel, who insists he said nothing to intentionally encourage any of the incoming seniors to pick FSU.
But Winston was swayed.
"He told me he went to Florida State for one reason: Coach Fisher," Winston said last week. "That was a great recruiting tool for them."
Rated No. 1 among QB prospects and No. 11 overall, Winston pledged to Florida State over LSU and Alabama in early August. He's 4-0 this season at Hueytown after a five-touchdown performance in a 48-14 win over McCalla (Ala.) McAdory on Friday, a game aired on ESPNU.
Winston learned about Fisher's charisma firsthand during the recruiting process, but Manuel's descriptions only reinforced what the 45-year-old former offensive coordinator is selling.
Case in point:
Manuel said last week that Fisher implored the Seminoles to not be nervous about the big game on Saturday.
"This is going to be a huge test for us," the QB said. "Coach Fisher always says if you study for a test, there's no reason to be nervous."
Win or lose this game, Fisher told his players, bigger moments await.
Recruits can get behind that kind of message. So can FSU fans, hungry for more than a quick return to the nation's elite.
"I want them to show these people that they are a national championship team," Winston said, "and that for the next five years, they are going to be one of the premier teams in college football."
Edwards, the No. 1 prospect, sees it about the same way.
"I think they have a chance of getting it back to where Florida State used to be," Edwards said.
Edwards, like Winston, did not visit Tallahassee on Saturday because of a scheduling conflict. Both plan to attend Nov. 12, when Miami comes to town.
By November, we'll know if Saturday represented only a temporary return to the national stage for Florida State -- or if the kids across town who play behind the end zone on Friday nights at Lincoln High have reason to more proudly wear those Seminoles jerseys.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman