- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For a half-hour Monday, Jimbo Fisher was Wake Forest's biggest cheerleader. During his weekly news conference, the Florida State coach gushed about the level of talent on Wake's roster, raved about its coaching staff, denied the popular notion that the Demon Deacons are simply a mediocre team that manages to overachieve every few years.
As the session drew to a close, however, one reporter brought up the elephant in the room. Despite all of Fisher's glowing praise for his opponent, Florida State was still favored to win Saturday's game by four touchdowns.
"I look at those lines sometimes," Fisher said. "I'm going crazy, I'm a nervous wreck and I can't sleep. I don't see all that."
Never mind the point spread. Fisher is right to be nervous. History insists that he should be.
A year ago, the Seminoles stumbled into Winston-Salem, N.C., and turned over the ball five times, saw their starting tailback go down with a potentially career-threatening injury, forced EJ Manuel to play the second half with an injured shoulder and lost their third straight game, 35-30.
That might have been a blip, the result of a few freak plays and three weeks of torment after immense preseason hype was buried under the weight of losses to Oklahoma and Clemson. But dig deeper, and there are more reminders: A 12-3 Wake Forest win in 2008, a three-point Deacons victory in 2007, a 30-0 shellacking by Wake at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2006.
Fisher can't sleep at night because Wake Forest haunts his dreams.
"They're much more athletic than people think," Fisher said. "They've got good players, always have since I've been here. They're coached well. They don't beat themselves. They play very hard. They're very sound and a good football team."
It's not just Fisher's way of issuing a stern warning to his own team not to overlook Wake Forest with a far more dangerous enemy looming on the horizon.
In the last six seasons, Florida State is 27-21 in ACC play. Wake Forest is 24-24, but has beaten FSU four times.
In the last five years, Wake has had 15 players selected in the NFL draft, nine of which went in the fourth round or better. Florida State, meanwhile, has had just 14 players taken and only six before Round 5.
Indeed, the talent disparity isn't as vast as those point spreads, but that doesn't mean Florida State shouldn't be favored.
In the first two weeks of the season, while FSU was beating up on FCS opponents and working its way to a No. 5 ranking in the AP poll, Wake Forest inched past Liberty and North Carolina by the skin of its teeth.
Wake has pulled out all the stops to begin 2-0. FSU has barely broken a sweat.
All of that isn't to say that Wake can't pull another upset. It's simply that this game, like last year, is more a referendum on Florida State's preparation than Wake's ability.
"Last year, we underestimated teams," linebacker Christian Jones said. "This year, we're taking everything seriously."
It's no knock on Wake Forest. The Deacons were the best team on the field in last year's game -- not in talent, perhaps, but in discipline and execution.
It was an indication of where Florida State's mindset was at the time.
"They outplayed us," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "We overlooked those guys. We had that big game [against Oklahoma] that we put so much into, and after that loss we were kind of deflated. Wake Forest did a good job taking advantage of that."
There is no stinging defeat in the Seminoles' rearview mirror this time around, but coincidentally, the first two games of the 2012 season might have been perfect preparation for Wake Forest.
Murray State and Savannah State were pushovers, games in which FSU simply had to show up at the stadium to be assured of winning. But the Seminoles did more than that. They were focused, effective, and operated with surgical precision.
"It shows us as a program where we stand with the maturity level," Joyner said.
Last year's loss hasn't been talked about much this week, Jones said. But it is on everyone's mind.
It's a game about revenge, of course, but not against Wake Forest. Despite all the platitudes that Fisher wants to assign to the Demon Deacons, FSU knows it is the better team.
Instead, the Seminoles are out to settle a score against their former selves, that version of themselves that let a week's worth of adversity sink an entire season. Wake Forest didn't know some secret to beating Florida State a year ago. It simply held up a mirror and let Florida State see how far it had fallen.
This year, players insist things are different, and Fisher has established a one-week-at-a-time mantra. There is no looking back, no looking ahead.
But for this one week, on this one Saturday, remembering the sting of what happened in the past can't be helped.
"I know [we're] going to go out and play hard just because of the effect it had on us last year," Chris Thompson said. "We shouldn't be going back to that, but it did happen."
10hEthan Sherwood Strauss