- David M. Hale, College football
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher has been playing the long game.
For months, he has preached the same refrain over and over with unwavering determination until it flows as easily from the mouths of his players as it does from his own.
One game at a time.
No game bigger than the rest.
Eliminate the clutter.
The words were intended as a motto for the season, a directive for this new, more mature Florida State team. But the meaning behind the message won't face a bigger challenge than what awaits the Seminoles on Saturday.
"It's a 'GameDay' game, everything's 'Woo, woo, woo' -- it's just a big game and we want to come out on top," cornerback Nick Waisome said.
With Florida State's soft early schedule, the hype for this one has been building for months. Clemson comes to town ranked No. 10 in the nation -- just the ninth time in history that two ACC teams ranked in the top 10 will face off. ESPN's "College GameDay" is broadcasting live from Tallahassee, while the game itself will take place under the lights in prime time.
It's a circus, and that goes against everything Fisher has preached.
"This is a very important game, but hopefully in our time at Florida State we're going to play in a lot of important games," Fisher said. "You have to learn to deal with those things -- issues, distractions, fun. It makes it fun, too. But it doesn't add pressure or reduce pressure. It's still the game of football."
It's Fisher's version of Gene Hackman measuring the height of the net in "Hoosiers": The field is still 100 yards, the clock still ticks off 60 minutes, and 11 players still line up on either side.
But there's so much more to this one -- from the ACC standings to potential national championship aspirations -- and even Fisher admits he's unsure how his team will respond.
"Hopefully we can learn to prepare for a football game," Fisher said. "Eliminate the rest and play a football game."
A year ago, Florida State had a ticket to a similar circus.
A summer's worth of hype had the Seminoles ranked among the nation's best teams. Top-ranked Oklahoma was headed to Tallahassee for a nonconference showdown. The TV cameras, pundits and clamoring fans followed.
When it was over, Florida State was on the wrong end of a 23-13 defeat, its national title dreams gone and its confidence deflated. Two more losses followed, including a five-point defeat a week later at Clemson.
But that was last year, before Fisher's motto took hold, before Florida State's players repeated it like football robots programmed to prioritize only their primary directive.
"A lot of people are putting a lot of stuff around this game, saying it's the game of the year and we've got to win," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "But we're playing it like it's another game. Last year was a different team, and I feel like this is a more mature team, a more focused team on the goal we're trying to get to. Clemson's just the next team in the way."
Clemson is probably more than just the next team in line, but the numbers also suggest the Tigers will be the best team Florida State will face during the regular season.
Clemson's offense is stacked with star power. The Tigers have already racked up 17 plays of 25 yards or more -- tops in the nation. A year ago, Sammy Watkins torched Florida State's secondary and the Tigers rode that momentum to an ACC championship.
"It's going to be fun, a good atmosphere," Lamarcus Joyner said. "But this is Florida State, and we should always expect to have games like this. This shouldn't be the only game this season that should be that way."
That being said, whether the Seminoles play in more games like this largely depends on the outcome Saturday.
A win would be a signature moment for Fisher, for senior quarterback EJ Manuel and, really, for the entire team. It would put the Seminoles in the driver's seat for a conference championship and would keep FSU alive for a berth in the BCS title game.
To have all that, Fisher believes, the key will be forgetting that any of it matters.
One game at a time. No opponent bigger than the next. Eliminate the clutter.
"We've talked about it, we've done it; circumstances we've had to deal with, they've learned a lot from, and hopefully they'll continue to learn and grow. That's one of the next steps we have to take," Fisher said. "But we'll find out."
FSU has not done well in the spotlight recently. Jimbo Fisher has his team avoiding the clutter in hopes of keeping big games like the top-10 matchup with Clemson in perspective.