TALLAHASSEE -- The 1993 Florida State University national championship team will be in town on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first national title in school history — but that’s not what anyone’s talking about.
Not anymore, at least.
The week started auspiciously enough. Florida State was fresh off a 59-3 demolition of Wake Forest in which its defense forced seven turnovers. Oregon had lost to Stanford the Thursday before and had all but paved FSU’s way to the BCS title game. And Jameis Winston looked to be the clear-cut Heisman Trophy front-runner after Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had come up lame against the Cardinal.
Then, on Wednesday, all of that came crashing down.
TMZ published a report linking Winston to an 11-month-old sexual assault allegation — one that Winston’s attorney believed had been put to rest in February — and suddenly FSU’s game against Syracuse was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Florida State canceled Winston’s weekly scheduled afternoon news conference in favor of a much smaller, non-streamed media appearance that evening — one in which the redshirt freshman said very little and did not acknowledge the situation.
One reporter asked Winston about the gold chain that typically adorns the star quarterback’s neck during games, he reached for it before saying somberly, “Actually my girlfriend had given it to me. And it used to have a charm on it — but it’s gone.”
It was a statement that functioned on multiple levels, more or less summarizing Florida State’s week while capturing the now-fleeting sentiment that once surrounded FSU’s outgoing young signal-caller, who is now — fairly or unfairly — tarnished.
All year coach Jimbo Fisher has preached to his team about clutter — non-football distractions that only serve to take a program’s mind off the task at hand. This week that message will be more important than ever.
“They’ve rallied around each other,” Fisher said Thursday. “They understand it and they are a family. That’s one of the things I love about this team — its tight-knitness and its true caring for each other — they practiced well and did a nice job.”
If that’s true, Florida State should be fine against a Syracuse team that they outclass in terms of talent and pedigree. If it’s not, and Florida State enters the game emotionally spent, the Seminoles face a physical team that could give them problems.
Syracuse averages over 200 yards on the ground per game and has given up just three points combined over their past two games.
“They have a lot of good blitzes. They have a good team,” said Winston. “They got a lot of good players, a lot of great blitzes and we’ve got to try to expose that, but we’re going to do what we do and try to get this victory.”
This week though, given all of the distractions, that could be a lot harder than normal. There will be increased scrutiny on the Seminoles’ game against the Orange — and not for football reasons.
Will Florida State still be able to block out the clutter and focus, much as they have done all year?
“I hope so,” said Fisher. “Success brings a lot of clutter from other things. There are always things that go on, and you have to learn to separate on the field and off the field and what you can control, and our guys are doing a nice job of that.”