TALLAHASSEE — For far too long, the players who passed through the halls of Doak Campbell Stadium seemed trapped in time. They had their memories of better days, and they had hopes for some unspecified point in the future.
It was only in the present tense that Florida State struggled. Almost as if the Seminoles were replaying the same season over and over again. Sort of promising. Sort of good. And, ultimately, sort of a shame.
Which is why the moments after Saturday's 24-19 victory against Boston College felt so different. It is why the scene at midfield looked so meaningful. It is why a current calendar finally seemed right.
For there was coach Jimbo Fisher, sweat dripping from his forehead, cameras pointed in his face, an arm around his son Trey, and the best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference in his hip pocket.
For the first time in seven years, FSU has started a season 4-0 in league play. And for the first time in five years, the Seminoles are ranked higher than the University of Florida.
This is the best college football team in the state.
Or, if you prefer:
This is the best college football team in the state?
"Sometimes, great seasons are made on games that you can scratch, claw and fight. Find a way to pull one out," Fisher said. "But we have a long way to go to where we need to go."
Look, no one is claiming FSU is going to steamroll the nation. Not even the guys in FSU uniforms. The defense gave up running plays of 72 and 48 yards in the first four minutes. Quarterback Christian Ponder threw three interceptions and had a fumble.
And, though Florida has had troubles of its own, there's still a good chance the Gators would be the favored team when they come to Tallahassee in another six weeks.
Still, it has been a long time since there was this much reason for optimism in Tallahassee. It has been a long time since there was this much evidence that a corner has finally been turned.
"Coach Fisher has been telling us that we're on that island, and all the boats have been burned. And we're not going back to what we used to be," punter Shawn Powell said. "He's right. We haven't arrived yet, but I think we have begun a new chapter.
"There's a lot of pictures of guys on the walls around here who did a lot of great things for FSU. We're not going to take them down, but it's time we put some new pictures on the wall. Everybody has a past, but what are you going to do in the present? That's what's important. If we can keep improving and working hard, people are going to remember this team, too."
The story of the season is far from being told. The Seminoles are only halfway through the ACC schedule, and still have road games at North Carolina State and Maryland. There is also a question of just how good the conference is in comparison to other BCS leagues.
FSU's offense seems limited at times, and the defense was crushed in its biggest test against Oklahoma last month. So there is not yet a definitive answer in terms of how good this team can be.
But what Saturday's game showed was something different. It showed character. It showed tenacity.
And by the end of the afternoon, you got the feeling FSU won the kind of game it might have given away in the recent past.
"It's been a long time since we won a game like this. A tough game where the other team may not be as good, but is going to fight you," receiver Bert Reed said. "We showed some fight. We punched back. That says something about us."
They are walking a fine line around Tallahassee these days. Out of respect to the legendary Bobby Bowden, no one wants to sound remotely critical about the lack of success in recent seasons. Yet it seems clear there has been a change in atmosphere, even if players and coaches dance around the explanations.
So they don't talk much about the past. They don't look too far into the future. For a change, the Seminoles are living in the moment. And for the first time in a long while, the present is good enough.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]