TALLAHASSEE — Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston strolls to the line of scrimmage.
The crowd of 83,428 looms above Winston and his teammates, screaming ferociously.
Winston, a redshirt freshman unflappable during his first five starts, saved his best performance for the most important game of his career. He threw for 444 yards, a personal high, and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score, vaulting the Seminoles (6-0, 4-0 ACC) into the national championship conversation with a 51-14 win over then-No. 3 Clemson (6-1, 4-1) Saturday night.
"It was amazing. When we were on the field during that first snap, it was loud. We started smiling," Winston said. "I said, 'Guys, we don't play against noise. We play against the Clemson Tigers.' And we played our hearts out."
It was a contest that in previous seasons normally would have had FSU players on edge. Much was at stake. ESPN's College GameDay was there. ESPN's Lee Corso dressed up like Chief Osceola, and actor Bill Murray, whose son attends Clemson, playfully tackled him. But the Seminoles feared nothing. A large part of that is due to Winston.
"We lacked leadership. No one embraced leadership (the past several seasons)," said senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who forced three turnovers against Clemson. "The young guys look up to the older guys. You have a younger guy like Jameis Winston — most of the time, you're appointed a time for leadership. He's a natural leader. We follow his lead."
When Winston was named the starter instead of Jacob Coker late in the summer, players took steps to show they were sold on him.
But their verbal votes of confidence seemed like a way of reassuring themselves Winston could lead them through the season.
Now there is no hesitation.
"I don't consider him a freshman," receiver Rashad Greene said. "He's a grown man. And he's handling his business as a grown man."
Winston has thrown for 1,885 yards, 20 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passing efficiency of 210.4 is second best in the nation, and his 20 touchdown passes are fourth best.
"Poise and composure, that's the job I've got to do on this team," Winston said.
Against Clemson, which was ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense, Winston embraced the big stage. He had an interception in the first half but orchestrated three straight scoring drives on three occasions.
"The guy is a competitor. He steps up in the moments," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Winston has embraced his role as leader, exhibiting a competitive streak that pushes teammates but also showing a calming presence.
"It's just an 'it' that he has," offensive lineman Cameron Erving said. "On the field it's such a relaxed environment because everybody is so confident, so sure in themselves. You find yourself in the huddle sometimes, Rashad, Kenny (Shaw) and Kelvin (Benjamin) walk by and are joking with Jameis. I'm talking about in the middle of a game."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney needs no convincing about FSU's resurgence: "They might be the best team in the country."
The last sounds heard booming from Memorial Stadium were from the FSU band, playing the war chant with its fans chopping away.
"Our team is legit," Winston said. "Too legit to quit."