Florida State was better than the ACC in a lot of ways in 2013. It had the best quarterback in the league, one of the best backfields in the league, the best receiver trio, one of the best tight ends, and a defense that was second to none. It out-scored league opponents by 351 points over nine games in a conference that had 11 teams finish with winning records.
But aside from Jameis Winston, the players I heard opposing players and coaches talking about the most at ACC media days were the Seminoles' offensive line.
The group protected Jameis Winston well, considering the Heisman Trophy Winner held the ball for ages, stubbornly determined to throw deep routes even when easy yardage could be found by taking a check down. And it opened up holes for FSU's three-headed monster of a rushing attack to put up 2309 yards on 345 carries -- a ridiculous average of 6.7. It executed difficult run blocks that many college lines aren't asked to do -- something the coaching staff trusted the experienced unit to do, even if failures meant tackles for loss.
The bunch, returning four of five starters, adding two JUCO stars, and having several talented, second-year backups, is beginning to receive praise as the best in the country.
Jameis Winston already believes they are the best.
"Well, our offensive line is the best offensive line in the country, and I repeat that Florida State's offensive line is the best offensive line in the country," Winston said. "But it's great, man. It's great being around those guys and seeing their different personalities, from Cam and Josue and a new addition with Austin Barron, but he actually played before all of them as a true freshman. You have Bobby Hart, my right tackle, and Tre', my right guard. We recruited a couple big‑time offensive linemen, too. One thing with Coach Trickett, our offensive line is never going to be slacking. I'll tell you that right now, because they're the hardest-working group that we've got on our team. I know P.J., my other teammates might disagree with that, but I've seen it. Our offensive line works so hard, and that's why I'm confident to say that we have the best offensive line in the country."
Jimbo Fisher didn't go quite that Monday, saying that he doesn't know enough about all the other offensive lines across the country to proclaim his unit as the best, but that he would put his line up against anyone's.
The country is one story, but within the conference, there is no doubt about the best group, at least among ACC players and coaches.
"That game was amazing," Syracuse linebacker Cameron Lynch said of the 59-3 beating in Tallahassee. "Even though it was a loss, it was an eye-opener for us. Knowing what it feels like to play against the best in the nation, with the speed of their offensive line. The [quickness with which the blockers got up to the linebackers] was unreal. We played great offenses, against Teddy Bridgewater (of Louisville) and Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin (of West Virginia), but we never played against a dominant offensive line like what they had."
Scott Shafer, the Orange's head coach and long-time defensive coordinator, agreed.
"They're just huge and fast," Shafer said, chuckling, when asked what made Florida State's offensive line different than the others in the league. "They're monstrous, and they can run. And then they get their long arms on you, but they bring their feet at the same time, it's hard to [get off of their blocks]."
How much better is FSU's offensive line than other line Shafer's team faces in the ACC?
"By quite a bit," Shafer said.
For FSU, the question is how much more distance the line can put between itself and the rest of the conference, and maybe the country.
It wasn't always that way, of course.
For a few years, FSU was stuck in a cycle of recruiting misses and a lack of depth, that necessitated playing young players before they were physically ready.
In fact, the line drawing so much praise in Tallahassee started out with a rough go of things, with four freshmen playing in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, a narrow victory over Notre Dame.
But thanks to hard work, and the coaching by Rick Trickett, they arrived. And if possible, they are still under-appreciated by their own fans.
After losing center Bryan Stork to the NFL Draft, the group now consists of five seniors, four of them returning starters -- plus two JUCO signees who are expected to push for playing time.
Three of the seniors are considered locks to be drafted in the early rounds -- tackle Cameron Erving, guard Tre' Jackson, and guard Josue Matias. And a source insists that tackle Bobby Hart, still 19 years old until August 21 due to entering college at a very early age, will be drafted as a guard prospect. And center Austin Barron has plenty of game experience, though he is not a lock to win the job.
Even more exciting for the future of the program, however, is the next group of linemen. FSU signed seven linemen in February, and another will join the team in December. The haul was considered second only to the haul in Tuscaloosa, and the early returns about the bunch from program sources have been stellar. Having covered Florida State for seven years, I can confirm that this group certainly looks much different than anything the Seminoles have signed under Jimbo Fisher.
That has Florida State fans optimistic that when the five seniors move on after 2014, the drop-off won't be cataclysmic, thanks to improved recruiting, and a crop of ten players who won't be true freshmen by that point, plus whatever FSU signs in the next six months.
If all goes well, FSU may have set itself up for another great offensive line in 2016, just without the lows experienced in 2011.