November 1, 2004 TALLAHASSEE For the fourth consecutive season, Florida State will not ring in the new year with the opportunity to play for a national championship. While the Seminoles will be in the same boat as 115 of 117 NCAA Division I-A programs in that regard, their absence from the title chase is conspicuous because it officially signals the end of an era.
FSU's 25-player senior class, which has endured more defeats than it will care to remember, will depart as the first class since the end of the 1992 season to have never played in a bowl game for a national championship.
Its legacy will be losing critical late-season ACC games, marking the end
of the program's league dominance. While frustrating, Florida State's
20-17 loss at Maryland was only fitting. After all, the Terrapins are the only other ACC team to win an outright title (2002) since FSU joined the conference in 1992, despite losing 12 consecutive times to the Seminoles.
"It's a hurtful feeling, knowing I'm going out of here not going to a BCS (championship) game, not winning an ACC championship," senior defensive tackle Travis Johnson said. "I want to be known as a winner when I leave here. It's tough to leave here and not play for a national championship."
It should be tough, if not troubling, to the program its fans, coaches, players and potential recruits because the Seminoles have no excuse for their self-inflicted demise this time. FSU's depth and talent base this season is stronger than it has been since 2000, when it lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in the national title game.
From quarterback Chris Rix's annual meltdown in the season-opening loss at Miami, to the team's mental vacation in the loss to Maryland, the Seminoles have shown they lack the finishing skills to return the program to a place among the nation's elite.
Against the Terrapins, FSU allowed a team that totaled 17 points and 366 yards in its three previous games (combined) to amass 374 yards of offense.
"We hoped they (Maryland) wouldn't wake up," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I thought we were going to win that game."
Hope is not a word FSU teams of old used when discussing the ACC, unless it was in the context of "hoping for an early blowout" in order to get a little added experience for the reserves. Previously, the Seminoles regularly stepped on the neck of league opponents.
This season's robust 36-3 rout of Virginia has become the exception, rather than the rule. While Bowden's program remains a formidable power at home, it has shown a mortality on the road that hints of self-doubt, and rightfully so.
From 1992-98, the Seminoles lost exactly two league road games. This season's seniors have lost five away from the comfortable confines of Doak Campbell Stadium: at North Carolina, N.C. State, Clemson, Miami and Maryland.
Maybe Bowden's 29th team found false hope with its flick-of-the-switch rallies to beat Syracuse and Wake Forest on the road. Or maybe the coaching staff didn't do a good job of convincing the players that the Terps were a viable threat. It shouldn't have been that hard, given recent history and the obvious indicators that the ACC is vastly improved.
Erratic quarterback play and a kicker with a penchant for gagging under pressure have significantly reduced FSU's margin for error. When the defense falters, as it did at times against the Terps, odds are defeat is in the cards. The Seminoles are simply no longer strong enough physically or mentally to show up and expect opponents to faint at the sight of those gold helmets with a spear on the side.
When asked what his goals for the Seminoles will be, now that their national title hopes have been extinguished, Bowden said: "You just have to try to win each game and end up with the best season you can."
Whatever that is, it won't be commensurate with yet another season of unfulfilled potential.
Another Quarterback Conundrum
The fourth-quarter benching of sophomore Wyatt Sexton at Maryland may well be the precursor for a full-blown quarterback controversy down the stretch.
By replacing Sexton with Rix, who did lead the offense to its only touchdown of the night, Bowden hoped to find a spark for his sluggish team. Of course, that spark could turn into a brushfire if he sticks with Rix as the starter against Duke, N.C. State and Florida.
FSU players were saying all the right things about the play of the quarterbacks following the Maryland loss, but that's more a product of the coaching staff's insistence on team unity than a reflection of the players' true feelings.
Sexton's numbers (14-of-30, 164 yards, two interceptions) certainly weren't good against the Terps, but neither were those put up by Rix (eight-of-21, 140 yards, one TD), who was noticeably rusty in his first appearance since Sept. 11.
In fact, Rix repeatedly passed up easy completions to wide-open tailback Lorenzo Boozer when the Seminoles needed to go 82 yards on their final drive of the night against Maryland. Instead, Rix fired errant tosses down the field, looking for the big play. Apparently, the senior's time on the bench did nothing to help cure him of his career-long problem with identifying the outlet receiver.
Bowden said he would take three to four days before deciding who would start against Duke, but the safe money will be on Rix. While Bowden should be looking ahead to next season, his loyalty to Rix is well-documented.
Young Tailbacks Missed Opportunity
First they lost a player. Then they lost a game. But FSU's biggest loss of all against Maryland was the missed opportunity to see whether freshman tailbacks Lamar Lewis or Jamaal Edwards were ready to make a contribution.
With ACC rushing leader Leon Washington sidelined with a right shoulder separation, Booker took every snap at tailback against the Terps and managed just 51 yards on 13 carries. When the slender Booker wasn't senselessly being sent up the middle into the teeth of Maryland's defense, he was diving at the legs of blitzing linebackers.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden said earlier in the week that he was concerned about the ability of his two youngest backs to pick up the blitz, but he vowed that they would be needed. Lewis not only was ahead of Edwards in the pass-blocking schemes, but Bowden compared him favorably to Washington in terms of his ability to pick up tough yardage inside.
You would think that FSU's coaching staff might have learned from its recent experience with Sexton. They refused to play him last season, even when Rix struggled, then were surprised by his poise in leading the Seminoles to four consecutive wins this fall.
Yet the coaches once again seemed paralyzed by fear, opting not to play either freshman tailback against the Terps. Not only have Lewis and Edwards burned potential redshirt seasons for all of eight combined carries in four games, but FSU's coaches know no more about their ability to perform in crucial situations now than they did on the first day of practice in August.