THE EMERALD BOWL:
Florida State (6-6) vs. UCLA (7-5), Dec. 27, 8 p.m., ESPN
By Bob Thomas
December 21, 2006
TALLAHASSEE Like the most loyal Florida State football fan, coach Bobby Bowden believes in his heart that the Seminoles are a tweak here or there away from getting back into the nation's football conscience.
Such optimism is hard to digest when you consider the Seminoles' current standing under their 77-year-old coach. With a 6-6 record heading into the fifth-year Emerald Bowl and a matchup with UCLA, the Seminoles are trying to avoid their first losing season since 1976, Bowden's first in Tallahassee. What FSU won't be able to avoid is finishing without a Top 25 ranking, something it hasn't done since 1986.
Historians will note that Bowden brought the Seminoles out of that 86 rut with an unprecedented run of 14 consecutive double-digit win seasons and top-five final rankings, beginning in 1987. Bowden won't be in his current position long enough to repeat that feat, but his resolve to make his team significant again has not wavered.
"I'm like those old fighters," Bowden said. "You still think you've got another win in you. You still think Florida State can win a national championship. I know they can, but can I do it? Can I bring em back? I think so, and I'm going to find out."
By winning more football games 365 than anyone else in Division I history, Bowden is entitled to that opportunity. That, however, doesn't mean FSU fans must buy in without reservation.
Skepticism comes more easily when the won-loss ledger reads 8-4, 9-5, 10-3, 9-3, 8-5 and 6-6, the actual numbers since the Seminoles made their last trip to the national championship game, after the 2000 season. Call it the "six seasons of separation."
Ultimately, the only way the Seminoles can move forward is through separating from their recent past in the near future. To that end, the winds of change already are stirring the Spanish moss hanging from trees in Tallahassee.
FSU will have a new offensive coordinator in 2007, after Jeff Bowden stepped aside, and Papa Bowden has hinted that there will be other staff changes as well. Most of those likely will come on offense, where the Seminoles have been in freefall mode. The direction of Bowden's search for a new coordinator will go a long way toward determining whether his team can get back to the national championship stratosphere before he retires.
Whether fresh ideas from a new coordinator can alter the recent past is up for debate, but Bowden would like fans to believe that a season of near-misses is indicative of how close FSU is to returning to the elite level.
"I can honestly say that I never came close to going through a year like this," Bowden said, after the Seminoles' 21-14 loss to Florida in the regular-season finale. "You get blown out one time. You blow out three teams. The other eight games come down to the last minute. We won three of them and lost the rest of them, but they all could have been won in the last minute.
"We've lost games here before where we didn't have a chance. Look at Florida last year (2005), and they had us out of there by the third quarter. But this year, every dadgum one of them. If we could have won another minute, we could have had a heck of a year."
While there could be some truth to Bowden's contention, FSU's offensive struggles also can be traced to the team's lack of playmakers, which is easily traceable through the program's recent attrition rate.
The 2006 Seminoles lacked a home run hitter on offense, a playmaker capable of altering the outcome of a game. That could have been wide receivers Fred Rouse or Kenny O'Neal, field-stretching speedsters who were dismissed following the 2005 season.
Or maybe it's the lack of quality offensive linemen, guys capable of opening holes for a running attack that ranks among the worst in the ACC. Certainly, quarterback development has been an issue since Chris Weinke took his 2000 Heisman Trophy to the NFL.
Recruiting misfires, injuries, coaching and player development all have been blamed for the decline. And, unlike in years past, the Seminoles no longer can plug in an All-American-in-waiting reserve at tailback or wideout, and keep cranking out titles.
Parity has leveled the playing field when it comes to personnel, further heightening the importance of a staff fluent in the latest strategies and strong in player development. Those were once FSU strengths, as Bowden and his staff were praised continually for their ability to adapt to the changing game.
To that end, a re-tooled offensive staff could spark a renewal, much as it did at Michigan this season.
A new coordinator will be able to choose between redshirt junior quarterbacks Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford, lean on promising junior tailback Antone Smith and wideout Greg Carr, while also benefiting from the return of three line starters as well as two seasoned reserves.
"You've got most of these guys coming back next year," Bowden said. "Can't you improve a minute's worth? Yeah, I think we can improve a minute's worth. That's what you're looking for in next year."
Fortunately for Bowden, the defense has kept up with changing times. Under the direction of Mickey Andrews, and with the significant contributions of linebackers coach Kevin Steele, FSU's defense has flexed its competitive mettle despite the offensive struggles.
Aided by strong recruiting, the Seminoles survived a rash of potentially crippling injuries this fall they lost seven players from their two-deep for the season to boast the nation's 15th-ranked defense. That they did it with a half-dozen true freshmen playing prominent roles bodes well for the future.
The immediate future would be brighter if the Seminoles weren't hamstrung by a small 2007 recruiting class that likely won't include more than 15 signees. Also, most of the top-rated commitments are defensive players, further accentuating the importance of landing an offensive coordinator who might be able to influence some 11th-hour signing decisions.
Should the Seminoles land a few playmakers who can impact games at wideout, tailback or in the return game, and fortify their offensive line depth, it's not unreasonable to believe that a dramatic turnaround is possible.
Bowden saw that happen first-hand at rival Florida, under second-year coach Urban Meyer.
"Sometimes you go into a season where you are set," Bowden said. "You've got a kicker. You've got a punter, You've got a returner. You've got a defense. You've got an offense. You've got it all.
"I kind of felt that way going into 99. Florida has all of that. Now, next year, I think we'll be closer to that category, if we stay healthy."
RB Lorenzo Booker, DE Darrell Burston, LB Buster Davis, WR/PR Chris Davis, LT Mario Henderson, RG Cory Niblock
2007 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2007 Class
QB Drew Weatherford 6-3/220 Jr.
FB Joe Surratt 6-1/254 Sr.
SE De'Cody Fagg 6-3/214 Sr.
TE Brandon Warren 6-2/230 So.
LG Jacky Claude 6-4/292 Sr.
OC John Frady 6-4/310 Sr.
RT Shannon Boatman 6-7/312 Sr.
NG Andre Fluellen 6-4/286 Sr.
DE Alex Boston 6-3/262 Sr.
LB Lawrence Timmons 6-3/227 Sr.
LB Geno Hayes 6-2/211 Jr.
RV Myron Rolle 6-2/217 So.
FS Roger Williams 6-0/200 Sr.
CB Tony Carter 5-9/162 Jr.
CB Michael Ray Garvin 5-8/185 Jr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Gary Cismesia 5-11/208 Sr.
P Graham Gano 6-1/189 Jr.
- has utilized redshirt season
^ six/more 2006 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
OC Dumaka Atkins, WR Greg Carr, FB Seddrick Holloway, QB Xavier Lee, OL David Overmyer, TE Caz Piurowski, DS Garrison Sanborn, WR/KR Joslin Shaw, RB Antone Smith
DE Everette Brown, CB J.R. Bryant (2005 starter), KO Graham Gano, NG Paul Griffin, DT Letroy Guion, RV Anthony Houllis, DE Kevin McNeil, DE Neefy Moffett, LB Derek Nicholson, DE D.J. Norris, CB Jamie Robinson, NG Budd Thacker, LB Dekoda Watson
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 8-0 (1) 11-1 Sugar Bowl (W)
1998 7-1 (1) 11-2 Fiesta Bowl (L)
1999 8-0 (1) 12-0 Sugar Bowl (W)
2000 8-0 (1) 11-2 Orange Bowl (L)
2001 6-2 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (W)
2002 7-1 (1) 9-5 Sugar Bowl (L)
2003 7-1 (1) 10-3 Orange Bowl (L)
2004 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (1A) 8-5 Orange Bowl (L)
2006 3-5 (5A) 6-6 Emerald Bowl
ACC: 65-15 (.813)
Overall: 95-31 (.754)
Team 2006 Record^
Duke 0-12 (0-8)
Maryland 8-4 (5-3)
Miami 6-6 (3-5)
N.C. State 3-9 (2-6)
Alabama 6-6 (2-6)
Alabama-Birmingham 3-9 (2-6)
Boston College 9-3 (5-3)
Clemson 8-4 (5-3)
Virginia Tech 10-2 (6-2)
Wake Forest 11-2 (6-2)
Colorado 2-10 (2-6)
Florida 12-1 (7-1)
^ regular season only (conference)
NOTE: Finalized dates/times TBA.