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Talent Suggests Possible Title Run, But Does Rix Really Get It?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Randy Beard, Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
August 23, 2004

TALLAHASSEE — Bobby Bowden just wants to count to 11 again. If he can get there, then he'll start worrying about what comes next.

    It's all part of the progressive outlook he has been applying to his  Florida State football program over the past year. At every opportunity, whether he has been speaking to boosters or members of the media, the nation's all-time Division I-A victory leader has been busy rationalizing how much better his 2003 team was than the 2002 squad — which, if nothing else, achieved one more win than the Class of 2001.

“Eight, nine, 10 … now if we can just get to 11 wins, we'll be there,” Bowden said.

One problem. The NCAA will allow only 11 regular-season games this season, down from the 12 permitted in 2002 and 2003. In addition, the ACC has its own significant reason to count to 11, with the additions of Virginia Tech and long-time FSU nemesis Miami. And, for those of you keeping score at home, a 12th member is on the way, since Boston College will enter the fray in 2005.

Maybe Bowden is correct when he says the Seminoles are on the comeback trail as one of the nation's elite programs, but what does that mean now that the ACC has significantly raised the ante?

Miami coach Larry Coker, after all, has made a habit of drawing mostly face cards, as well as hoarding most of the blue-chips. And as fate would have it, it is the poker-faced Hurricanes who will be the first ones to call the Seminoles' hand this season.

With Miami having won the last five games in the state rivalry, including an Orange Bowl encounter in January, the Hurricanes are even poised to inflict long-term damage to FSU's reign of the ACC. Even Bowden seems to sense that his progression theory could suffer a setback on Sept. 6, which is why he's been formulating a Hurricane Hurdle Theory, too.

“There ain't no good time to play Miami. I'd just as soon play them first and get it out of the way,” the 74-year-old FSU coach said. “If you win the game, you are going to be in great position. If you lose it, you still have time to work your way back through it.”

The trouble with that logic is that a loss out of the gate to Miami eliminates the chance to win 11 games during the regular season. There's also the not-too-little matter of Miami now residing in the same conference — a factor that won't be overlooked in the revamped BCS computer formula. The Hurricanes' presence will be magnified further in 2005, when the ACC holds its first championship game.

With Miami and Clemson, both of which beat the Seminoles last season, separated on this year's schedule only by a game against Alabama-Birmingham, a couple of bad bounces could result in a most unpleasant September in Tallahassee. That's not the outlook the Seminoles are taking, though.

“This is the most excited I've been since I've been here,” junior center David Castillo said. “This is definitely the best team we've had, and we're all fired up. Everybody here is hungry. … Guys don't want to leave here without a national championship.”

Of course, Castillo just hikes the ball. What Chris Rix does with it after that will have a lot more to do with determining how successful the Seminoles will be this season.

The redshirt senior quarterback arrived in Tallahassee in 2000 with visions of collecting national titles and Heisman Trophies. But prior to last November's heroics, Rix was mostly being written off as a promising talent who just didn't grasp the concepts of leadership and
decision-making.

Referring to how much criticism Rix has received over the past few years, Bowden said his quarterback has been “the most misunderstood kid in America.” Why? “He don't know (where) to park a car. Then he sleeps late for exams.”

Quips aside, what really has driven Bowden crazy has been Rix's knack for racking up points on the wrong side of the scoreboard with untimely fumbles and interceptions. The miscues almost always have happened because of Rix's reluctance to take a sack or chuck the football out of harm's way.

“I think the biggest thing for Chris is don't make foolish mistakes. You are going to make mistakes, but don't make foolish mistakes,” Bowden said. “A lot of times, that happens to a great athlete. He thinks he can do anything. He thinks he can throw that ball behind his back and complete the pass. … If Chris will just do what he's supposed to do, I feel like he'll have a very good year.”

With Rix set to become the first quarterback to start for the Seminoles for four seasons, Bowden even is applying his progression logic to FSU's career leader in second chances.

“I think he's matured,” Bowden said. “He's where he ought to be. He's gone through the normal growing process of being a freshman quarterback, then a sophomore quarterback, a junior quarterback. Now he's a senior. He acts like a senior and plays like a senior.”

Not yet, he hasn't. But Castillo and star receiver Craphonso Thorpe agree that there was a noticeable difference in Rix's demeanor during the offseason.

“He's learned from his mistakes,” Castillo said. “He's ready to move on and say, it's not the Chris Rix Seminoles, it's the Florida State Seminoles.”

“Chris, every year, has gotten better and we've gotten better,” said Thorpe, who has recovered from the broken right leg he suffered against N.C. State last November. “He's learned from his mistakes. He's learned how to listen to constructive criticism. For us to succeed, he's going to have to be the one to lead the way on offense.”

Castillo believes the dramatic victories over N.C. State and Florida last November represent the turning point in Rix's career. The veteran center said it's when Rix finally seemed to grasp the notion that he could trust the other playmakers on the field.

“We have some of the best athletes in the country on offense,” Castillo said. “He now knows he doesn't have to do it by himself. He's got Craphonso Thorpe, Lorenzo Booker, Leon Washington — all these guys who would be superstars anywhere in the country — and it's all on one field. I think he's finally willing to do whatever it takes for us to win, whether it's throwing the football 30 times or handing it off 30 times.”

Rix said his No. 1 goal this summer was to eliminate any remaining doubt about his leadership ability. It's probably helped that he also has learned to quickly delete negative e-mails, rather than sulk over them as he once did. He's finally viewing his FSU legacy with a sense of urgency, having realized that if he is ever going to lead the Seminoles to a national title or get his hands on a Heisman Trophy, it's now or never.

“This is my last shot. This is the last shot for a lot of guys, because we have a lot of seniors on this team,” said Rix, who passed for 3,107 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. “This next three-, four-month window, I have to be the most focused I've ever been. If we're going to win a national championship, we're going to have to do it together. We've had the talent in the past, but we've always been one step away. … We have it all this year. We have the coaching experience, we have the player experience, we have the talent and the speed.”

Bowden even promises he'll try not to grimace the next time Rix breaks out of the pocket. Dadgum, it may even be a designed play. At least Bowden says he plans to lengthen Rix's leash, giving him more freedom to use his athletic ability.

“This year we are not going to hold anything back,” Bowden said. “We don't have to. We feel after three years of starting, whatever we put in there, (Rix) can handle.”

To further that progressive cause, FSU offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden made a summer barnstorming tour to pick up pointers from NFL coaches. The goal was to devise new ways to unleash the running and receiving abilities of tailbacks Booker and Washington. If Rix truly learns to make all the reads on any one play, receivers Thorpe, Chauncey Stovall, Willie Reid, Dominic Robinson and Chris Davis can cause plenty of damage themselves. The quarterback should have plenty of protection, working behind a talented and experienced line that returns all five starters, including four fifth-year players.

Bowden, who still believes that a great defense is the foundation of any national-championship team, should have that firm footing in place as well this season.

Only on paper did the Seminoles lose seven defensive starters off the 2003 team. In truth, their replacements charted nearly as many minutes and made as many tackles last season. Five of the top nine tacklers from last season are back. At linebacker, in particular, many observers believe a keep-'em-fresh rotation of A.J. Nicholson, Sam McGrew, Ray Piquion, Ernie Sims and Buster Davis actually will be an upgrade over the 2003 unit, led by NFL draft choices Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope.

“Most all of (this year's starters) have been in (key situations) in the big games. They've been in against Miami, been in against Florida and Notre Dame,” defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. “I think the strength of this defense is we will be able to put 11 experienced people out there who understand the intensity you have to play with to be a top defensive team. Our goal is not just to have a good defense. We want to have the best defense in the country. Both times we've done that, we've won a national championship.”

Bowden feels just as confident of the 11 players who will be on the field for the Seminoles at any point of any game — offense, defense or special teams.

If he's right, counting to 11 wins this season might not be so troublesome.

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