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The Gator Bowl ... And Beyond

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

 

December 13, 2004

Legendary Bowden Staring At Important Crossroads After Disappointing Season, Historically Poor Offense TALLAHASSEE — When BCS aspirations come to an exasperating halt, you end up with a Jan. 1 Gator Bowl matchup between Florida State and West Virginia. As final destinations go, the Seminoles and the Mountaineers should feel fortunate. No two teams fell further short of their mark, or their ability.

For Florida State, a season-ending game at Alltel Stadium will complete a circuitous four-year run that began with a Gator Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in the 2002 game. Fitting, isn't it, that the Hokies — in their first season of ACC play — recently supplanted the Seminoles as the league's reigning champion.

Coach Bobby Bowden's 29th FSU football team provided a maddening microcosm of what has transpired over the past four seasons, which have coincided with quarterback Chris Rix's run as the predominant starter and Jeff Bowden's tenure as offensive coordinator.

Offensive inconsistency hit a new low in 2004. Lacking identity and the ability to execute, the Seminoles were a shell of the program that just five seasons ago was the best in the nation. FSU averaged a meager 24.7 points and 364.7 yards per game, program lows dating to the 1981 6-5 team. That was the last time FSU failed to average at least 30 points and 380 yards a game.

"It's funny how teams develop characteristics," Bobby Bowden said. "This team's characteristic was different from any I can remember."

Bowden was specifically addressing FSU's first-half offensive ineptitude, which failed to produce a touchdown before intermission six times. He just as well could have been talking about all 60 minutes.

While Bowden has vowed that he will not discuss potential staff changes, they appear imminent, though they won't take place until after the Gator Bowl.

Surely, changes are in order on offense. With nine starters returning when the team opened camp in August, FSU figured to have one of its most prolific offenses since the departure of Chris Weinke, perhaps good enough to challenge for a national title.

Of course, much of that optimism was based on the anticipation that Rix finally would put it all together in his senior season. He didn't. Rix turned the ball over three times in the season-opening loss at Miami — FSU's sixth (and Rix's fifth) in a row against the Hurricanes — which put the Seminoles in catch-up mode all season.

Right down to the final week of their season, the Seminoles still were positioned to claim the ACC's BCS berth. A stunning 20-13 loss to Florida in the finale — the first at home to the Gators since 1986 — eliminated the possibility before Virginia Tech put a wrap on its outright title.

An ankle injury to Rix in the opening quarter of the third game against Clemson forced sophomore Wyatt Sexton into the starting quarterback role. Predictably, Sexton was either solid or inconsistent, about what most would expect for a first-time starter. Injuries on the line — guard Matt Meinrod was lost for the year in the opener, and center David Castillo battled injuries throughout (again) — further affected execution.

Ineffective play at wide receiver, an area of perceived strength in the preseason, also impacted the Seminoles. Senior Craphonso Thorpe, arguably the ACC's top returning pass-catcher, played with the tentativeness of a guy coming off a broken leg who may have been protecting his NFL future. Aside from senior Chauncey Stovall, no other receiver stepped to the fore. A season-long nagging hamstring injury to Willie Reid appeared to be a factor, but in hindsight it was a unit that lacked field-stretching speed.

That combination of shortcomings contributed to FSU ranking last of 117 Division I-A programs in third-down conversions (22 percent). Couple that figure with the Seminoles' 23-year low average of 5.1 yards per play, plus an erratic kicking game, and you have the perfect recipe for offensive struggles.

If not for one of the best units that defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews has assembled, the 8-3 Seminoles easily could have been 6-5 (or worse).

Entering the Gator Bowl showdown, the larger question is where do the Seminoles go from here. It's a question the program should have been pondering for some time, given its relative struggles over the last four seasons.

It seems clear that Andrews, with the help of second-year linebackers coach Kevin Steele, has brought the defense back up to championship-contending status. They've done it with an infusion of fresh ideas and by returning to the long-standing tradition of building depth through substitution. Barring any surprise entries into the NFL draft, the defense should be stout for another title run when next season opens at home against Miami.

Offensively, however, there are many questions. Before the Seminoles begin spring practice, they must develop an identity that they will be willing to stick with and nurture. In their best seasons, FSU featured a wide-open attack, stretching defenses with the passing game while providing backs with ample lanes to run, often from the shotgun.

Selecting the quarterback to trigger that attack will be critical. Sexton, a pocket passer who has shown poise and a deft touch, is one option. But what about talented freshmen Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee? In short, the coaching staff has no idea whether either of the youngsters will be ready to challenge Sexton, whom Bobby Bowden already has anointed the likely starter.

The fact is, there are more offensive uncertainties ahead for the program. Not only did the group of returnees underachieve, there are questions about the physical ability at some positions, in part because of their lack of exposure.

There isn't a single returning receiver who is ready to accept the go-to role on the squad, and the coaching staff bears some of the responsibility for that predicament as well. Seniors Stovall, Thorpe and Dominic Robinson combined for 101 of the team's 199 receptions. There are questions up front as well, particularly at tackle, where All-American Alex Barron and three-year starter Ray Willis must be replaced. Those are team-wide issues that extend to other positions, where true freshmen such as tailbacks Lamar Lewis and Jamaal Edwards and receivers Joslin Shaw, Robert Hallback and Kenny O'Neal got little or no work in 2004.

Perhaps must troubling of all, the Seminoles will not look at the Gator Bowl as an opportunity to build for the future. Rix will start at quarterback, and the status quo will remain at the other offensive spots that will be up for grabs next season.

Change is in the air for FSU, but for the first time since Bowden's early days, there's a pervading sentiment among usually optimistic fans that it might not be for the better.

Florida State Departing Players

Starters (13)

OT Alex Barron, PK Xavier Beitia, RV Jerome Carter, DE Chauncey Davis, TE Paul Irons, DT Travis Johnson, CB Bryant McFadden, OG Bobby Meeks, DE Eric Moore, CB Leroy Smith, WR Chauncey Stovall, WR Craphonso Thorpe, OT Ray Willis

Other Contributors

DT Charles Howard, RV Claudius Osei, LB Ray Piquion, QB Chris Rix, WR Dominic Robinson, OL Brian Ross, FS B.J. Ward

2005 Returning Starters

Offense (5)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2005 Class
QB Wyatt Sexton 6-3/206 Jr.
RB Leon Washington 5-9/202 Sr.
FB B.J. Dean 5-11/258 Sr.
OG Cory Niblock 6-4/301 Jr.
OC David Castillo 6-2/304 Sr.

Defense (5)

DT Brodrick Bunkley 6-3/291 Sr.
LB A.J. Nicholson 6-2/235 Sr.
LB Buster Davis 5-11/248 Jr.
LB Ernie Sims 6-0/220 Jr.
FS Pat Watkins 6-4/204 Sr.

Special Teams (1)

P Chris Hall 5-10/220 Sr.

Other Tested Returnees

Offense

RB Lorenzo Booker, TE Donnie Carter, PK Gary Cismesia, FB James Coleman, WR Chris Davis, OC John Frady, TE Matt Henshaw, DS Myles Hodish, OG Ron Lunford, OG Matt Meinrod, WR Willie Reid

Defense

LB Marcello Church, CB Antonio Cromartie, DT Clifton Dickson, RV Kyler Hall, DE Willie Jones, LB Sam McGrew, CB Gerard Ross, DB Roger Williams, DE Kamerion Wimbley

Projected 2005 Strengths

He finished only fourth in the recent All-ACC voting at tailback, but no skill player in the conference did more for his team this season than Washington, who breaks tackles and gets yards after contact as well as anyone. The FSU defense was far better against the run in 2004 than any team in the league, and the outstanding linebacker trio of Davis, Nicholson and Sims will return intact. Watkins and Cromartie offer outstanding building blocks in the secondary. It's frightening to say or write anything positive about the placekicking situation in Tallahassee, for fear of hauntings, but Cismesia's impressive practice results and late-season debut provided a reasonable basis for hope. At some point, the Seminoles' mostly outstanding recruiting classes over the last several years have to start showing up on the field eventually. Finally, Bobby Bowden's the winningest Division I-A coach in history for a reason, right?

Projected 2005 Questions

Looking at the large and talented departing senior class above, a group that will draw plenty of interest from the NFL this spring, two questions come immediately to mind: (1) How in the world did FSU finish only 8-3 this season? (2) Why should anyone believe the Seminoles will do a whole lot better next year without them? Other questions heading toward 2005: Will the long-rumored staff shake-up actually occur, and if so can Bowden still attract elite assistants at this stage of his career? Will the offense ever get back to its pass-happy ways? Can either Drew Weatherford or Xavier Lee challenge the underwhelming Sexton for the starting QB job? Can the team actually improve in the new ACC while rebuilding both lines, the receiving corps and the secondary?

CHART BY: EDITOR DAVE GLENN