July 26, 2004 TALLAHASSEE When Florida State coach Bobby Bowden stops to ponder which single game may have had the greatest impact on the Seminoles' 12-year reign of terror in the ACC, he has plenty of choices. But the one that subtly shifted the league's power base came very early, in Florida State's second week as a member.
A 24-20 victory at Clemson on Sept. 12, 1992, did more than give the Seminoles an edge in the quest for their first ACC title. It established the changing of the guard, from the ACC's former preeminent football program to the new bully on the block.
A year later, FSU beat Clemson 57-0. The Tigers, who had won six ACC football championships in the 11 years preceding FSU's arrival, have yet to win a share of the crown since and didn't overcome the mental hurdle of scoring their first conference victory over the Seminoles until 2003.
FSU, meanwhile, has won or shared the ACC title 11 times. Even when it didn't finish first, in 2001, FSU's air of superiority played a role in a 52-31 victory over league champion Maryland.
That brings us to the new and improved ACC, and Florida State's season opener at Miami on Sept. 6.
Like Clemson 12 years ago, FSU suddenly is in danger of losing its place as the ACC's undisputed football heavyweight. Unlike Clemson, the Seminoles aren't likely to go without a league championship over the next 12 years, regardless of what happens on Sept. 6 at the Orange Bowl.
But there's plenty at stake for FSU and the 74-year-old Bowden, who will enter the 2004 season with perhaps his last great chance to win a national title.
On paper, the Seminoles appear to have an edge on Miami at nearly every position. What lurks beneath the helmets is another matter.
The distinct mental edge FSU has enjoyed on the rest of the ACC is nearly reversed when the Seminoles face long-time rival Miami. The Hurricanes have won five consecutive games against FSU and have a well-established history of defeating the Seminoles when the stakes are the greatest.
With the exception of a five-year stretch from 1995-99, when Miami was struggling with the rot of the Dennis Erickson era and the subsequent NCAA probation and drastic scholarship reductions, FSU often has appeared mentally feeble against the Hurricanes.
Miami has handed FSU its only regular-season loss four times since 1987, a fact that helps account for the 5-2 advantage the Hurricanes enjoy over the Seminoles in national titles. The last time the rivals met in a season opener (they have played in early October throughout FSU's membership in the ACC), in 1988, the Seminoles entered with their first preseason No. 1 ranking and limped away with a 31-0 loss.
This time, there's no excuse.
Miami, because of the NFL draft, not probation, is once again down. At least, as down as the Hurricanes have been since the dark days of the post-Erickson era. UM clearly dropped a notch when quarterback Ken Dorsey graduated after the 2002 season and consecutive appearances in the BCS title game, but the team used amazing depth at other positions to help compensate for the spotty play of his replacement, Brock Berlin.
Now the draft has claimed Berlin's security blanket all-world tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. along with two other noted Seminole-killers, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and safety Sean Taylor.
In all, a record six Miami players were selected in the first round of April's draft. In addition to having only 12 starters back, Miami has just nine players with more than six games of starting experience, and its top returning tailback, Frank Gore, is coming off the second severe knee injury of his career. In addition, senior cornerback Antrel Rolle, expected to anchor UM's secondary and play the key role in defending FSU's top receivers, is questionable after his July arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer.
FSU also has some legal issues, after senior starting offensive guard Bobby Meeks was arrested for punching and kicking a police officer in Tallahassee. In a sorry gauge on the state of college football, the Seminoles (who have ample depth on the line) came out with the edge in the head-to-head comparison of felony resisting arrest charges.
Several Signs Point Toward Win
In the more traditional head-to-head comparisons, FSU also appears to enjoy an advantage.
In contrast with UM's attempt to reload after going 27-1 in the Big East since 2000, FSU has a fifth-year senior and four-year starter at quarterback in Chris Rix, an extremely gifted backfield led by tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker, and a solid offensive line featuring All-American candidate Alex Barron.
Nine of 11 starters return on offense for FSU, including the team's top receiver in Craphonso Thorpe. Though he suffered a severely broken leg against N.C. State on Nov. 15, Thorpe recently ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash in summer speed tests at FSU and has gained weight and muscle in his recovery.
Rix, through erratic decision-making, has demonstrated an inability to carry the Seminoles when he tries to do it alone. But he has enough talent around him and enough experience to finally know better, right?
The big test comes against Miami. Again.
After one of his worst performances last season during a regular-season loss to UM (two interceptions that led to UM touchdowns, including a 50-yard return for a score by Taylor, and a fumble to set up a field goal), Rix was placed on restrictions for the Orange Bowl rematch. Harnessed by a conservative game plan, Rix completed just six of 19 passes for 96 yards, and he still managed to throw his third interception of the year to Taylor. After a 52-yard first-quarter pass to set up a score, Rix threw for just 25 yards over the final three quarters. FSU finished with 10 first downs and 206 yards of total offense.
Most of that Miami defense is gone. Almost all of Rix's offense is back for a third shot at the Hurricanes in a 12-month span.
You're left to wonder what FSU's (and Rix's) mental state would be with yet another loss to UM on Sept. 6. The Seminoles, who likely will be in the preseason top five in the national rankings, not only will be left with the realization that their days of owning the ACC may be over, but also with the reality of a one-year quirk in scheduling that puts the loser of the season opener in double jeopardy.
Because there is no ACC championship game this year, and because of the head-to-head tiebreaker, the loser of the FSU-UM game essentially will be two games behind the winner in the league standings. Whichever team wins on Labor Day still may not run the table in the ACC, but it isn't likely to lose twice in the conference over the remaining seven league games. That makes it highly unlikely that FSU could overcome UM (or vice versa) with a season-opening loss, though a BCS at-large berth would remain a possibility.
In addition, FSU has the good fortune of not playing Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech in 2004, although the Seminoles must play at Maryland on Oct. 30. Miami does not face Maryland this fall.
When Rix walked off the field following the Orange Bowl loss in January, he optimistically expressed approval that FSU and Miami would meet again to open the 2004 season. The Seminole Nation is counting on him to finally make good against the Hurricanes. After all, far more than Rix's personal redemption is on the line for the Seminoles and their perch in the ACC football hierarchy.