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Orange Bowl ... And Beyond

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

Florida State (10-2) vs. Miami (10-2)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m., ABC

Double-Digit Win Total Signals Return Of Dynasty, With Pieces In Place For Another Title Run In 2004 December 15, 2003 TALLAHASSEE — Florida State won't have to wait until the 2004 season opener at Miami on Labor Day to find out if it has what it takes to mount a serious national championship run. The Seminoles' Orange Bowl date with the Hurricanes will provide Bobby Bowden with a fairly accurate reading, because you can't win a national championship without winning the state title in football-crazy Florida. That is something the Seminoles have failed to do since 1999, dropping four consecutive games against the Hurricanes.

While eventual Heisman-winning quarterback Chris Weinke was directing the offense for the first setback, Chris Rix has been at the wheel through the last three, with something less than a steady hand. Combining for nine turnovers in the 2001 and 2003 losses (he was error-free in the 28-27 setback in between), Rix is the only FSU quarterback ever to lose three games to Miami.

Should he extend that dubious streak to four with an Orange Bowl loss, it's hard to imagine him bouncing back with a win in Coral Gables in his very next start.

Is it unfair to put so much of a burden on Rix? No. Not with the Seminoles returning 10 offensive starters in 2004, and a wealth of play-making backups who should make them one of the nation's most prolific scoring teams. Not when — despite losing seven defensive starters — coordinator Mickey Andrews has re-established his long-standing tradition of building depth with an eye to the future, as he did this past
season.

“We want to be a winner,” Bowden said. “We want to play in a major bowl, and we like to fight for a national championship. Up until the 10th ballgame (this season), you had a chance. … We won 10 ballgames, in the top 10. There's so many things right now that point back to, ëWell, this is kind of like you were several years ago.' I'll be honest with you: Maintaining that is not the easiest thing in the world.”

Barring something completely unforeseen, Florida State likely will open the 2004 season as one of the favorites to win the title, probably along with this year's trio of one-loss wonders: Southern California, Louisiana State and Oklahoma. Also the odds-on favorite to lock up a 12th ACC title in 13 years, even with Miami and Virginia Tech in the fold, FSU probably will open the season with a top-five national ranking.

In many respects, that was this season's main goal: re-establishing FSU as one of the nation's perennial powers. The Seminoles (10-2, 7-1 ACC) were able to attain that goal via a number of small success stories, authored by many of the same characters responsible for nine losses over the previous two seasons.

Rix, in fact, was one of those. While his turnovers against Miami and his inaccuracy against Clemson — both losses — prevented FSU from throwing another wrench into the BCS computers, he showed as a redshirt junior that he's capable of more consistent play. His direction of come-from-behind wins against Georgia Tech and N.C. State, and his fourth-quarter heroics in a win at Florida, earned a previously undetectable level of respect from his teammates.

Respect. That is what Bowden demanded, and received, from his team in 2003. The internal bickering that splintered the 2002 season vanished. In its place rose leadership, much of it from a 12-player senior class adamant about getting the Seminoles back to the 10-win plateau that had become FSU's standard of measure.

This may have been one of Bowden's best coaching jobs. His reinstatement of the “Unity Council” gave players a channel to express their concerns through teammates, culled from every class. Along the way Bowden twice defused a potential quarterback flap and made himself more visible on the practice field than he had been in recent years.

In return, seniors Greg Jones, Kevin Emanuel, Stanford Samuels, Kendyll Pope, Michael Boulware, Jeff Womble and Darnell Dockett accepted roles as leaders and mentors, in some instances even as their playing time was being reduced. Outspoken types such as Samuels, Pope and Dockett managed to say all (or most) of the right things in the face of adversity. Dockett even regularly provided technical advice to FSU's young offensive linemen.

Off-field and discipline-related issues, which plagued the previous two seasons, failed to show up on the radar despite intense scrutiny. Though it's impossible to assign a win total to those differences, they meant far more than mere cosmetic changes.

The footings for the 2003 season were poured in the spring, with record turnouts for offseason conditioning and a healthy dose of spring practice repetitions for second-team players. That carried over through the summer months.

First-year linebackers coach Kevin Steele, with fresh thoughts from his most recent NFL (Carolina) and college (Baylor, Nebraska) experiences, meshed seamlessly with Andrews. Not only was he given latitude in play-calling, but by striking a chord with a young linebacker corps, he helped develop a group that is immediately ready to step in for departing starters Allen Augustin, Boulware and Pope.

It was not uncommon this fall for backups A.J. Nicholson, Sam McGrew and Ernie Sims to be fronting second-team defensive backs Leroy Smith and Pat Watkins in pivotal late-game situations. That's exactly the kind of on-the-job-training Andrews used with regularity throughout the 1990s but was forced to abandon because of a lack of quality depth over the past few seasons.

Offensively, coordinator Jeff Bowden took the usual heat, particularly in defeat. What went virtually unnoticed, however, was his ability to adapt — in almost all instances — his offense to the needs of the day. With an untested line growing up throughout the year, FSU sometimes turned to its rushing attack in late-game situations to eat the clock and sometimes stretched defenses east-west with a short passing approach. The long ball, with Rix to Craphonso Thorpe taking center stage, provided quick-strike punch. FSU even introduced its tight ends to the game plan, beyond blocking.

Some may say the Seminoles caved in with a chance to contend for the 2003 national title, that FSU had superior talent to Miami and Clemson. That may have been true, especially in the case of the Tigers. However, many players and fans were attempting to make that same argument during the previous 8-4 and 9-5 seasons, and that would have been far from the truth. Not only did the Seminoles lack the requisite depth in the previous two years, far too many of their most talented players lacked the maturity to handle adversity.

Both of those hurdles were cleared this past season, as Bowden appears to have rebuilt the foundation from the ground up. Perhaps the losses were part of the building process.

The Orange Bowl provides the Seminoles with an opportunity to test the strength of what they've built in the face of the Hurricanes. It's time to find out whether the craftsmanship is sturdy enough to support a capping title run.