Tenn., FSU pull off successful reverses

Losses inspired both to greater heights

January 04, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Tennessee and Florida State took different roads to get to tonight's national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium, yet each began from about the same place.

With crushing and embarrassing defeats.

For the top-ranked Volunteers, the motivation for the school's first 12-0 season began at last year's Orange Bowl, where Tennessee lost to Nebraska, 42-17. For the second-ranked Seminoles, it came from a 24-7 loss at North Carolina State in their second game of what became an 11-1 season.

"If we got to this kind of situation again, I didn't want our team just glad to be there," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said yesterday. "In spring practice, I didn't want people saying, `Peyton [Manning] is gone, Leonard [Little] is gone, Terry Fair is gone, woe is me.' I didn't want people to be happy going 8-3. I kept challenging our leadership."

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden found himself in the same situation after the Seminoles lost only their second Atlantic Coast Conference game, despite being more than three-touchdown favorites.

"We had a little heart-to-heart meeting the Monday after the game," recalled Bowden. "We don't meet on Mondays unless something is wrong. I told them they [the players] and we [the coaches] were trying to live off last year or the year before or the year before that. We came back to earth, and we got back to work."

The results for both teams have been obvious.

Through the work they did in the weight room during the spring and summer, the Volunteers became a stronger, better-conditioned team than ever before. They wound up winning several close games, in the waning seconds in the season opener at Syracuse and in overtime against Florida the next week. They also came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Arkansas and later Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Though the Seminoles wound up losing starting quarterback Chris Weinke to a season-ending neck injury, they became a more focused, more disciplined team than they were earlier in the season. They also wound up winning the remainder of their ACC games by an average of 29 points, beat their two biggest in-state rivals, Miami and Florida, then were invited to play here after UCLA and Kansas State lost the day before the bids were announced last month.

"I think both teams deserve to be here," said Bowden. "And whichever team wins will deserve to win the national championship."

Tonight's winner will automatically be declared national champion by those who vote in the USA Today/CNN poll of coaches, but the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters is not making such a guarantee. But based on what happened in the other bowl games -- UCLA lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, Kansas State lost to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl and Ohio State looked unimpressive beating Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl -- the same scenario seems likely here as well.

Tennessee appears to be carrying the same chip on its shoulder that it has been lugging around for months, beginning when it went to Syracuse ranked higher but not favored to beat the Orangemen on their home field. The Seminoles are 5 1/2-point favorites in this game, which has not gone unnoticed by the Volunteers.

"We're here to prove we can play a better game than we did against Mississippi State," said Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, whose status as a folk hero back in Knoxville might begin to approach Manning's if he leads the Volunteers to their first national championship since 1951. "Before one of our practices last week, we got together and yelled, `One two three underdog!"

Said Fulmer, whose low-key personalty has been overshadowed by Bowden's down-home charm: "We feel we have something to prove. We've certainly talked about it. We felt we had something to prove all season. We've found different ways to win. Hopefully, we'll find one more way."

The victory would give Bowden, 69, his second national championship, and put the Seminoles back on top of the rankings at the end of the season for the first time since 1993. But unlike their win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that season, a victory over the Volunteers would be more enjoyable for Bowden and his coaching staff.

"The way the first national championship happened, it was not a feeling of elation," said Bowden. "It was the fact that it got the monkey off our backs. If we win a second time, it will be more exciting."

Don't expect this Fiesta Bowl to be reminiscent of the last national championship game played here three years ago between Nebraska and Florida. That game was won by the Cornhuskers, 62-24. This one should be a lot closer. The biggest similarity is that it should be won by the team that has more success running the ball, yet is still capable of making big plays in the air.

"This will be a blocking and tackling game," said Bowden.

Though the pressure is not on Fulmer with quite the same intensity as it was on Bowden and Nebraska's Tom Osborne five years ago or on Florida's Steve Spurrier three years ago, it is there nonetheless. He is trying to emerge from the shadow of former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, who yesterday was quoted in a Knoxville newspaper saying that his former assistant helped push him out.

Asked if it is important for the Volunteers to win this year, considering how much they have coming back next year, Fulmer didn't blink.

"This is the pinnacle. This is what you fight for," he said. "This is this year. Next year, they'll pick us to win all our games and we might not. This is where all the marbles are being shot."

Fiesta Bowl No. 1 Tennessee (12-0) vs. No. 2 Florida State (11-1)

Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

When: Tonight, 8 p.m. TV: Chs. 2, 7

Line: Florida State by 5 1/2

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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