Though No. 5, Seminoles seek to recoup invincibility

`Embarrassing' 8-4 in '01 worst season since 1986

September 13, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Doak Campbell Stadium remains standing, though with all the yellow tape surrounding the place these days you'd think a serious crime had occurred at Florida State rather than a significant construction project.

Bobby Bowden is still coaching, though some fans might look at the 73-year-old legend with a little more skepticism now that the run of 14 straight seasons with at least 10 wins by the Seminoles ended last year with an 8-4 record.

The aftermath from Florida State's worst football season since 1986 and its first without a league title since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference a decade ago is being felt in one of the nation's premier Division I-A programs. Florida State's No. 15 final ranking last season marked the first time in that 14-year stretch that the Seminoles were lower than fifth.

Now, despite a 2-0 record and a No. 5 national ranking, the aura of invincibility is off the Seminoles heading into tomorrow's game against Maryland at Byrd Stadium.

"I think it's off as far as opponents are concerned; I think it's off as far as the ACC is concerned," Bowden said Wednesday on the ACC's weekly teleconference. "Our job is to re-establish it. We're goin' to try."

Asked this week if the Seminoles look better this year than a year ago, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said: "They look the same to me every year. I've being going against these guys for seven years. Their uniforms look the same, they've just got different people in them."

In a 38-31 season-opening win over Iowa State in Kansas City, Mo., the Seminoles showed some of the inconsistencies that beset them last year. Missed tackles. Botched pass routes. Big plays by the opposition.

Florida State was fortunate to win, holding on to a touchdown lead as the Cyclones drove to the FSU 1-yard line with four seconds to go before a final play failed. The Seminoles were better in their home opener, cruising to a 33-0 lead over Virginia and winning, 40-19.

"Guys are playing harder, more disciplined," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said here last week. "We got hungrier. It's so much different than last year. We took an 8-4 season like we went 0-11."

Said defensive end Alonzo Jackson: "Last year was embarrassing."

Given that Chris Rix was at quarterback - the first freshman to start at quarterback here for Bowden - most figured that Florida State would have trouble beating in-state rivals Miami and Florida.

But what about North Carolina and North Carolina State?

"We just weren't focused," Dockett said. "We felt sorry for ourselves after the third game [a 41-9 loss to North Carolina]. A couple of teams that weren't even better than us beat us. I guess it was inexperience. Everyone was young. There's no excuse for that this year."

If anything, the Seminoles are using last year's comeuppance as this season's reality check.

"You want to put it behind you, but we're humans with brains, so you don't forget," said Rix, who wound up as the ACC's Freshman of the Year, accounting for 3,213 yards while being ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency. "We're trying to not let what happened last year happen this year."

Last year's nightmare for the Seminoles began during conditioning drills before spring practice, when linebacker Devaughn Darling collapsed and died from an undetermined cause.

Aside from the emotional turmoil, the Seminoles were hit with the departure of quarterback Chris Weinke and several other players from the team that lost to Oklahoma for the 2000 national championship.

Bowden's veteran staff had already lost longtime quarterbacks coach Mark Richt, who became the head coach at Georgia and took longtime strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger with him.

"Experience was a factor," Rix said. "But we've got experience in every position now, even in the coaching positions. No more first-year guys anywhere. We just have to make sure to learn from last year and put our experience to use."

Rix had something of a coming-out party against the Terrapins last season. In a 52-31 victory, he threw a career-high five touchdown passes - three in the final 12:28 - to help the Seminoles pull away after Maryland had tied the score at 31.

Asked if he put too much pressure on himself last season, Rix said, "Honestly, I didn't try to put any on myself. There was enough on me from having to follow Chris Weinke to being the quarterback at Florida State, not letting the dynasty end.

"I tried to minimize it and stay as focused as possible. I could have done better, but I think I could have done a lot worse. The goal is to improve and be better than I was last year."

Rix has started slowly this season, with three interceptions and two touchdowns despite completing 27 of 43 passes for 367 yards.

Unlike the previous nine meetings against Maryland - Florida State has won all by an average of nearly 36 points a game - the Seminoles are taking the Terps seriously.

Something about the rings the Maryland players and coaches are wearing that seemed to be part of Florida State's private collection.

"Maryland was a good team last year. Maryland is a good team now," said Dockett, who went to high school in Burtonsville. "I'm not going to take that from them. We know what we have to do. Maryland is just in our way of accomplishing our goal."

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