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Updated: August 14, 2003, 3:23 PM ET

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Time is running out for Bobby Bowden, who wants a third national title -- and maybe more -- before he leaves coaching.

Bowden, nearing his 74th birthday, has two championship rings as he prepares for his 28th season at Florida State. But after two subpar seasons, Bowden and Florida State move into a pivotal year as they try to rebound as one of the nation's pre-eminent collegiate football powers.

Nine losses in the last two seasons created doubt among the Florida State faithful and hope at other Atlantic Coast Conference schools tired of watching the Seminoles run roughshod over the league. FSU has won 83 of 88 ACC games and conference titles in 10 of the last 11 years.

Last season, Bowden says, was the most unpleasant of his career. The Seminoles won the ACC, a berth in a Bowl Championship Series bowl, but were a mortal 9-5 and just 2-4 in nonconference games.

Bowden benched quarterback Chris Rix after an October loss to Notre Dame for a variety of reasons -- poor decision-making on the field, skipping classes and showing up late for team meetings.

Rix was followed by Adrian McPherson, whom Bowden kicked off the team after the player allegedly stole a check from a business owned by a prominent booster. That investigation led to Bowden's appearance at McPherson's gambling trial that ended in a mistrial.

McPherson and the state finally agreed on a plea offer combining the gambling case with two others involving the stolen check as well as several bad checks the player had written.

"Anytime you had the distractions we had last year, you just say, 'Golly, I'm so glad when this is over and we can start anew,' and that's where it is right now," Bowden said. "I still love putting the puzzle together."

Bowden heads into his 38th year as a head coach with 332 career victories -- just four behind Penn State's Joe Paterno, who ranks No. 1 all-time in Division I-A.

And Bowden, who earns nearly $2 million a year, has no thoughts, NONE, about retiring soon.

And neither does university President T.K. Wetherell, who played under then-assistant coach Bobby Bowden at Florida State in the mid-1960s.

"He's more focused than I've seen him the last 10 or 15 years," Wetherell said. "He's still Bobby Bowden."

A demanding schedule aside, Bowden believes he has the talent to challenge for a third national title. FSU won titles in 1993 and 1999. Colorado and Notre Dame join regulars Florida and Miami on the nonconference schedule besides an increasingly difficult ACC slate, punctuated by a Nov. 15 league finale against North Carolina State -- which owns three of the ACC's five wins against the Seminoles.

Although he is by nature far more of an offensive coach, Bowden believes titles are won with defense. He has 10 starters back on the defensive unit, including six seniors. The group is led by senior linebackers Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope and a senior-dominated line anchored by tackle Darnell Dockett. The question on defense is in the secondary, which has not distinguished itself in recent seasons.

Highly touted freshman linebacker Ernie Sims -- whom Bowden calls a larger version of one-time Seminole All American Derrick Brooks -- is expected to begin the season on special teams.

The offense will likely reflect the talented, but enigmatic Rix, who is entering his junior season. If Rix falters, junior Fabian Walker is healthy after shoulder surgery during the winter.

Rix was suspended for the Sugar Bowl after oversleeping and missing a final exam. He is still trying to blend his aloofness and talent into a formula his teammates can respond to.

To help, Bowden has resurrected something he calls a "unity council" designed to defuse potential problems. Thirteen players comprise the panel.

On the field, the Seminoles will begin the year with riches in the backfield and questions at receiver.

Tailback Greg Jones is back after season-ending knee surgery a year ago, trimmed down a dozen pounds or so to about 235. He'll get plenty of help from sophomore Leon Washington and redshirt freshman Lorenzo Booker, the talk of the spring season who is already drawing comparisons to former Seminole great Warrick Dunn.

Despite missing the final five games of the season, Jones ran for 938 yards, including a career-high 189 at Miami. Washington, who might just be the Seminoles' best football player, produced 1,067 all-purpose yards along with 11 tackles on special teams play as a true freshman last season.

ACC sprint champion Craphanso Thorpe averaged 22.2 yards a catch last season, but has only 32 career catches -- the most of any returning receiver. Speedsters Willie Reid and Chris Davis and juniors P.K. Sam, Dominic Robinson and Chauncey Stovall add options in the throwing game along with Booker out of the backfield.

And it'll all hinge largely on the success of a young, inexperienced offensive line where tackles Alex Barron and Ray Willis are being counted on to lead the way. Junior kicking specialist Xavier Beitia, who has made 32 of 42 field goal tries and scored 191 points, dropped 25 pounds in the offseason and has boomed the ball in practice.

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