Irish, Seminoles headed in different directions from a year ago

Updated: October 31, 2003, 8:41 PM ET

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A year ago, undefeated Notre Dame left Doak Campbell Stadium after a win over Florida State to cheers from a group of fans in green "Return to Glory" T-shirts.

The Seminoles left with back-to-back losses for the first time since 1991 and, two days later, quarterback Chris Rix was benched.

The Irish were rising, the Seminoles falling.

Times have changed.

The fifth-ranked Seminoles (7-1) head into Saturday's game at Notre Dame Stadium third in the Bowl Championship Series standings -- the same spot the Irish held after last year's game.

The Irish (2-5) are 4-8 since then and are double-digit underdogs in a game they need to win to avoid a three-game home losing streak for just the fifth time in school history.

So what happened?

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden concedes dissension was a problem with nine losses over two seasons.

"It seems like we went years and years and years without having that problem, then all of a sudden we did have it," he said. "Usually it's the result of getting beaten. People start looking for reasons and excuses. Our kids did that."

Bowden said the coaching staff worked on regaining team unity as soon as last season was over.

They corrected many other things as well. This time last season, the Seminoles were giving up 24.5 points a game. This season they are giving up just 12.1 points. With Rix back at quarterback, the Seminoles also are averaging 286 yards a game passing -- 65 yards more than last year.

Bowden said Rix learned from being benched. Instead of sulking and feeling sorry for himself -- or transferring -- he worked to win his job back.

"It's all a learning experience, and it's a learning experience that was good for him," Bowden said. "I think the kids probably needed that change, too."

The Seminoles weren't able to correct their problems until their season was over. Notre Dame is trying to fix things now.

They don't appear to have any dissension. No one is pointing fingers. But no one can put their finger on exactly what is wrong.

"You'd like to know what it is and then figure out how to attack that and get us back on the track we were on last year," Irish linebacker Courtney Watson said. "It's kind of hard to figure out now in the middle of the season when you're trying to get ready to go out and play the No. 5 team in the country."

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said he doesn't know why the Irish can't make the big plays they were making last season.

"I thought more than anything else our focus changed a little bit," he said. "Sometimes as you're climbing that ladder it's easy to reach up and grab that next rung. But sometimes when you appear to be at the top, you kind of get your focus misplaced."

The Irish have been unable to regain that focus.

"It's a fragile thing sometimes to keep a team moving always in the right track," Willingham said.

Bowden learned that last season. He's happy to be in the title hunt again, but he's not focusing on that.

Still, he's enjoying being in contention again.

"Having a loss, we couldn't have asked to be any better off than we are," Bowden said.

Walking off that field a year ago, the Irish couldn't have imagined being any worse off than they are now.

Headed in opposite directions again.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index