- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Even though Florida State was beaten by Clemson in its nationally televised opener at Memorial Stadium on Monday night, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden could still sleep with a clear conscience.
Because if one thing was crystal clear in the Tigers' 24-18 victory over Florida State, it was this: It wasn't Jeff Bowden's fault.
And after Clemson nearly squandered a three-touchdown lead against FSU, at least Papa Bowden knows his son, Tigers coach Tommy Bowden, took the first step in returning for another Bowden Bowl in 2008.
Florida State came into its season opener with grand visions of a quick fix. Jeff Bowden, the Seminoles' former offensive coordinator, resigned near the end of last year's 7-6 debacle. The last time the Seminoles lost six games in a season was 1976, Bobby Bowden's first season at the school, and the younger Bowden took much of the blame during the team's slide.
So Jeff Bowden quit to take pressure off his 77-year-old father, who had seemingly lost his grip on a program that used to set the standard in college football. The Seminoles won two national championships during the 1990s and lost only 13 games in 10 seasons. Since the start of the 2000 season, they've now lost 29 games.
After his son resigned, Bobby Bowden pulled out all stops. His program has never undergone such an extreme makeover, with five coaches either resigning or getting fired.
Florida State hired Jimbo Fisher, the hot, young offensive coordinator from LSU, and Rick Trickett, the weathered, fiery offensive line coach from West Virginia. Bowden returned to his roots and brought back Chuck Amato, his former linebackers coach, who was fired as NC State's coach after the 2006 season.
And Bowden hired two former FSU players to help pump new life into the program: receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey and running backs coach Dexter Carter.
But all the high-priced coaches in the world can't save Bowden's dynasty if FSU doesn't get more talented players.
If FSU learned anything Monday night it's that it no longer has the best players in the country. Heck, the Seminoles didn't even have the best players on the field against Clemson.
While tailback Antone Smith is a bruising, tough runner and quite possibly his team's best player, he's not nearly as good as Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller (nor are most other running backs in the country). FSU receivers Greg Carr and De'Cody Fagg look good getting off the bus, but they combined to catch three passes against the Tigers and rarely worked to get open.
Seminoles quarterback Drew Weatherford is in his third season as the team's starter. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper was starting his first college game. Harper was more effective, throwing for 160 yards with two touchdowns on 14-for-24 passing.
That's not to say Weatherford isn't FSU's best option under center. The junior is apparently the only dependable choice, because even after he spent most of the first half running for his life, Fisher stuck with him for the entire game.
Junior Xavier Lee, who battled Weatherford for the starting job in each of the last two seasons, never got off the bench.
Weatherford completed 17 of 34 passes for 142 yards with one touchdown. He was sacked five times behind an offensive line with two new starters.
"I'm very happy [with Weatherford]," Fisher said. "I didn't think Drew did many bad things. I thought he managed the game well. Did he play perfect? No. Did we win? No. But I didn't think what was happening was Drew's fault. If we had pulled him, we would have had to have pulled all 11 on offense."
The Seminoles might have considered doing exactly that during the first half. After Weatherford ran 22 yards for a first down on the very first play from scrimmage, FSU failed to gain another first down in the entire first half. The Seminoles' first eight possessions resulted in seven punts and a fumble.
"It was just the whole offense," Trickett said. "The line was missing assignments. The backs were going the wrong way. I've never been around a half of football like that. There wasn't a position that didn't go haywire."
The FSU defense had its share of problems, too. Even when FSU's offense struggled in recent seasons, the Seminoles could still count on their stingy defense. Not against Clemson. In the first half, the Seminoles missed tackles like former quarterback Chris Rix missed classes.
In the first quarter, Clemson tight end Brian Linthicum out-fought safety Roger Williams and linebacker Derek Nicholson for the Tigers' first touchdown.
Then Seminoles receiver Preston Parker lost a fumble at the FSU 24. After a five-yard penalty against Clemson, Davis ran 29 yards for a touchdown, nearly breaking safety Myron Rolle's ankles with a jaw-dropping move near the 20. Early in the second quarter, Harper threw a bubble screen to Aaron Kelly, who broke two more tackles while running for a 41-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
"When you don't block, nobody goes," Bobby Bowden said. "When you don't tackle, everything goes the other way. I don't know what happened. It was the most inept we've been since I can remember, offensively and defensively. We didn't block and we didn't tackle. It's as simple as that."
Even after safety Roosevelt Lawson blocked a Clemson punt to give FSU the football at the Tigers' 20 with less than six minutes to go in the half, the Seminoles couldn't capitalize. They gained one yard on first down and another yard on second. On third down, linebacker Tramaine Billie blitzed from the edge, and Weatherford tried to throw the ball into the end zone. It was incomplete. FSU's Gary Cismesia kicked a 36-yard field goal to make it 21-3.
To Florida State's credit, it didn't quit in the second half, thanks to even more help from the Tigers. A snap sailed over the Tiger punter's head late in the third quarter, resulting in an FSU safety.
The Seminoles got the football back and turned a first-and-20 into a first down on Smith's 49-yard run to the Clemson 1. Smith scored on the next play, but FSU failed to score a two-point conversion, leaving the Tigers with a 24-11 lead.
Weatherford added a 15-yard touchdown pass to Richard Goodman on FSU's first possession of the fourth quarter, making it 24-18.
"All they had to do was relax and execute the offense," Trickett said. "They've got to get to where they trust each other out there."
Weatherford might have a difficult time trusting his offensive line anytime soon. The Seminoles twice took possession in the final four minutes with a chance to win the game, but the line couldn't protect the quarterback. He was sacked on fourth-and-10 at the Clemson 31 with less than 2½ minutes to go.
Then, after FSU took over at its 39 with 29 seconds to play, Weatherford was sacked on first down.
"If I could have fixed it, I would have fixed it," Fisher said. "We had six first-year starters who got a little starry-eyed."
At least FSU came away with a little bit of a silver lining.
"We played the worst half of football a team could possibly ever play and we still had a chance to win the game," Trickett said.
The Seminoles couldn't possibly play any worse.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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