FSU still in the national title picture

Originally Published: October 30, 2003
By Doug Carlson | Special to ESPN.com

The last time Florida State coach Bobby Bowden took a team to South Bend, he did everything he could to keep his players from believing in ghosts. He avoided all discussion of Notre Dame football history, fearing he might unwittingly plant seeds of doubt. Didn't matter.

"I was trying to downplay the tradition of Notre Dame so my kids wouldn't be scared to death and, uh, it backfired,'' Bowden said, able to laugh about it now. "We learned: don't play around with their tradition -- it's there.''

When fifth-ranked Florida State returns to South Bend on Saturday to face a Fighting Irish team already beaten five times this season, Bowden isn't holding back on the history, modern or otherwise.

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  • He figures there must be a lesson in there somewhere for the Seminoles, who have risen from the depths of a washout loss to Miami on Oct. 11 and are once again a part of the national championship picture.

    Most of his current players weren't paying attention when No. 2 Notre Dame knocked off No. 1-ranked Florida State on Nov. 13, 1993. Bowden remembers the feeling of despair after that game, and how it quickly reversed when Notre Dame lost a week later to Boston College, clearing the way for FSU's first national title.

    For more recent history, Bowden has reminded his players that FSU reached the BCS championship game in '98 despite a September loss to unranked North Carolina State and in '00 despite an October loss to seventh-ranked Miami.

    "The kids know where they stand,'' Bowden said. "As long as you only lost one you're in the hunt. So we're in the hunt with six, seven, eight, nine other teams.''

    Notre Dame hasn't defeated a team ranked as high as No. 5 since beating fifth-ranked Michigan in the season opener in '98. During a difficult season in which the Fighting Irish will be pressed to qualify for a bowl game, Florida State presents an attractive opportunity.

    "Well, we're lucky that our schedule at this time of the year gives us that opportunity,'' Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said. "We have got a great football team coming in here that gives us an opportunity to be the spoiler.

    "We can knock off Florida State. We have got to play consistent. We have got to execute. We can't have lulls because Florida State, from what I have seen this year, doesn't have lulls.''

    Ah, but the Seminoles have memories.

    A year ago, the pluck of the Irish produced three FSU turnovers that led to 17 Notre Dame points in a span of 2:21 of the third quarter.

    After watching his team -- a double-digit favorite -- implode against Notre Dame's pressure, Bowden opted to bench quarterback Chris Rix, who was responsible for two of the turnovers, in favor of backup Adrian McPherson. The rest is history Bowden would just as soon forget.

    After spending parts of the preseason answering -- often with a red face -- questions about whether or not he'd lost his grip, Bowden has restored order and has the Seminoles at No. 3 in the current BCS standings.

    Barely more than a week before his 74th birthday, Bowden is the reigning career victories leader in major college football and he's four regular-season games away from an 11-1 season.

    "The main thing is after the season was over last year ... our first goal was to get the unity back. We stressed it and our kids were ready. They saw where we had done wrong as a staff and as a team and they corrected it. And now we've gotten better results,'' Bowden said.

    Which helps explain why the loss to Miami didn't cause the kind of internal fighting that a loss to Notre Dame helped create a year ago.

    "That's been the whole difference between this year and last,'' senior linebacker Michael Boulware said. "We're a team. We're together.''

    Bowden might feel a whole lot better about it, if only he didn't carry so much awe about Notre Dame's past, much of it culled from his youth, when he listened to Fighting Irish games on the radio nearly every weekend.

    "I'm aware of the tradition of Notre Dame,'' Bowden said. "I guess that's what scares me as much as anything -- knowing what they've done through the years and knowing what they're capable of.''

    Doug Carlson covers college football for the Tampa Tribune.