Florida State ready to ride high again
Seminoles' rebound looks complete -- and feels right this time
Can you hear it?
The rhythmic roar being carried in on the warm northwest Florida wind, I hadn’t heard it in more than a decade, but the faint echoes crept into my ears once more on Saturday night. It’s a sound – 80,000 people, all yearning for the win, all so certain it will come quickly, chanting in unison – that once evoked fear and respect.
For decades, it wafted out of Doak Campbell Stadium, crept past the Tallahassee city limits and rattled eardrums in the swamps of the SEC, the plains of the Big Ten and along the sparkling shores of the Pac-12.
However, the chant’s strength waned. The sight of thousands chopping their arms in unison no longer intimidated; the fear and respect faded. First it fell to a whisper. Then silence.
But as the vice closed around Clemson on Saturday night, as Florida State turned a competitive game into a showcase, turned the most important ACC contest in recent memory into a 49-37 win, that sound, that chant, crested again; it meant something once more.
Under the stewardship of Bobby Bowden—once again the winningest coach in college football history – the Seminoles were college football’s enduring symbol of dominance. Florida State finished 14 consecutive seasons – from 1987 to 2000 – ranked in the top five of the coaches’ poll. Other elite programs can only fantasize about such unyielding success.
In those 14 years, a trip to Tallahassee almost always meant lining up against one of the nation’s most talented teams. A trip there at night, when that chant was carried out in full throat, when water could boil from the pressure on the field, likely meant you were coming home with bruised bodies, bruised egos and a bruised record.
Then, as all titans do, Bowden lingered, unwilling to give up those Tallahassee nights in his old age. But they escaped him nonetheless. The horde of teams that had long been clutching at the Seminoles’ heels from below finally secured a firm grasp and pulled Florida State down into mediocrity. There they remained for a decade, falling to programs like Boston College, Maryland, Wake Forest and NC State, teams they once throttled.
Jimbo Fisher was the man tasked with pulling the Seminoles out of the morass. Until Saturday night, he hadn’t. Then after four quarters, 49 points, 667 yards of offense and holding one of the nation’s top offenses to 3.6 yards-per-carry, he had.
Through the first half, the Seminoles, built around a defense that now stands sixth in the nation in points allowed, were asked to try their hand at sprinting by the track team that Dabo Swinney brought down from Clemson. Florida State’s offense, a decade-long question mark, finally found its answer. E.J. Manuel threw for 380 yards, two scores and only eight of his 35 passes fell incomplete. But through two-and-a-half quarters it looked like Swinney’s speed merchants would be able to match blows with the Seminoles; that Florida State, despite the No. 4 ranking, still wasn’t Florida State again, but that, this season, it might still become Florida State again.
But that defense, which had nearly let the scoreboard explode above it, finally cut the fuse. Like a vice, it gradually squeezed all of that speed, all of ferocious athleticism out of the Tigers. Clemson went scoreless for 20 minutes in the second half. In that span, the Seminoles turned a 10-point deficit into an 18-point advantage. By the fourth quarter, the arsenal that Dabo toted down to Tallahassee had been disassembled, hit by hit, play by play until it was in unrecognizable pieces of something once so splendid and efficient.
And all the while, that chop, that chant, reverberated through the stadium. The roars rose with every tackle in the backfield, every batted ball, every long sprint toward the end zone. It floated out into the heavy Florida air and wafted into locker rooms and campuses nationwide.
Now, that echo in the night is no mere memory. Can you hear it?
It’s Friday night. You’re dead tired from a tough week at the office playing on Facebook, er, I mean, "working." You can either, A) be 25 minutes late for your downtown reservation at an overpriced restaurant with impossibly small portions and a one-word name like ‘Bon’ or ‘Flash’ because you’ve been hearing exclamations like “that purse just doesn’t work with my dress” for half-an-hour or B) stay home and order Chinese food with enough delicious MSG to make your heart palpitate.
If you went with B last Friday, you weren’t disappointed. No, not because of the delectable sesame sauce. Staying home meant you watched Louisiana-Monroe and Baylor play out a real-life vidja game on your TV. The teams combined for 1,109 yards of total offense in a game that saw four second-half lead changes. Delicious drama! (Did Bill Raftery just write that?) ULM’s Cinderella story fell a bit flat -- down there, glass is reserved for Tabasco bottles, not slippers -- but they took part in a third-consecutive thriller against a big-name opponent. Nick “I have to replace RGIII?” Florence has played exquisitely for the Bears through three games. He threw for 351 yards and four scores in this one, pushing him beyond 1,000 yards already this season and helping nudge Baylor’s winning streak to an impressive – and unheralded – nine games.
The navy shirt with the gold “GT” and buffalo stains on it that I mentioned last week? Yeah, it’s going back in the drawer. (I even washed it before the game…well, my girlfriend did, thanks darlin’.) Georgia Tech and Miami (Fla.) squared off in what might’ve been the most exciting, or perhaps confusing is the more apt term, game of the week. Miami jumped out to a 19-0 lead. The Jackets countered with 36 unanswered. Then the Hurricanes stormed back with 17 consecutive points of their own in the second-half and added 18, 19, and 20 with the game-winning field goal in overtime. Tech got the ball first in OT and went for it on fourth-and-1 at the 2. But Tevin Washington was bottled up at the line on a QB sneak. Extra stuffing! (Get out of my head, Raftery.) I love the gutsy play call, just not the result. Miami sneakily improved to 3-1 and Tech suffered its second conference loss. Until next year, navy shirt; hopefully you’ll still fit.
So what’s the biggest story from South Carolina’s 31-10 win against Missouri? Was it the Ace Sanders punt return where he zig-zagged his way through congestion like he was made of pixels? (I seriously didn’t know Frogger had dreadlocks.) Nope.
Was it Missouri losing by double-digits once again in its new conference? Naw. Was it Marcus Lattimore setting the South Carolina school record for rushing touchdowns despite missing a year with a torn ACL? Wrong again.
This one was all about Connor Shaw. After misfiring on his first attempt, the junior quarterback connected on 20 consecutive passes through the remainder of the game, second-most in SEC history. They weren’t dinks-and-dunks either – Shaw posted 11.9 yards-per-attempt. It seems the shoulder that forced him to miss a game-and-a-half is just fine. The Ol’ Ball Coach – famously averse to complementing men under center – even went as far as to splice a little praise into his usual criticism. “He got off to a slow start,” quoth the OBC. “He missed his first one I think, but he was sensational.”
Michigan State, presumably one of the two best teams in the Big Ten, was trailing Eastern Michigan for more than a half on Saturday. If you’re Michigan State and things start going poorly, what do you do? Pound the rock. Then continue pounding. Did I say stop? No, I didn’t. Don’t stop handing the ball off to big No. 24 in the backfield. I don’t care if your arm is tired from all those handoffs and pitches. I don’t care if there are 14 men in the box. Pound the rock. Le’Veon Bell started the second half with five consecutive carries. He toted the ball 10 times in the fourth quarter. The Spartans didn’t take the lead until a minute remained in the third, but Bell was the bright spot. In all, he had 36 carries for 253 yards and score. Somewhere, Jerome Bettis is smiling. Oh, and Bell also was called on to return three punts, because, why not? He’s averaging more than 32-touches per game so far this season. In related news, his unborn grandchildren are already developing knee tendonitis.
Coaches, and especially the fans down south, don’t want to hear about “good losses” or “moral victories” or “water breaks”, but Auburn’s 12-10 home defeat against LSU may have counted as a dreaded moral victory/good loss (and I think I saw a few players indulge in a sip of water). After a sloppy loss to Mississippi State and a sloppy victory against Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn fans were likely dreading the specter of Barkevious Mingo making himself – and a few dozen of his biggest friends – comfortable for a few hours on Saturday evening. Well, surprisingly, the nation’s No. 2 team, never got the chance to make itself at home. It was the type of hard-nosed SEC West showdown we’ve become accustomed to in recent years – the two teams combined for only 24 first downs and fewer than 300 passing yards. Nine LSU penalties for 80 yards kept this one close, but “good job, good effort,” Auburn.
With Alabama dominating, Arkansas struggling, Auburn shrugging and South Carolina Spurriering, Georgia has gone largely forgotten this year. It beat Vanderbilt this week. “So what?” you say. “The Dawgs have beaten Vanderbilt 17 of the past 18 times they’ve met.” Well, this isn’t your uncle’s Vanderbilt team – the Commodores are fielding a lot more talent than in years past. And the Bulldogs didn’t just beat this new-and-improved Vandy squad, they knocked it off 48-3. Keep in mind that this is the same Vanderbilt team that nearly knocked off South Carolina in the season-opener a month ago. There may be a monster lurking in Athens this season.
Hey, at least I got half of it right. In last week’s preview column, I noted that Arizona’s defense would prove to be the first true test that Oregon faced all year and that it might take a half for the Ducks to shake off the rust that can build when you’re busy running track against lesser foes (De’Anthony Thomas entered Saturday’s game averaging a measly 17.54 yards-per-carry). The Wildcats slowed the blur down enough that Oregon players were almost plainly visible (do they all have wings, or was I seeing things?) in the first half. The Ducks only mustered 13 first-half points, the fewest points in half they’ve scored since Britney Spears was relevant. In the second half, the Oregon fixed the warp drive and tacked on 35, including a pair of interception returns. The part I was half-wrong about? That Arizona would be a good early test for Oregon. The Wildcats entered the game with the nation’s 13th-ranked scoring offense, averaging more than 46 points-per-game. Well, that average took a hit in Eugene – Arizona got shut out and had five turnovers. Still a long way to go for Rich Rod turning this program around, but they’re finally pointed in the right direction. And Oregon emerged as the Pac-12 favorite and with this season’s award for most tasteful use of chrome on a uniform.
Not much you need to know about Notre Dame-Michigan other than this: Five consecutive Michigan pass attempts were picked off by Notre Dame defenders on Saturday. Yes, five in a row. Four of those came from (former?) Heisman candidate Denard Robinson, who was responsible for approximately 147 percent of Michigan’s offense coming into this one. This is one of the strongest teams in gold helmets since Lou Holtz was meandering up and down the sidelines, but the Irish have to run an SEC-esque gauntlet the rest of the way. Games with Stanford, Oklahoma and USC loom. They’re not going to emerge from this season undefeated, but they’ve already garnered back much of the respect they lost post-Holtz.
Welcome back, Mr. Burkhead. Nebraska’s primary ground threat returned to action after missing a pair of games with a sprained knee. The powerful senior back only got to test out the failed joint eight times against Idaho State, but he made each one count, going for 119 yards and a pair of scores. This one was expected to be a romp, but the Huskers may have exceeded even the loftiest of expectations in the 73-7 win. After a bad loss at UCLA, the Huskers needed to prove they were dominant when healthy. The Big Ten is wide open this year and the health of Burkhead’s knee, and his ability to trust it, will be key as they prepare to enter conference play.
Prius salesmen don’t go for two. And, in name alone, you know that a man named Bronco Mendenhall is no Prius salesman. After 59 minutes of sheer monotony, the Boise State-BYU game got interesting. BYU scored what seemed to be the tying touchdown with 3:37 left, nudging the score up to 7-6. Rather than subject America to overtime, Mendenhall went for the win. Onions! (Yep, Raftery is still there.) On the attempt, quarterback Taysom Hill was flushed from the pocket by defensive tackle Michael Atkinson – who had scored Boise’s only touchdown of the game on a 36-yard interception return (I told you it was drudgery) – and fired incomplete into the end zone. A few kneeldowns later, and Boise escaped with a win. Still, kudos to Bronco for going for it. I like the aggression, as did the five people still up watching who, mercifully, were allowed to fall asleep.
I was fully aboard the UCLA bandwagon throughout its surprising start under Jim Mora Jr. (See, I told you I’d add the “Jr.” back if it was warranted). The Bruins had their first conference test against those pesky Beavers on Saturday. It didn’t go well, especially with a half-empty stadium as a bad sign early for the Bruins. A worse sign? Trailing 17-3 midway through the second quarter. UCLA tried to make a game of it late, but couldn’t pull any closer than seven. Oregon State has now knocked off Wisconsin and UCLA early; seemingly no game in the Pac-12 is easy this year.
West Virginia came into the weekend third in the nation in total offense, averaging 1,836-feet of offense per-game (You do the math, it’ll be good for you.) Maryland held the Mountaineers to a “mere” 363 yards. Good showing by a Maryland team that’s embarking on its second year of a serious rebuilding phase under Randy Edsall. While the 31-21 final doesn’t look too significant, this one was knotted up at 14 midway through the third quarter – a big surprise given preseason expectations of both teams. In my mind, Maryland’s success in this one can be traced to the decision to wear tasteful, all-white uniforms and helmets rather than draping itself in impressionist renditions of the state flag as they’ve been known to do.
Ladies and gentlemen (Are there any ladies reading this? If so, I’m very sorry.), it’s time for our first (and only) annual Chippewas mention. For the uninitiated, the Chippewas hail from Central Michigan. They play football. They are not to be taken lightly. Iowa learned that the hard way on Saturday, yielding nine points to Central Michigan in the game’s final 45 seconds. Touchdown, failed two point conversion, onside kick, 47-yard field goal, ballgame. This upset didn’t get much fanfare on a day jam-packed with quality games among ranked teams, but it was a thriller nonetheless. Good win, Chippewas. (Did I botch the spelling? I had to have botched the spelling.)
Not since the days when Greg Schiano was chopping wood in New Jersey has Rutgers made this much noise. On Saturday, they traveled west and knocked off an SEC team. Yes, Arkansas is struggling this season in the wake of Bobby Petrino’s departure, but beating a team with that type of talent, and doing so on the road, is no small feat. Tyler Wilson was back for this one after missing the blowout against Alabama. He threw for 419 yards, but doesn’t play on both sides of the ball. The Hogs’ defense yielded a career-best 397 yards and five touchdowns to Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova. The Scarlet Knights improved to 4-0 on the season and look primed to chop through the Big East all season long.
Is Kansas State the class of the Big 12? Geno Smith may have something to say about that, but West Virginia hasn’t knocked off a top-10 team. Kansas State has. The Wildcats led for nearly the entire second half against Oklahoma. The biggest surprise here wasn’t the K-State road win, but that quarterback Collin Klein didn’t have to be a one-man show to carry the Wildcats to victory. He proved a solid diversion, as junior running back John Hubert ate up 130 yards on the ground. Send it home, John! (Okay, I’ll stop.) Klein added 79 of his own. The Wildcats dominance on the ground was the key to victory – it chewed up clock and kept Oklahoma’s potent offense off of the field. K-State had the ball for nearly 35 minutes; we’ll see how long the Wildcats can hold on to their new spot in the national title discussion.
1. Northwestern is 4-0. No, I didn’t stutter. Northwestern is 4-0. The Wildcats 38-7 win against South Dakota was the easiest of the season. They’ve won games against teams from the SEC (Vanderbilt), ACC (Boston College) and Big East (Syracuse). None of those opponents make you tremble, but the Wildcats of your three-time local Emmy nominated broadcast journalist aunt’s day certainly wouldn’t have emerged from that stretch unscathed. Given the struggles of alleged Big Ten powers this year, Northwestern picked a great season to field one of its best teams in quite some time. The Wildcats Big Ten schedule gets started next week against Indiana and they avoid having to play Ohio State this year. Given how the two teams from Michigan struggled this week Northwestern might have a say in who captures the Big Ten Legends division.
2. Time to get to know the Mid-American Conference. It was established in 1946. It sends teams to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the GoDaddy.com Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. By November, it’s just irrationally cold at every campus in the conference – the southernmost school in the conference is in tropical Miami (that’d be Ohio). Why do you need to know all of this? Because the MAC could soon be our college football overlords. On Saturday, Central Michigan bested Iowa, Eastern Michigan led Michigan State for much of the game, Western Michigan knocked off Connecticut, Northern Illinois rocked the Jayhawks, Ball State beat South Florida and Akron threw up 26 points on the road against an SEC defense. Saturday will be a day in MAC lore forever etched in snow, although with a few more wins like these, the cold afternoons on campus in January may be a bit more bearable.
3. TCU has quietly put together the nation’s longest winning-streak. It extended to 11 games after an easy 27-7 win against Virginia. Despite the jump to the Big 12 this year, the streak may continue for another month or more. TCU doesn’t take on a team that’s currently ranked until its Nov. 3 trip to Morgantown. That starts one of the harder gauntlets any team will have to run this season, one that I’m certain will ensure the winning streak gets snapped: at West Virginia, home for Kansas State, at Texas, back in time against the ’27 Yankees and home for Oklahoma. That’s brutal introduction to a power conference and the space-time continuum. But, for now, expect TCU to keep cruising.
Here are the games you should be looking for on Saturday when you're glued to the television:
No. 14 Ohio State
at No. 20 Michigan State
3:30 p.m. ET
Urban Meyer finally gets to test drive the Buckeyes against a Big Ten opponent and top-25 team. Braxton Miller has had his way with the likes of UAB, Cal and UCF to leap into the Heisman discussion, but how will he fare against an elite defense? This might be the best D the Buckeyes face all season – a great measuring stick for a budding star. After consecutive poor showings against Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan, will the Spartans fold or live up to their preseason hype?
No. 25 Baylor
at No. 9 West Virginia
Do you like points? Do you like defenders with sore necks? Do you need repeated bathroom breaks? Then this is the game for you. Both teams entered Week 4 among the top 10 teams in total offense. Both teams defend about as well as a state-appointed attorney in Baltimore; I hope the scoreboard in Morgantown has been doing pushups – this one will test its limits.
No. 18 Oregon State
10 p.m. ET
Oregon State has proven to have one of the best defensive units outside of the SEC this season. Did I just write that? I did, but it’s true. The Beavers nearly shut out Wisconsin and stifled UCLA’s dynamic offensive attack. Before Saturday’s loss to Oregon, Arizona was top 20 in the nation in passing, rushing and scoring. After getting dismantled by the Ducks, they’ll have a chip on their shoulders and a home crowd at their backs this week. This is another good measuring stick game for a pair of programs fighting for respect in the nation’s fastest-improving conference.
at No. 5 Georgia
3:30 p.m. ET
Tennessee’s second-half collapse against Florida took some of the steam out of this one, but it could still be competitive. At the very least, it’s Georgia’s chance to announce to the rest of its conference that the Bulldogs are back. Derek Dooley gets three shots at the favorites in the SEC East this year. The first one didn’t go so well. He’ll need to be closer to the mark this time to give despondent Vols nation some hope for the immediate future.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed