Seminoles enter Carter-Finley ranked No. 3

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 2, 2012 

SPORTS FBC-FSU-SOUFLA 4 PT

Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel (3) warms up in front of head coach Jimbo Fisher as the Seminoles faced the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, September 29, 2012. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times/MCT)

WILL VRAGOVIC — MCT

Around the time Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was finishing his weekly press conference on Monday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla., Bobby Bowden, the architect of the Seminoles’ football dynasty, was finishing up his golf round in nearby Quincy.

Bowden plays golf often these days, said his wife, Ann, though he doesn’t quite drive it as far he once did. He is appreciating the retired life, enjoying his speaking engagements and following his son, Terry, in his Division I-A coaching return at Akron. And like many in Tallahassee, Bowden is wondering if these Seminoles are the real thing.

They seem to be. After a decade of mediocrity – at least relative to what Bowden built and maintained during the 1980s and ’90s – the Seminoles are 5-0 for the first time since 2005. They will enter their game on Saturday at N.C. State ranked third – their highest position in The Associated Press Top 25 since ’03.

The Seminoles won 10 games that season, and won the ACC. From a distance, they might have appeared similar to any number of Florida State teams that mostly dominated college football starting in 1987, and the ACC starting in ’92.

In reality, though, the 2003 team proved to be an anomaly amid a decade of underachievement. It was the final FSU team to win 10 games in the 2000s, and the second-to-last to win an ACC championship. The Seminoles won nine games the next season, then eight and then seven.

The dynasty faded and then fell apart. The Florida State administration forced Bowden out following the 2009 season, after the Seminoles lost six games for the third time in four seasons.

Now, then, has come a resurgence. After its most dominant first month since perhaps 2000, when it last played for a national championship, Florida State has emerged as the clear favorite to win the ACC. As long as they keep winning, the Seminoles will remain in the national championship discussion.

“It looks like they’re back,” Bowden said during a phone interview on Monday. “You know what I mean? It looks like, when you compare them with other teams in the country, I think you’d have to say that they’re one of the top 10 teams, you know it?”

Florida State’s reconstruction process began in 2007, when Bowden hired Fisher to be the team’s offensive coordinator. There was no quick-fix turnaround, though. After a 7-6 finish in ’06, the Seminoles finished the same in ’07.

But Fisher became the program’s head-coach-in-waiting following that season, when the Florida State administration promised him the head job after three seasons, if not sooner. It came sooner. Bowden didn’t know it at the time, but he coached his final home game against Maryland in 2009 amid tens of thousands of empty seats.

He still hasn’t been back to see a game at Doak Campbell.

“I’ve always felt like when I got done coaching I should not be around and be looking over the other guy’s shoulder,” he said. “Of course, it’ll happen whether you want it to or not. I’m in no hurry to come back. I enjoy [watching games on] TV … I don’t have to fight the traffic, either.”

There was plenty of that in Tallahassee two weeks ago, when a capacity crowd of more than 83,000 gathered to watch the Seminoles’ 49-37 victory against Clemson, which was ranked No. 10 at the time.

That represented Florida State’s first home victory against a Top 10 opponent in seven years, and it further fueled the notion that the Seminoles, down for so long, are on their way back up.

The Seminoles are ranked among the top 10 nationally in several statistical categories: total offense, total defense, rushing offense, rushing defense and passing defense.

At No. 3, this will be the highest-ranked Florida State team to visit Carter-Finley Stadium since 1998, when the Wolfpack’s 24-7 victory stunned the second-ranked Seminoles. N.C. State beat FSU again in 2001, and again in ’05, ’06 and 2010. After a while, victories against Florida State no longer came as a surprise.

That Seminoles’ mystique, though, seems to be returning. After FSU’s 34-0 victory against the Wolfpack last season in Tallahassee, N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said the Seminoles were “back to being the old Florida State.”

And now, O’Brien said on Monday, “They are a year older and better.”

R.J. Mattes, the Wolfpack’s senior offensive tackle, perhaps described it in the simplest of terms on Monday.

“Well,” he said, “they are ranked in the top five. So obviously they are back to doing something right.”

Florida State began the 2011 season ranked No. 6, but injuries decimated the offensive line and an early season three-game losing streak against Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest knocked the Seminoles out of the Top 25. They finished 9-4, and ranked 23rd, after an 18-14 victory against Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl.

Injuries still have plagued FSU, which earlier this season lost All-American defensive end Brandon Jenkins to a season-ending foot injury. But the offensive line is healthier, and quarterback EJ Manuel – the first quarterback that Fisher recruited at FSU – is playing so well he has entered the Heisman Trophy discussion.

With the improvements on the field has come more attention off of it. Florida State ranked sixth nationally last season in new season ticket sales, and it has surpassed that number this season, said Jerry Kutz, the vice president of Seminole Boosters, Inc. The booster club has expanded, Kutz said, and FSU students have exhausted their allotment of 16,500 tickets for every home game.

Kutz once a week has lunch with some old Florida State football assistant coaches – guys who coached during the dynasty years. They told him that this FSU team looks as good as any, ever.

“You had to see those teams to understand what great really looks like,” Kutz said, adding there’s hope this team is like those.

Manuel on Monday addressed the overall hype he and his teammates have been receiving, and he told reporters it wouldn’t be a distraction.

“It’s kind of like stepping stones, you know, like chopping that wood – chopping down a tree,” he said. “We want to continue to keep at it … you always want to make progress. I don’t think that’s going to change our approach.”

That’s the kind of approach that Fisher, a disciple of the Nick Saban model of program-building, has attempted to teach his team.

“I’ll reinforce to our guys – we’re about preparation, not expectation,” Fisher said.

While Fisher was closing his press conference with those words, Bowden was about 25 miles down the road, finishing up his round of golf in Quincy. He thought later about whether these Seminoles reminded him of his Seminoles – the ones he coached to two national championships and 14 consecutive top-four finishes between 1987 and 2000.

Does this Florida State team take him back?

It does, Bowden said, “just by their record. “The fact that they’re undefeated right now. We got to 5-0 quite a few times back in those days, you know it. But every week you’ve got to cross another hurdle.”

Like many others in north Florida and beyond, Bowden is anxious to see whether the Seminoles can keep crossing those hurdles – if after all this time, the Seminoles are indeed finally back.

Staff writer Joe Giglio contributed to this story.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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