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A Florida Statement?

Saturday's game looms large for struggling Seminoles

Posted: Thursday September 27, 2007 1:18PM; Updated: Saturday September 29, 2007 12:49AM
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Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden built Florida State into a huge powerhouse during the '90s, but the Seminoles have taken a huge fall from grace.
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If you watch enough football on television, you wind up seeing the same commercials over and over. One of the most ubiquitous spots last season was an AllState insurance ad featuring an overzealous fan sitting in a parked car with his buddies who, in his excitement at seeing someone he thinks is Florida State coach Bobby Bowden ("I'm going to touch him"), gets his car door plowed off by a passing vehicle.

Well, our unfortunate driver and his pals are back again this season, and apparently back in the Doak Campbell Stadium parking lot -- only this year's spot might not seem as amusing to some 'Noles fans. If you haven't seen it, the guys accidentally plow their car into the Bowden statue that stands outside Doak Campbell, sending it toppling onto their hood. (While there's clearly some major CGI involved, it is in fact the actual the Bowden statue, having seen it up close myself. An FSU spokesperson confirmed they filmed with the school's permission.) A lynch mob of fans quickly goes after the car.

While I'm sure AllState and its ad agency were just going for some laughs with the spot, part of me can't help but notice a deeper meaning within those seemingly mindless 30 seconds. The fall of Bowden's statue is a fitting symbol for what's happened to the Seminoles program the past six years. Bowden's long-time dynasty -- one that prompted such idolatry in the first place -- has slowly crumbled to the point where FSU's long-anticipated matchup Saturday in Jacksonville against No. 22 Alabama may only be the third-most important game in the Sunshine State this weekend.

On Friday night, No. 18 South Florida -- a program that did not even exist for the majority of Bowden's 31-year tenure in Tallahassee -- hosts No. 5 West Virginia in a game with BCS implications for both teams. The following night, FSU's archrival, Florida (which, unlike the 'Noles, actually harbors legitimate national title hopes), hosts SEC foe Auburn.

Make no mistake, the FSU-Alabama game still carries tremendous importance to the two participants. It's chock full of interesting subplots, most notably the fact that Bowden, 77, an Alabama native and longtime admirer of the late Bear Bryant, has never faced his home state's flagship team. "It's [going to be] a bowl-type atmosphere," said Bowden. "It will be exciting for me."

Most of all, Saturday's game will be viewed as a measuring stick for two rebuilding programs, both of which underwent major coaching overhauls this past offseason after fielding underachieving teams that went 6-6 in last year's regular season.

The Crimson Tide's ballyhooed new $4 million head coach, Nick Saban, has already made his presence felt. A year after going just 2-6 in its conference, 'Bama has already knocked off one ranked SEC foe (Arkansas) while taking another (Georgia) to overtime last Saturday. A victory over the 'Noles in a high-profile intersectional matchup would be yet another building block for Saban.

For Florida State, however, any tangible effects from the most radical staff overhaul of Bowden's career -- one in which he replaced his entire offensive staff and brought back deposed N.C. State head coach and longtime FSU assistant Chuck Amato as linebackers coach -- have yet to be seen on the field.

The most prominent of Bowden's hires was former LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, whom 'Noles fans are counting on to erect the fallen statue, so to speak. Bowden recruited Fisher, 41, the offensive coordinator for Saban's 2003 national title team and mentor to last spring's No. 1 draft pick, JaMarcus Russell, to resuscitate a once-feared offense that reached embarrassing depths the past few seasons under the direction of Bowden's ousted son, Jeff.

Through three games, however, the 'Noles' offense has performed no better under Fisher, ranking 89th out of 119 teams nationally in total yards (332.3 yards per game). FSU fans who tuned in to their team's Monday night season opener against Clemson experienced a discomforting feeling of déjà vu watching the 'Noles bumble their way to a 24-3 halftime deficit.

A valiant second-half comeback that fell just short as well as a 520-yard outburst the following week against UAB offered signs of encouragement, but in their last game two weeks ago at Colorado, the 'Noles managed just 221 total yards -- including a mere eight pass completions -- in an ugly 16-6 win.

"We're still learning what to do and how to do it," said Fisher, a noted workaholic who returned my call Wednesday during his only free moment all day -- the walk to practice. "The confidence is still not high. If we can gain some consistency in our execution, we'll be able to build some confidence, but we haven't done it yet."

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