Still trailing the Seminoles
By Tim Peeler, Special to CNNSI.com
Florida State playing for the national championship? Big whoop.
This is the fourth time in the last five years that the Seminoles are in position to win the national title with a bowl victory. They won the school’s second championship last year and are hoping to become only the second back-to-back champions since 1979, if they can beat top-ranked Oklahoma in the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl.
Is anybody surprised? Hardly. The only surprises -- at least around the ACC -- are the unprecedented coaching changes among the eight dwarfs.
Clearly, after nine years of watching the Seminoles dominate the league, the ACC’s other members are still desperately looking for a way to catch up. But if FSU is at the top of Mount Everest, as college football’s most dominant team for the last 15 years, the rest of the league is still awaiting visa approval to enter Tibet.
Three of the league’s coaches -- Maryland’s Ron Vanderlinden, North Carolina’s Carl Torbush and Wake Forest’s Jim Caldwell -- were fired immediately after the season, and another, Virginia coach George Welsh, called it quits.
At least Welsh, who retired earlier this month at the age of 67, cashed in his pension as the league’s all-time leader in conference victories. And he can sit on his front porch thinking about the evening of Nov. 2, 1995, when his Cavaliers handed FSU one of its two defeats since joining the league in 1992.
Since FSU joined the ACC, every school in the league has changed head coaches at least once, and all but Georgia Tech and Virginia have changed twice. That’s a total of 14 changes among the eight schools.
Only one coach left to go to a bigger and better job: North Carolina’s Mack Brown, who left for Texas in 1997 after failing to come close to beating the Seminoles in six tries. Three others -- Welsh, N.C. State’s Dick Sheridan and Wake Forest’s Bill Dooley -- retired from coaching. The other 10 were fired for lack of success on the field.
Will the newest crop of coaches have any more success?
Let’s look back two years. Clemson fired Tommy West and hired Tommy Bowden. Pretty good move. Duke fired Fred Goldsmith and hired alumnus Carl Franks. The Blue Devils just went 0-11. Last year, N.C. State fired Mike O’Cain and hired alumnus Chuck Amato away from Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State. The Wolfpack, picked to finish as low as seventh in the preseason, are headed to the MicronPC.com Bowl, after a surprising 7-4 season.
This year’s changes are intriguing. Had North Carolina managed to pull Frank Beamer away from Virginia Tech, the league would have another coaching heavyweight to match wits with the elder Bowden. Instead, the Tar Heels had to scramble for a second choice, and came up with NFL assistant coach and UNC alumnus John Bunting, who has no Division I coaching or recruiting experience.
Maryland also turned to an alumnus, Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, who put together brilliant offensive schemes for the Yellow Jackets. He has a fertile recruiting base and College Park could eventually be an attractive destination for high school stars.
Wake Forest, one of the most difficult jobs in Division I-A because of the size of the school and the difficult academic requirements, went for Ohio’s Jim Grobe, a proven winner in a difficult situation. Virginia is scouring the ranks of college assistants, including Florida State’s Mark Richt.
In other words, those new coaches are all starting over, hoping to build success with some existing talent, but waiting to bring in their own talent.
It’s not impossible to win under those circumstances. Ask Tommy Bowden and Amato. But thoughts of catching the Seminoles are still dreams from a deep sleep for any school other than Georgia Tech or Clemson.
They won’t be shaken awake anytime soon.
No worriesAnother no-surprise The Seminoles are bursting with confidence about their chances against Oklahoma.
Never mind that the Sooners’ seven national championships dwarf the measly two the Seminoles have won. Those two titles have come in the last seven years, while Oklahoma’s last championship was in 1985. The balance of power, the Seminoles say, has shifted dramatically since then.
"They haven't been there in awhile, so they might not know how to act in the environment that they're about to see," Florida State senior linebacker Tommy Polley said. "And they haven't seen a team like Florida State before, so that's gonna be something different. I think we are different than other teams around the nation." The Seminoles are 12-point favorites in the game, which worries head coach Bobby Bowden. He’s seen something like it before.
"When we played Nebraska for the national championship in '93, we were 17-point favorites -- and we kicked a field goal at the end of the game to win it," Bowden said of his team’s 18-16 victory in the Orange Bowl that gave FSU its first championship. "Now here we are favored over them by 12 and I'm thinking, ‘Uh, oh, here it comes again.’"
A nice tripWelsh doesn’t plan to rally his team with a "Win-one-for-the-Gipper" speech before the Cavaliers’ game against Georgia in the Lame Duck Bowl. Or, if you prefer, the Oahu Bowl. Welsh, 67, wants to go leave the college game without much fanfare. His players, on the other hand, have one goal in mind: "Win one for the Old Man," said senior linebacker Donny Green.
If the Cavaliers can beat the Bulldogs, who themselves say goodbye to the fired Jim Donnan after the game, they will have won at least seven games for the 14th year in a row, the longest such streak in Division I-A football. Welsh, the old Navy officer who was once stationed on a destroyer in Hawaii, has only one requirement for his team’s grand trip to the islands.
"I’m taking the team to Pearl Harbor, whether they want to go or not," the coach said.
Who's still standing?The N.C. State-Minnesota matchup in the MicronPC.com Bowl seems to be pretty even. Both teams have strong offenses, good kicking games and porous defenses.
But the Wolfpack may have the advantage in attrition.
Minnesota has lost two members of its starting secondary, which should have the Wolfpack passing tandem of freshman quarterback Philip Rivers and sophomore wide receiver Koren Robinson salivating.
Junior free safety Delvin Jones has been suspended from the team for academic reasons and cornerback Willie Middlebrooks has been out since October with a broken leg. And there could be more losses. The school’s general counsel is looking into alleged misuse of calling cards on campus and coach Glen Mason plans to suspend at least 13 players from the investigation.
Bunting's biggest recruitNew Tar Heels coach John Bunting has never recruited on the Division I level, but that’s not his biggest worry right now. He’s trying to convince All-America defensive end Julius Peppers, who had 24 tackles-for-loss and 15 sacks this year, to forego the NFL draft and return to the UNC defense next year.
Bunting, who spent 13 years playing professional football and the last eight years as an NFL assistant, is trying to convince the vastly talented Peppers to stay in school. He has prepared a videotape of 330-pound offensive linemen to show Peppers during their next meeting.
Peppers, who helped sparked the Tar Heel basketball team’s run to the Final Four last year, still has not joined Matt Doherty’s hoops team. The school says he wants to work on academics. Another premier player from the Tar Heel State -- though he’s definitely not a Tar Heel -- weighing his future is Robinson, N.C. State’s super sophomore receiver and kick returner.
Though he has previously said he would return next year, keeping the Wolfpack’s tandem of Rivers-to-Robinson intact, he recently amended that to say he would consider his options after the bowl game.
Worth notingFlorida State’s only victory over Oklahoma in four previous tries was in the 1965 Gator Bowl. ... Clemson plays Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, the third year in a row these two teams have met. The Hokies won the other two games going away. ... Georgia Tech has made two other "trips" to the hometown Peach Bowl. They lost both games, 41-18 to Mississippi in 1971 and 41-21 to Purdue in 1978. ... Perhaps lost among some of the other end-of-season shuffling was that hapless Duke lost one of its best defensive players because of Carl Franks’ decision to fire tight ends coach Joe DeLamielleure. Joe’s son Todd, a starting linebacker for the last two years for the Blue Devils, immediately decided to transfer to a Division I-AA school, so he could finish his collegiate career next fall.
Tim Peeler covers the ACC for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.