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In Tallahassee during the week leading up to hometown Florida State's annual encounter with Florida, it's heresy for anyone to so much as mention any football game other than the one at hand, which explains why Seminole Coach Bobby Bowden stuck to talk about gigging the Gators and tabled questions about State's No. 3 ranking and its national title aspirations. In public, anyway. In private, in team meetings, for example, Bowden wasn't nearly as discreet. "I throw that national championship thing at my players anytime I think their ears need to hear it," he said on a recruiting trip to Atlanta last Thursday. "Maybe I'll pop it off again right before the kickoff against Florida."
Despite Bowden's talk, Florida State's title chances were anything but good. The Sugar Bowl wound up with top-ranked Georgia playing second-ranked Notre Dame. The way the wire service polls work, when No. 1 plays No. 2, No. 3 might as well be No. 3,000. But there was one slight hitch to the dream game. Georgia already was 11-0 and safe in the barn, but Notre Dame (9-0-1) had one game left, against USC, and this year it would be played in Los Angeles. The Irish hadn't beaten the Trojans in the Coliseum since 1966. So the Seminoles had two items on their agenda last Saturday: 14-point underdog Florida and then, gather around a television set and root like crazy for USC to upset the Irish and knock them out of the championship picture.
"I'm going to talk up how tough Florida is because if we don't win, life won't be very peaceful around here for another year or so," Bowden said. "But I hope nobody thinks that I ain't figured out the rest of the deal."
Florida State? Tallahassee? Bobby Bowden? These aren't No. I names. National champions are supposed to be won by teams from Notre Dame and Southern Cal. Teams from places like Columbus, Ohio and Lincoln, Neb. Teams coached by folks named Bear Bryant and Barry Switzer. Florida State? In 1947 it was still the Florida State College for Women. It was a Smith, a Rosary Hill—minus intellectuals and Catholics, respectively. A 1,000-yard running back? Hey, the place just got men's rooms. Then, from 1947 until Bowden arrived in 1976, the Seminoles won only 150 of 293 games. No tradition. Florida State football was famous for three things: damaging Burt Reynolds' knee, hiring Darrell Mudra, who coached games while sitting in the press box, and occasionally sending a Ron Sellers, Fred Biletnikoff or Gary Huff to the NFL.
But under Bowden, things changed fast: the Seminoles were 5-6 in 1976, then 10-2 and 8-3. Last year they won all 11 regular-season games and went to the Orange Bowl, the first appearance by any Florida team in a New Year's bowl. When Oklahoma crushed State 24-7, Bowden accepted the loss as a lesson. The Seminoles had lived and died with the forward pass. "Oklahoma was so successful stopping us with a fifth defensive back, we made running the ball our goal in 1980." he says.
So the first thing to know about the current Seminoles is that no longer do they rely on their 11-yard dropbacks, and 30 passes a game. The main thing Bowden did was move Wide Receiver Sam Piatt to tailback, and the results were remarkable. In a victory over Memphis State, Piatt rushed for a school-record 188 yards. In 10 games he gained 954 yards, and had it not been for a shoulder separation he suffered in the first quarter against the Gators, he would easily have become Florida State's third 1,000-yard career rusher.
Bowden had given the Seminoles a new look. For instance, in Florida State's season opener, a 16-0 win at LSU, the Tigers often tried using a fifth defensive back. Every time they did, the Seminoles ran the ball. Florida State finished up with 197 yards rushing and only 35 passing. Adding to the fresh style was Quarterback Rick Stock-still, who's more mobile by far than his golden-armed predecessors, Jimmy Jordan and Wally Wood-ham. So Bowden installed a sprint-out pass package to go along with dropbacks. Stockstill had also had understudied Jordan and Wood-ham for three seasons, so he knew how to check off at the line of scrimmage—which he does about 50% of the time. "Defenses have to worry about containing us now," Bowden says. "They rush Rick up the middle and he'll go wide for the first down. It gives us an added dimension."
The defense has also been important to Florida State's success. Midway through the 1978 season, the Seminoles lost 27-21 to Houston, 55-27 to Mississippi State and 7-3 to Pitt. Then they won 15 games in a row. The reason? Eight of the defenders, who were sophomores when the streak began, are still around. In the secondary, Monk Bonasorte, Keith Jones and Bobby Butler are seniors and hard-hitters all. Linebackers Reggie Herring and Paul Piurowski have each made more than 100 tackles, and up in the line, where End Arthur Scott and Tackle Mark Macek also operate, Nose Guard Ron Simmons is an All-America. In five of its 1980 victories, Florida State has held the opposition to eight or fewer first downs, and going into the Florida game, only Nebraska had rushed for more than 200 yards against the Seminoles. The Huskers got exactly 201 yards, 177.3 below their average. All told, Florida State has allowed 85 points this season, fewer than any other team, college or pro.
"People think we're a team that throws the ball, doesn't play defense and just tries to outscore you," Bowden says. "They're wrong. General Neyland, Earl Blaik, Red Sanders, Bear Bryant—those guys would be proud of Florida State. They always preached defense and kicking. There might be teams with a bit more offense or defense than we have, or one that outkicks us. But nobody does all those things as well as we do." Indeed, Florida State ranks No. 1 in scoring defense (7.7 points a game), No. 6 in scoring (32 points a game) and No. 1 in net punting, thanks to Rohn Stark, a junior who has averaged 45.1 yards a kick.
It's no wonder then that the Seminoles entered the Florida game with a 9-1 record that included wins over fourth-ranked Pitt and ninth-ranked Nebraska. Their single defeat, 10-9 by No. 20 Miami, came after Florida State scored a late touchdown but failed on a two-point conversion attempt. A Stockstill pass over the middle to an open receiver was batted down by an onrushing lineman. Two factors in that game deserve mention. Florida State's first two centers were out with injuries and the No. 3 was a guard who had never snapped. As a result, State had five fumbles on snaps, and at least half a dozen other snaps that weren't fumbled were just shaky enough to throw off the timing of plays. And the pass pattern Stock-still used to score the last touchdown was designed as a two-point play. Bowden rehearses only one two-point play for each game. He decided against using it twice in a row. "I have nightmares about that pass over the middle," he says. "You don't think about all those hands in there. If I had one play this year to call over again, it would be that one. I'd use the two-point play we'd practiced."