The BCS era began with Florida State in a national title game and now ends with Florida State in a national title game, tidy bookends to be sure. But the time in between has not been about the Seminoles’ domination, as the bookends suggest.
It has been about reinvention.
No other program has remade itself in quite the same way over this 15-year period, starting as a champion, then sinking to mediocrity, then rising to play for a championship again. The overriding question up until this season -- up until the start of November, really -- was whether the Seminoles could truly return to their former glory.
Now the overriding question is whether this team could eclipse the best Florida State ever had to offer.
“They’re back,” former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. “They’re back the way we were in the ‘90s, where we played in five national championship games. If they win their next game, they’ll probably go down as the best team in Florida State history. The way they’ve won their games is unbelievable.”
That is a pretty bold statement from a man who coached two national champions and established the first Florida State dynasty. His program began competing for and winning national championships before the BCS was invented, headlining the late 1980s and 1990s. It came as little surprise, then, to see Florida State play for the first three BCS national championships.
Yet Florida State lost the first BCS title game to Tennessee in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, playing without injured quarterback Chris Weinke. The following season, the Seminoles began the year ranked No. 1 and used the national championship game disappointment as motivation.
Players knew they had the talent, but Bowden pushed them further, instituting mat drills on Tuesdays before practice. Come Saturday, Florida State was the best-conditioned team on the field. Players believed they would prevail in the fourth quarter every single time. When they beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Florida State became the first team to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the nation.
“It was amazing that we could really put Florida State where they needed to be,” said Ron Dugans, a Florida State receiver from 1995-99 and now an assistant at Louisville. “I feel like it could have been more, but you really appreciate getting a chance to go 12-0. Nowadays, it rarely happens. We take that for granted. Going undefeated doesn’t come easy. You look at how many draft picks, how many All-Americans, how many all-conference guys that have played at Florida State, all the great coaching. We only went undefeated once.”
The following season, the Seminoles lost the national championship game to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. While they made a few more BCS appearances in the ensuing years, they could not quite match the standards their predecessors built. NCAA sanctions also took a toll, forcing Florida State to vacate five wins in 2006 and six wins in 2007. Bowden was eventually forced out in 2009, closing his record-setting career with a 7-6 mark.
Jimbo Fisher has led the way back up to relevance, doing so in a vastly different landscape than the one Florida State navigated the last time it played for a title. The SEC has become the most dominant league in the nation, college coaches have become multimillionaires several times over, television dollars have redefined and reshaped conferences and long-standing rivalries, and the sport is headed for a four-team playoff.
But what has not changed is what got Florida State back on top.
Excel at recruiting and your chances of winning are greatly enhanced. Florida State currently has backups who could start somewhere else, the way it did when the BCS era began.
Excel at recruiting a talented quarterback, and your chances are enhanced further. Florida State has a Heisman Trophy winner in Jameis Winston, the way it had a future Heisman winner in Weinke when the BCS era began.
“My philosophy is if you get the best players you’re going to win,” Bowden said. “The thing Jimbo has done such a great job of is recruiting. How does he go to Alabama and get the best quarterback in the country?”
Winston now has Florida State in position for comparisons. Bowden points to the way the 2013 team has won its games, ranking as the No. 2 scoring offense in the country and No. 1 scoring defense. Average margin of victory: 43 points. No team came within single digits.
“The only thing about our last team in ’99, we were No. 1 at the start of the season and were No. 1 every week and went through undefeated,” Bowden said. “This team beat everybody so bad if they win this next ballgame, they’re going to have a right to say whatever they want to say.”
Bowden is not the only one who believes. Corey Simon, a defensive tackle on the 1998 and 1999 teams, told Dugans the other day, “This team is just as good as the teams we had at Florida State when we were playing.”
“I think it’s slowly become the way it used to be,” Dugans said. “Those guys now, they’ve embraced the tradition at Florida State. They’ve got a chance to become a part of a legacy. They go out and play hard for the school colors, the school tradition, and the guys who helped put the school on the map.”
Now they have a chance to put Florida State back on the map. The national championship map.