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Seminoles still long way from glory of past

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Never before has a season started so early for Florida State. Which makes it odd that the end should already seem near.

This was supposed to be the night glory returned to FSU. The Seminoles returned linemen and linebackers. A quarterback and defensive backs. Most of all, they were supposed to return hope.

What returned instead was a flood of memories from 2001. Of a secondary that must play soft to cover up its weaknesses. Of a defensive line that struggles to pressure quarterbacks. Of a team unsure of its destiny.

The Seminoles did enough to push Iowa State aside 38-31 Saturday night, but they did little to convince America they are brutes again.

Understand, this is a program that recognizes greatness. It is familiar with dominance. So today it should realize it resides somewhat short.

There is talent here. Enough to recall those days of grand bowls and uncommon glory. But there also were too many reminders of the holes that could not be plugged in time to save last season.

For every pass Chris Rix zipped through the secondary, there was a play when his feet seemed to overrule his brain. For every defensive stop, there was an Iowa State receiver running away from a cornerback.

Here is a team accustomed to the spotlight, yet the Seminoles caught a bad case of stage fright during the final act. A senseless personal foul sabotaged their last drive on offense. They needlessly hurried a final punt, wasting 22 seconds on the play clock. The defense played so tight, the Cyclones drove 64 yards before running out of time on the 1.

When it was over, Iowa State players raised their helmets in triumph as their fans cheered. The Seminoles? They knelt in prayer at midfield.

Perhaps this seems harsh. Maybe you are inclined to praise the Seminoles for winning what was essentially a road game against a decent team.

You can say this was not a night to fret about details. That the final numbers should be inconsequential.

But even if you were watching for clues about the days to come, you had to have doubts. When you looked at this, you had to wonder about that.

"Obviously we would like to have had a more convincing win," coach Bobby Bowden said.

The Seminoles are better than most. Better, probably, than every team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The offensive line is impressive and running back Greg Jones is about to become a star. The coaches seem more willing to stick with the running game and Rix has grown as a passer.

The problem is the Seminoles are measured not only against this week's opponent but last decade's opulence. When you have been invincible for so long, anything less seems invisible.

You want the Seminoles to remember what it was like to be halfway to victory before opponents were halfway dressed. To have the players in the other locker room fear embarrassment as much as defeat.

In the best of days, FSU made mayhem a style. The offense was wild and the defense was daring. The Seminoles had people on special teams who were more entertaining than other schools' stars.

Most critical of all, the Seminoles had faith in themselves. Bowden may lack arrogance in conversation, but it never appeared that way onfield. The Seminoles knew how to strut even if they did not always preen.

Coaches used to worry about complacency in Tallahassee. Turns out, that was never a factor. The Seminoles did not grow too comfortable with whom they were. Instead, they struggled with the other extreme. They forgot whom they were.

The offense was scaled back to accommodate a young quarterback. The defense no longer attacked. Shaken by the death of Devaughn Darling in offseason workouts, Bowden said he was afraid to push players in the fall.

In retrospect, this was the greatest cost of 2001. The conference titles and national rankings were bound to face interruption. Nothing lasts forever. But to lose sight of one's identity is more difficult to face.

That is why Saturday night's performance looms so large. This was supposed to be a starting point. This was the night the Seminoles were going to show the nation -- and each other -- they were contenders again.

Even after finishing last season with a Gator Bowl victory against Virginia Tech, there was a sense of unfinished business around FSU.

A group of veterans took it upon themselves to meet with Bowden in his office after returning to Tallahassee.

It was then they asked if he could be harsher. If he could demand more of them because they were worried they would otherwise fall short.

Bowden may want to check his calendar this morning.

His players could be calling again.

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