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© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Standing outside the locker room, you try to make sense of it all. You take a deep breath and ponder whether Florida State really stinks that badly. Of course, that may just be the pepper spray you smell.
These are your ACC champions. The ones sequestered in a dank locker room while opposing fans are celebrating madly outside.
My, how the standards have dipped. The tearing down of goal posts should be reserved for victories of uncommon glory. And, friends, beating Florida State no longer qualifies as riot-worthy.
Not when North Carolina State beats the Seminoles in consecutive seasons. Not when unranked Louisville can make FSU look impotent.
Certainly not when the Seminoles have encountered back-to-back four-loss seasons for the first time in Bobby Bowden's 27 seasons of service.
"We're probably the best four-loss team in the country," running back Nick Maddox said. "But who wants to be that?"
Remember the 1990s, when the Seminoles acted like the ACC championship was an unworthy honor? Today, it is the ACC that should feel cheated.
Even with the 17-7 loss to the Wolfpack on Saturday, the Seminoles clinched the ACC crown because Maryland managed an even greater choke against Virginia. FSU now has collected at least a share of the conference title in 10 of 11 seasons. No one else does that these days. Nebraska? Miami? Not even close.
Yet as police tried to keep N.C. State fans from carrying a goal post out Gate 1, Bowden wore the face of a bewildered man.
"I don't know whether to jump up or cry," he said.
This is a team clinging to mediocrity and hoping it doesn't get worse. This is not a blip. It's looking more and more like a splat. The sound of a program falling on hard times.
These guys are not looking forward to Florida next weekend, they're looking forward to finishing the season with as little humiliation as possible.
Lose to the Gators and FSU will have to make room in its luggage for five losses on the way to the Sugar Bowl.
"This is not success. Not by Florida State standards," tackle Brett Williams said. "You know how you look at some teams in the polls and say they don't deserve to be there? That's kind of how I feel about us.
"As much as we've lost, it doesn't feel like we deserve to go to the Sugar Bowl."
Befuddled, angry and pointing fingers is no way for a conference champion to behave.
The Seminoles cannot decide on a quarterback. They have doubts about their game plans. And the man in charge of it all has no answers in sight.
Soon, the talk of Bowden's effectiveness will grow louder. This is what happens when your worst seasons coincide with your 72nd and 73rd birthdays.
It is not what Bowden lacks, but who he misses. He was never the tyrannical type, even in FSU's best days. He was not considered a genius on game days, even when winning national championships.
Bowden won because he had great players and a sharp staff of assistants. His players no longer are superior, and his assistants seem lacking.
Former offensive coordinator Mark Richt has taken Georgia to the SEC Championship Game in his second season. Former assistant head coach Chuck Amato has beaten FSU in consecutive seasons at North Carolina State.
Their replacements, including Bowden's son, Jeff, as offensive coordinator, have done nothing to distinguish themselves.
FSU has two talented quarterbacks, yet the coaching staff cannot seem to get either to play within a system.
Chris Rix was benched four weeks ago because he tries too hard to make plays. Adrian McPherson was benched Saturday because he does not make enough.
The most difficult realization is you are not certain whether better times are ahead. The team has not grown stronger, the hope has not gotten brighter.
You can say Florida State has had a rash of injuries on offense. Yet the Wolfpack had a running back and tight end playing with casts.
You can say the Seminoles got hosed by a couple of bad calls Saturday. Yet that does not excuse the way Florida State was manhandled.
You can say FSU should take pride in winning the conference title. Yet the Seminoles had to wade through ecstatic North Carolina State fans just to get safely off the field.
"You can't find words to describe the disappointment and pain of that scene," Maddox said. "That is not the way we wanted to come off the field in our last ACC game."
The usual celebration for a team going to New Orleans is to toss tiny packets of sugar in the air.
On this night, the Seminoles were not even worthy of an artificial sweetener.