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College football

Seminoles haven't shown they rank among elite

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - When it was finally done, the quarterback raised his arms to the sky. The crowd cut loose an enormous roar. The coach exhaled.

When it was finally done, Florida State had completed an improbable comeback and kept its record perfect for another week.

When it was finally done, nothing had changed.

This is the realization amid the celebration. This is the truth in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

No matter how hard they try, no matter how grumpy Bobby Bowden becomes, the Seminoles remain stuck in this purgatory of being almost good enough.

FSU beat Georgia Tech 14-13 in the final minutes Saturday, and players left the field wearing grins and slapping hands.

Yet, all around, there was a sense the Seminoles had escaped rather than conquered.

"I don't feel like we won it. I really don't," Bowden said. "They deserved to beat us."

Understand, this was not a fiasco. Compared to the North Carolina State loss two years ago, held up to the Louisville loss of last season, this was actually rapture. This was FSU running headfirst toward another inexplicable upset before finally finding the brakes.

"Honestly, if this was last year, we would have lost," LB Allen Augustin said. "This is the type of game we could not pull off last year."

As praise goes, that would fall somewhere between tepid and lukewarm. What it means is the Seminoles still are not talented enough to crush opponents, but at least they're no longer a fractured, bickering bunch.

Do not be swayed by the current polls or the most recent bowl. It is not that simple. The Seminoles are back in the Top 10 and on top of the ACC, and still they did not have a swish to their strut.

It's a quality that's not as easy to quantify. It's a presence. A posture. A way of taking the lead before ever taking the field.

This is what Florida State is looking to recapture. The defense may have tightened. The offense may have grown. But the intimidation still is missing.

Once, the visiting locker room at Doak Campbell Stadium was a place to be feared, the stopover on the way to torment.

If it were not clear before Saturday, that is no longer true. Ordinary teams walk out of the locker room as if they own the place.

"Everybody was young the last couple of years and we made a lot of mistakes...," DE Eric Moore said. "We're still making mistakes, but we have more focus.

"Coach Bowden says we have enough talent to be one of the best teams to come through here and we all believe that."

If that is true, they still have a lot of convincing to do.

The Seminoles seem to lack playmakers. The one or two guys on either side of the ball who can change a game. Not with the occasional big play, but often and every week.

Oh, every so often, there will be a glimpse of the past. Moments when your memory is tickled. Darnell Dockett chases a quarterback or Greg Jones turns a corner and you can almost convince yourself glory is still within reach. Chris Rix leads a furious fourth-quarter rally and you believe he has arrived.

But these are teases. They are not to be trusted. Anticipating the next big play is not realistic. Praying for it is more common.

There are too many penalties. Too many awful decisions by Rix. Too many opportunities lost. It has been this way for two years and Saturday proved it has not changed.

Really now, what was FSU's last big victory? Beating a fading Florida last season? Or Maryland the year before that? Florida State has faltered against too many ordinary opponents and failed to rise up in any memorable games.

Beginning with the loss to Oklahoma in the 2000 national championship game, FSU has lost six of nine against ranked teams.

The Seminoles are in need of a signature game, a Saturday when fans are talking of no one else.

This could have been a step in that direction. A prime-time opportunity to show how far they had come since the Sugar Bowl.

Instead, FSU played as if it were Georgia Tech's sparring partner. Like the Seminoles were giving them a workout, but not fighting to win.

And, really, that is a shame.

Because the opportunity is there for FSU to reassert itself this season. The schedule, after all, is growing more comfortable by the day. The roster is older and more experienced than it has been.

There is still a chance for FSU to reclaim some of its glory. There still is time for the Seminoles to find their destiny. And they seem to understand it is still at-large.

When it was done, Bowden found Rix on the way into the locker room.

The quarterback threw a sweaty pair of arms around his coach. It might have been a celebration.

It looked more like relief.

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