Bevy of returning starters should help FSU adjust to tougher ACC.
MIAMI - A handful of hours after the Orange Bowl, Florida State sophomore linebacker A.J. Nicholson's demeanor showed the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow.
You couldn't miss his palpable disappointment of another loss to Miami, 16-14, as he slumped in a hotel lobby chair Friday morning.
Nor could you miss the jump in octave when he considered next season.
The Seminoles (10-3) return 10 starters on offense - everyone except tailback Greg Jones, who became part of a three-man rotation - and a bevy of talented defensive players who saw significant playing time; some appear to be even more athletically gifted than the seniors they will replace.
Such as Nicholson, a starter in three games.
"We have young guys who are eager to play and willing to learn," he said. "So I'm excited about the upcoming year. It's looking good for the future."
All the Seminoles share that sentiment.
"There's guys (on defense) who played a lot this year, there's an aggressive coaching staff, the whole offensive line coming back, running backs, receivers," senior defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "They're going to be tough. I honestly expect Florida State to do a lot of big things next year, even though the conference is going to be tougher."
A lot tougher. Miami, Virginia Tech and perhaps Boston College will be in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. The Seminoles open against the Hurricanes on Labor Day in Miami.
And no one has to tell the Seminoles they've now lost five straight to the 'Canes.
"It better motivate us, losing your last game to the team you are going to play your next game," junior quarterback Chris Rix said. "We should be thinking about Miami day and night until we play them next time. ... We have to get ready to play them next game and we have to be prepared to win the game."
Bobby Bowden sees the potential for his team to end the losing cycle (FSU had won five straight before UM's streak began in 2000) and make a run at next season's Bowl Championship Series finale, the Orange Bowl.
"I think we have the players," he said Friday. "Now, will we do it? I don't know. But if we make one more play (Thursday) night. ... One play. Not 50 plays. One play."
That could have been the 39-yard field goal junior Xavier Beitia hit wide right late in the game.
That could have been not getting a 12th man off as Miami punted early in the third quarter. The 5-yard penalty allowed former Countryside High star Jon Peattie to make a career-best 51-yard field goal for a 16-14 lead.
That could have been a circus catch by junior P.K. Sam on the sideline on FSU's final play with 27 seconds left. He had his hands on the ball, but star cornerback Antrel Rolle was all over him and never allowed him to secure it.
That could have been an interception by senior cornerback Rufus Brown midway through the second quarter; he had one in his grasp and, at the time, the Seminoles led 14-3.
That could have been Rix making a few more accurate throws or a couple better reads. He had Sam open over the middle but threw deep to a well-covered Chauncey Stovall in the waning minutes. Stovall was called for pass interference. Rix was 2-for-12 for 44 yards in the second half on the heels of a brilliant fourth quarter against Florida.
"You get mad at Chris sometimes, but I kind of learned, sometimes he does stuff like he did against Florida and sometimes he's not going to have the best performance," freshman tailback Lorenzo Booker said. "The only thing I can do is do my job and I'm behind him no matter what he does. ... Nobody played perfect. Everybody has some things they could have done better."
And maybe will next year.
"We're going to have to clear that hurdle," Nicholson said of the Miami whammy. "We're going to have to make plays when we need to make plays and stop them when we need to stop them and execute when we need to execute. It all needs to fall in line. We'll get it done. We'll get it done."
- Times correspondent Zachary Spain contributed to this report.