Even with a national title, the Seminoles displayed less than stellar form last season.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000
JACKSONVILLE -- For much of the last decade, Florida State's signature has been its stifling defense.
But strangely enough, during last season's national championship run, the defense felt the heat. For the first time since 1995 and just the third time in the 1990s, the Seminoles failed to finish in the top six nationally in at least one of the key defensive categories.
They fell from No. 1 in total defense to 19th.
That left its own indelible mark.
"Last year, we celebrated a national championship, but as a defense, we gave up big numbers in some big games," said senior linebacker Brian Allen, this year's defensive captain. "We weren't where we should have been statistically in the nation and that's something we strive for every year as a defensive unit, to be on top. We didn't accomplish that and that's something we're striving to do this year."
But will the new millennium signal a return to the old defensive ways for the No. 2-ranked Seminoles, who open tonight against Brigham Young in the Pigskin Classic at Alltel Stadium?
Even coach Bobby Bowden isn't sure.
Not after watching his offense move the ball up and down the field against his proud defense during the spring and preseason practices. Not after watching tape of BYU, which routinely boasts one of the nation's top passing attacks and hasn't been shut out for an NCAA-record 312 straight games.
"Usually one side of the ball dominates and it's been defense here for so long, maybe the last 10," Bowden said. "Now all of a sudden, your defense doesn't dominate, it's your offense that's dominating. We don't know what that means. But we'll get some of those answers against BYU."
Sophomore quarterback Bret Engemann, a brother-in-law of talk show host Larry King, completed 9 of 15 passes for 58 yards last season, but the Cougars have veterans around him, including Biletnikoff Award candidate Margin Hooks.
"We'll be able to throw the football if we get the time to throw it," coach LaVell Edwards said. "That's true with our team any year. It's based on pass protection."
That's what worries him about the Seminoles. Their defensive players are known for their Ferrari-like speed, which allows them to run down ball carriers, receivers and especially quarterbacks.
But FSU hasn't been doing that.
"After watching us practice the last three weeks, tell them (BYU's inexperienced quarterbacks) they're completely safe," Bowden said, conceding on a more serious note that his veteran offense might have to carry the defense early in the season.
Part of the problem has been inexperienced defensive tackles. Gone are Corey Simon, a two-time All-American and first-round NFL draft pick, and Jerry Johnson, a fourth-round selection. In their place are redshirt sophomore Chris Woods and redshirt freshman Kevin Emanuel.
There also have been several injuries. Senior defensive end Roland Seymour is recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries and is out. Fellow senior end David Warren has been bothered by back spasms, Allen is nursing a sprained left ankle and senior linebacker Tommy Polley, the team's top tackler last season who was just cleared after reconstructive knee surgery, might only play sparingly.
"We haven't had the defense out there yet," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "But the defense we've put on the field so far has not been up to FSU standards in our scrimmages."
Even that can be deceiving. The first-team defense, which goes against the second-team offense, allowed only a couple of touchdowns in the first two scrimmages. While neither senior Marcus Outzen nor freshman Chris Rix would be mistaken for Chris Weinke, many second-team receivers, backs and linemen could start for almost any other program.
The backups will move the ball. On anybody.
"As a unit, we have to step up," said senior safety Derrick Gibson, who has been hampered by a mild knee sprain. "Playing BYU is a great challenge. They can throw and catch the ball real well. It's a test for us."
Allen calls it an opportunity.
"This is a chance for our defensive ends to come out this year that they're ready to play FSU football," he said. "This is a chance for our secondary and the linebackers to go out and prove themselves, that we're not going to be a team that gives up big numbers passing. This is a chance to debut our front and show what our young guys can do inside. This is a chance to go out and make things happen and establish ourselves, to get back on top as a defense again."
WHAT: 11th annual Pigskin Classic.
WHEN/WHERE: 8 tonight; Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville.
TV/RADIO: Ch. 28; WWBA-AM 1040. LINE: FSU by 251/2. COACHES: FSU -- Bobby Bowden (231-53-4, 25th season; 304-85-4 overall). BYU -- LaVell Edwards (251-95-3, 29th season). THE PLOT: The Seminoles look to take the first step in their quest to become the second team in two decades to repeat as national champion. To start with, they will learn something about their placekicking (Matt Munyon figures to get the first shot at replacing Sebastian Janikowski), their new defensive tackles (Kevin Emanuel and Chris Woods) and some of their young defensive players (linebacker Kendyll Pope) pressed into key roles by injuries.
THE SUBPLOT: Edwards announced he'd retire at the end of the season. Said Bowden: "I've always felt like when a coach retires, one who's as well respected and beloved as he is, that it would be an inspiration to their football team."
HISTORY 101: In 1990, BYU shocked the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes 28-21. Said Bowden: "I've got that written in my notes for some reason to tell my team about. That just shows you what BYU can do. They haven't changed. I knew us being national champions last year, all the talk would be Florida State this and Florida State that. BYU, I guarantee you, is capable of beating Florida State and I know they know it. I got to be sure my boys know it."
FAMILIAR FACE: Emanuel, a redshirt freshman, and BYU senior receiver Margin Hooks were teammates at Waco (Texas) High. Hooks had 60 catches for 1,067 yards and seven touchdowns last season and is a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award. "He's something else," Emanuel said.
SERIES HISTORY: The Seminoles won the only meeting 44-28 in the 1991 Pigskin Classic at Anaheim, Calif.
HE SAID IT: "This year, we're pretty much going into a lot of games as underdogs and usually we've always been favored. That brings out a little more fight, knowing you don't have anything to lose and you let it all hang out." -- BYU's Hooks.
- Compiled by Brian Landman.