Florida State’s floundering football program had been taken over in 1976 by a guy named Bobby Bowden, and he immediately got the Seminoles respectable at 5-6. The next two years saw FSU win a combined 18 regular season games. Bowden’s program was coming and 1979 Florida State football produced the breakthrough year.
Ron Simmons was an All-American defensive tackle and who anchored that side of the ball. Offensively, Bowden could get physical with 1,000-yard rusher Mark Lyles, and the coach alternated two quarterbacks, Jimmy Jordan and Wally Woodham. They threw the ball a lot by the standards of the day—a combined 332 attempts for both, the most any starting quarterback that made it to a New Year’s Day bowl game threw. Jackie Flowers, with his 37 catches for 622 yards was the top target.
Florida State had enough respect to be ranked #19 when the season began. They opened with five opponents who hovered more or less around the .500 mark. The Seminoles nipped Southern Miss, crushed Arizona State and beat Miami in the three home games that started the year. Then they survived a tough game at Virginia Tech, 17-10 and shut out Louisville. Florida State was up to #9 in the country.
After beating a bad Mississippi State team 17-6, Bowden took his team to Baton Rouge. LSU wasn’t great, but they were decent, finishing the season with a winning record. And Death Valley was no more hospitable to visitors in the late 1970s then it is today.
Jordan got most of the time at quarterback, and though he was a little erratic—14-for-31—he made big plays. Those fourteen completions got a stunning 312 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, a 53-yard strike to Hardis Johnson and a 40-yard pass to Flowers. Florida State won 24-19 and moved up to #6.
The following week at lowly Cincinnati was a trap game and FSU survived it, 26-21. It set up another important test, this one at home with South Carolina and their talented running back George Rogers.
Florida State took an early 13-0 lead before Rogers, who would win the Heisman the following year and have a good NFL career, ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run. FSU never really contained the big and explosive back, but they had a running game of their own. Lyles gained 132 yards on 25 carries and the Seminoles were vastly better in the air. This time it was Woodham, efficiently moving the ball at 15/29 for 145 yards (not bad numbers in this era) and the ‘Noles pulled away to a 27-7 win.
An undefeated season and major bowl invite was now in FSU’s crosshairs and they didn’t let up, crushing mediocre Memphis, 66-17. The season finale was with Florida, who went winless this season. The Seminoles put their rival out of their misery with a 27-14 win. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked #4 and paired up with traditional power Oklahoma, ranked #5 with a 10-1 record.
There was no viable path for the Oklahoma-Florida State winner to claim a national title. Alabama and Ohio State were both unbeaten, but even if they both lost, that would mean third-ranked and USC (undefeated at 10-0-1) needed to beat Ohio State and that would crown the Trojans. The Orange Bowl was boxed out, but the storyline of traditional power versus up-and-comer was no small consolation prize.
Florida State started quickly, but you could tell they weren’t quite ready for prime-time. An early 7-0 lead might have been bigger if not for some mistakes. Watts broke through with a 61-yard touchdown run that tied the game and it was all Oklahoma the rest of the way in a 24-7 win. Simmons would concede afterward that the Sooners simply had more talent.
But we know how the story ends for Bowden’s tenure in Tallahassee. He got increasingly more talent, became a major bowl regular and won a couple national championships. It all started back in 1979.