Bobby Bowden put his up-and-coming program on the map in 1979 with a run to the Orange Bowl. The 1980 Florida State football team was ready to demonstrate it was no fluke. They had All-American nose tackle Ron Simmons back to anchor the defense, along with fellow All-American Bobby Butler in the secondary.
The offense didn’t have national honorees, but they could move the ball in a system that was very wide-open for the times. Rick Stockstill threw 201 passes and completed 60 percent. Bowden made use of the running backs in the passing game, with Michael Whiting’s 25 catches being the most on the team.
Whiting also ran for 500 yards, while Sam Platt led the team in rushing with nearly 1,000 yards. Hardis Johnson was the top wideout, with 24 catches for 419 yards.
But it was special teams that Florida State excelled at, with All-American choices at kicker and punter. Bill Capece was the placekicker, while Rohn Stark, a future Pro Bowler in the NFL, was the nation’s best punter. Florida State was still searching for respect though, and was ranked #13 to start the season.
The Seminoles went to a pretty good LSU team and won 16-0 to open the campaign, moving to #10. They followed it up by crushing shaky competition in Louisville and South Carolina by a combined 115-7. But a road trip to Miami—a team on its way to nine wins—would prove to be a problem, as it would so often in Bowden’s later career. The ‘Noles lost 10-9 and slipped to #16.
Florida State’s season was now in trouble. They had a road trip to Nebraska and a home game with Pitt next, both teams ranked in the top five. The Seminoles could be out of the major bowl picture before October was halfway through.
They were beaten in the trenches in Nebraska, losing the rushing battle 201-12 and falling behind 14-3 at the half. But Florida State was opportunistic. They capitalized on three second-half turnovers and nudged their way to an 18-14 lead when the Cornhuskers launched one final drive.
The ball was on the 3-yard line with twelve seconds left. Linebacker Paul Piurowski stepped up and forced the fourth turnover of the half, with a sack and fumble. Florida State survived.
Pitt was one of the most talented teams in the country. Hugh Green was the best defensive lineman in the country. Mark May was the best offensive lineman in the country. The roster had 23 future NFL starters on it. And they had a sophomore at quarterback in Dan Marino who didn’t turn out half bad either. The Panthers were unbeaten and smelling their second national championship in four years.
The special teams heroes of Florida State came through. Capece nailed five field goals, including a 50-yarder at the end of the first half that gave the Seminoles a 20-7 lead. Stark crushed punts of 60, 67 and 53 yards and controlled field position. In the meantime, Platt ran for 123 yards and the opportunistic defense continued—they picked off Marino three times, recovered four fumbles and won under the lights in Tallahassee 36-22.
It was to be Pitt’s only loss. Florida State was back on the national scene, ranked #7 and a player for a New Year’s Day bid.
The Seminoles rolled through the next four games without incident, beating Boston College, Memphis, Tulsa and Virginia Tech, with the former and latter teams being competitive and the middle two not so much. FSU got a tougher battle from rival Florida, an eight-win team, but the ‘Noles survived 17-13.
FSU was #2 in the country and headed back for the Orange Bowl. They were getting a rematch with Oklahoma. The Sooners were ranked fourth. Florida State fans had two things to think about in the run-up to the game—would their ‘Noles be as overmatched as they had been the previous year in South Beach, a decisive 24-7 loss to the Sooners? And would they get a shot at the national championship?
The answer to the first question was negative. On January 1, top-ranked Georgia won the Sugar Bowl early in the day, so by the time Florida State and Oklahoma took the field, the national championship was settled. But the Seminoles were certainly not overmatched in this game and the two teams gave college football fans one final thrill before the season ended.
The FSU defense held a potent Sooner running game to 156 yards on 55 carries. The Seminole defense continued to get turnovers, six in in all. One of them was a botched punt that was recovered in the end zone. FSU led 17-10 late in the game.
But earlier, the Seminoles had missed a key opportunity when Capece uncharacteristically missed a short field goal. Oklahoma was still in the game when they got the ball on their own 22-yard line with 2:37 left. The Sooners, a team that couldn’t pass the ball, managed to drive78 yards for the touchdown and then converted the two-point play for an 18-17 lead.
Florida State made one last gasp, reached the Oklahoma 40-yard line and sent Capece out to try a desperation 57-yarder. He got good leg into it, but not quite enough. The ‘Noles came up just short.
It was a crushing loss, but on a deeper level, the program’s progress was clear. Last year, they had made the New Year’s stage. This year, they showed they could legitimately compete with the nation’s best programs.
Even so, FSU took a brief step back from the national elite. They continued to win and go to bowl games but their next trip to a major bowl would be in 1987 when they arrived in the national elite to stay.