The 1989 Florida State football team just took a bit too long to get started. By season’s end they were one of the best teams in the nation—in fact, a lot of observers felt they were the best. But a slow start meant that no one was arguing their case for a national championship.
Florida State came into the season with high expectations. They were ranked #6 in the preseason polls and this was now the third year of the Bobby Bowden Ascendancy, where the program was one of the consistently elite teams in the country from 1987-2003.
The Seminoles’ best player was strong safety LeRoy Butler, a consensus All-American. Other players who got some love from the All-American voters were inside linebacker Kirk Carruthers, linebacker/nose tackle Odell Haggins, defensive tackle Eric Hayes and center Michael Tanks. With this kind of quality in the trenches, it was easy to see why Florida State would become so good.
There was new personnel elsewhere. Peter Tom Willis was first-year starting quarterback in his senior year. He was supported by Dexter Carter in the backfield and a balanced receivers corps of Lawrence Dawsey, Ronald Lewis and Terry Anthony. But the biggest absence was the hole left by cornerback and return man extraordinaire Deion Sanders, now in the NFL. Terrell Buckley eventually became a pretty good replacement, but no one could truly fill Deion’s shoes.
Florida State’s first game was with an unheralded Southern Miss team, played in Jacksonville. The quarterback was a unheard-of kid with a strong arm by the name of Brett Favre. The young gunslinger led a late touchdown drive that stunned the Seminoles 30-26 and sent them tumbling to #16 in the polls.
It got worse a week later at home against Clemson. Florida State was still an independent in 1989, so this wasn’t the big ACC divisional game that it is today, but with a loss on the books, FSU could ill-afford another. And that’s what happened, as Clemson came into Doak Campbell and handed the ‘Noles a 34-23 loss.
The national championship hopes were gone, and the season could get away completely with a trip to LSU up next. The Tigers were in similar straits—they had opened the season ranked #7, but lost their opener to Texas A&M. It was a battle of desperate teams and Florida State got off the schneid with a 31-21 win.
After blasting Tulane 59-9, voters moved FSU back into the Top 25. The next game was at Syracuse, at a time when the Orangemen had a 16-game home winning streak and had gone 20-2 over the last two regular seasons. This was the game where Florida State really began putting it together. They had a 20-3 lead in the second half, when Buckley returned a punt for a touchdown and Butler came up with a Pick-6 to cap a 41-10 rout.
Florida State won easily at what was then a struggling Virginia Tech program. The Seminoles were set to host #11 Auburn, a team that would eventually share the SEC title. This was the third year in a row FSU and Auburn had played.
Florida State had gone on the road and won a 34-6 blowout in 1987, a game that really announced the Seminoles as national contenders at a time when that wasn’t taken as a given. The two teams ended the previous year by playing in the Sugar Bowl and Deion intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve a 13-7 win. FSU made it three in a row with a 22-14 win that pushed them up to #9 in the polls. Long before Jameis Winston led an epic drive to win the 2013 national championship, Florida State was in the business of tormenting Auburn.
One week later though, was the game everyone in Tallahassee was really juiced up for, and it was with #2 Miami. The Hurricanes had beaten Florida State each of the previous three years, including a gutwrenching game that swung the national championship in 1987, and a blowout in 1988 when FSU was ranked #1. It was time for some payback.
Butler intercepted the first pass of redshirt freshman quarterback Gino Torretta, and one play later, Carter ripped off a 37-yard touchdown run. The prime-time crowd was electrified early, and Edgar Bennett scored on a later touchdown run. A back-and-forth first quarter ended with FSU ahead 14-10.
Miami had opportunities over the second and third quarters, but Florida State made all the biggest plays. They intercepted a Torretta pass in the end zone and recovered a fumble on the one-yard line. After that latter, FSU drove 99 yards, the biggest blow being a 51-yard pass from Willis to Lewis. It gave Florida State a 21-10 lead and it was the dagger. They won 24-10 and moved up to #6 in the polls.
Florida State closed the season with three straight wins, beating a decent South Carolina team, and what was then just a decent Florida team, sandwiched around blowing out a bad Memphis team. The Seminoles closed the year ranked #5 and got a ticket to the Fiesta Bowl, their third straight major bowl appearance.
Nebraska was the opponent, and the Cornhuskers took a 7-0 lead. FSU opened up in the second quarter, with Willis throwing three touchdown passes and they led 21-10 at half. Willis threw two more scoring passes in the second half and Florida State capped off their comeback season with a 41-17 rout.
Florida State finished the season third in the nation, trailing only Miami and Notre Dame, each of whom finished with one loss. Had the ‘Noles managed to split their first two games, the strength of their finish and their win over the Hurricanes would have surely had them at #1. Instead, they had to accept the value of a major bowl victory, a Top 5 finish and the belief of lot of people—myself included—that they would have won a national playoff.