Bobby Bowden had the Florida State football program established as a national power by 1992. The Seminoles had won major bowl games in each of the previous five years and finished in the Top 5 nationally each time. But they were coming off a particularly heartbreaking end to the 1991 season.
A year that looked like it might end with the program’s first national championship, instead saw a field goal against archrival Miami drift wide right. The 1992 Florida State Seminoles had a new league—they joined the ACC, but everything else was the same—they were an excellent team, they won a major bowl, they finished in the Top 5…but they lost to Miami, as a field goal drifted wide right.
Florida State had a new quarterback, a two-sport wonder named Charlie Ward. He was a starter on the basketball team and ultimately made his living playing for the New York Knicks in the NBA. In his junior year playing QB, he was both explosive and erratic, with 22 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. But he got better as the year went along and set the stage for a 1993 season where he won the Heisman Trophy.
The offense used a balanced array of weapons at both running back and wide receiver. No one player cleared the 600-yard mark for either rushing or receiving yards, further underscoring Ward’s importance in orchestrating the whole thing. Tamarick Vanover’s 42 catches led the team, but his biggest value was as a kick returner, where he was 1st-team All-American.
Florida State’s defense was led by one of the best linebackers in the country, Marvin Jones, who ended the season as a unanimous selection to the All-American team. Corey Sawyer, a cornerback with an NFL future was 2nd-team All-American.
The Seminoles were ranked #5 to start the season and played their inaugural ACC game against Duke to start the season. The Blue Devils were woeful and Florida State’s 48-21 win was really not all that impressive in context. They went to 15th-ranked Clemson the following week and were sloppy. Ward threw four interceptions and FSU trailed 20-17 in the fourth quarter. It was then that the new quarterback showed his mettle, leading a 77-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard TD pass to Kevin Knox and a 24-20 win.
Florida State went on to visit a good N.C. State team and post a nice 34-13 win. They beat Wake Forest, a respectable squad that would win seven games, 35-7. By the time September was out, the Seminoles were 4-0 in the ACC, third in the national rankings and poised for another showdown with Miami.
The Hurricanes were ranked #2 and this game was on the road. Vanover took the opening kickoff 94 yards to the house, The FSU offense bogged down after that, but they were very much in the game, trailing 17-16 and ready to get the ball back late in the fourth quarter. It was then that the special teams failed them.
Sawyer fielded a punt and got caught back in his own end zone. The crucial two points put the Seminoles a full field goal behind and cost them possession. They still got the ball back and Ward again led a late clutch late drive. He got kicker Dan Mowrey a shot at a 39-yard field goal that would at least salvage a tie game (overtime did not exist in college football until 1996). But Mowrey missed wide right and this rivalry had another chapter Florida State fans could have lived without.
The loss sent FSU back to #8 in the polls and they went to work on winning their first conference title. The Seminoles beat up Mack Brown’s good North Carolina team, 36-13. FSU edged Georgia Tech 29-24 and then won a defensive battle against a pretty good Virginia squad, 13-3. A 69-21 pasting of lowly Maryland completed the eight-game romp through their new conference and had the Seminoles back at #5.
A non-conference date with a horrid Tulane team had the expected result, a 70-7 trashing that moved FSU to #3 and set up their season-ending battle with Florida, ranked #6 and coached by Steve Spurrier.
Ward was brilliant at home against the Gators. He went 27/47 for 331 yards. Knox caught nine balls for 123 yards. The defense shut down the Florida ground game, holding them to 41 rushing yards. The final was 45-24.
Miami and Alabama ended the season ranked 1-2 and would play in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. Had Mowrey’s field goal been true and the ‘Noles-’Canes game ended in a tie, it would have come down to a vote between FSU or Miami on who would get the Sugar Bowl bid. Florida State, as the team on the road in the head-to-head game, and one that was surging down the stretch and having closed the season by dismantling Florida, would have been well-positioned to win that vote and play for a national championship. Instead, they settled for an Orange Bowl bid against 11th-ranked Nebraska.
The Seminoles had too much talent for the Cornhuskers. Even with Florida State built on speed and Nebraska on power, FSU still had their way in the trenches. They outrushed the Huskers 221-144, with Sean Jackson’s 101-yard night leading the way. Ward threw first-half touchdown passes to Vanover and Kez McCorvey to help build an early 17-0 lead. The game never got close and it ended 27-14.
Florida State ended up #2 in the final polls after Miami was demolished by Alabama in a game that was running concurrently with the Orange Bowl. But under Bowden, the Seminoles knew what it was like to finish as high as #2—they had done so in 1987. They were after the top spot in the polls and one year later, they would finally get it.