Bobby Bowden’s Florida State program made their first national splash in the seasons of 1979 and 1980. They went to the Orange Bowl both years and finished in the final Top 10 each time. The five years since then had seen FSU drift off the national radar. They were going to bowls and winning them—a 3-0-1 postseason record from 1981-86, but none were major bowls and none resulted in Top 10 finishes. The 1987 Florida State football team decisively changed the program’s historical arc and began a long run in the national elite.
There was no shortage of talent in Tallahassee. Deion Sanders led the defense and was a first-team All-American at corner. Paul McGowan won the Butkus Award at linebacker and strong safety Stan Shriver intercepted four passes of his own. A unit overseen by coordinator Mickey Andrews allowed just 13.6 ppg during 1987, ranking seventh in the nation in points allowed.
The offense could put up points averaging over forty a game and finishing second nationally. And by the standards of 1987 they were explosive and creative. But it was an old-fashioned power running game that did the most damage.
Sammie Smith muscled his way to over 1,200 yards and averaged better than seven yards a pop. Dexter Carter was an excellent #2 back, rushing for 679 yards and getting nearly six yards per attempt. They ran behind an offensive line led by tackle Pat Tomberlin, who got some love in the All-American voting.
Danny McManus was behind center. His numbers were above average for the era—52% completion rate, 7.4 yards-per-attempt and 14-9 TD/INT ratio. But he had an ability to play even better than that at the season’s biggest moments.
Herb Gainer was the leading wide receiver with thirty catches and Ronald Lewis was a talented big-play guy on the outside. The best of the pass-catchers, though, lined up at tight end. Pat Carter might have only caught 28 balls for 274 yards, but he was second-team All-American.
Expectations were high in Tallahassee. It was anticipated this would be the team to get Bowden’s program back in the national conversation and they were ranked #8 in the country.
The schedule opened with three teams that would finish roughly around the .500 mark. FSU blasted Texas Tech 40-16, crushed East Carolina 44-3 and cruised past Memphis 41-24. The ‘Noles were set for a late September trip to East Lansing.
Michigan State had opened the season on Labor Day night with an impressive beatdown of USC. And though no one knew it at the time, they were destined to beat USC again in the Rose Bowl come January. Sparty had an aggressive, attacking defense and Bowden knew he had to keep them off balance.
On the game’s first play, FSU receiver Lawrence Dawsey got the ball on a reverse and gained 23 yards. Florida State chipped their way out to a 7-3 lead, although with the way their own defense was dominating and setting up field position it probably should have been worse.
In the second half, Bowden dialed up the reverse again. This time Lewis took it 56 yards to the house. With FSU’s own D in complete command, that was the backbreaker and the Seminoles broke it open to a 31-3 win.
The victory moved them to #4 in the polls. And they were coming home to face archrival and third-ranked Miami.
For the better part of three quarters, Florida State dominated the flow of play. But they were again missing opportunities. This time it was in the kicking game. Even though placekicker Derek Schmidt would be third-team All-American at season’s end, this afternoon was a rough one. He missed an extra point and two field goals.
Even so, the Seminoles still led 19-3. But a Hurricane team that had Steve Walsh at quarterback and Michael Irvin at receiver wasn’t going quietly. Miami drove twice for touchdowns. Both times they converted the two-point play. They got the ball back late on their own 27-yard line.
Deion and Irvin had battled each other all day. Irvin won this one, getting open down the sideline. Walsh hit him perfectly in stride. The receiver went the distance. 26-19 Miami.
But it wasn’t over. McManus rallied the Seminoles with clutch throws. Dexter Carter made a terrific catch to keep the drive alive and Lewis caught a TD pass in the final minute. The score was 26-25 and in the pre-1996 days of college football when there was no overtime, it was decision time for Bowden.
Earlier in the week, Bowden had said that if push came to shove he would play for a tie. But the problems in the kicking game and the fervor of his players to go for the win led him to change his mind. The two-point play missed. FSU had come up just short.
There was no time to lick wounds though. Southern Miss might have been a .500 team, but a road trip there one week after a loss like this could be a prime letdown spot. Didn’t happen. Florida State unloaded their frustrations in a 61-10 win. Then they came home and ripped a bad Louisville team 32-9. After a week off, they hosted Tulane—another respectable .500 team—and unleashed with a 73-14 demolition.
Florida State was still #4 in the polls and they had another opportunity for a big national statement. This one would be at sixth-ranked Auburn, the eventual SEC champ and coming into the game at 7-0-1.
This time it was the Seminoles getting, rather than making the mistakes. They recovered a fumble on the game’s first play and turned it into a touchdown. Another fumble was converted into a field goal. A fake punt helped keep a touchdown drive alive. They intercepted three passes. This highly anticipated national showdown game on CBS was 27-3 by the half and ended 34-6.
College football in 1987 was very stable at the top. Oklahoma and Nebraska were in the top two spots in advance of their November showdown and Miami stayed at #3. So none of these wins (or even the loss to the Hurricanes) had much effect on poll position. But they were gaining FSU increased national respect.
The ‘Noles easily took care of Furman. Then they went to six-win Florida and faced their talented sophomore running back Emmitt Smith. A 28-14 victory concluded the regular season. They nudged up to #3 in the polls and got a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. They were back on the New Year’s stage.
The Fiesta Bowl was sort of a de facto national consolation game. Nebraska had lost to Oklahoma and was the opponent. Meanwhile, OU and Miami, both 11-0, were playing for the national title. Some national pundits—notably CBS’ Brent Musberger–speculated that had Bowden simply kicked the extra point against the ‘Canes, perhaps Florida State’s position would have been different.
I have a hard time imagining that to be the case. For one, Syracuse was also 11-0 and not finding any path to a national championship. The Orange were going to the Sugar Bowl to play Auburn, but had both Miami and Florida State been 10-0-1, one has to think Syracuse would have gotten the Orange Bowl crack at Oklahoma.
Then you have to ask why Florida State would have been ranked ahead of Miami anyway, if both teams were 10-0-1. Miami was the higher ranked team coming in. They were the more accomplished program in recent years, with the national title of 1983 and near-misses in both 1985 and 1986. And they were the team on the road in the head-to-head game against FSU.
In short, had Bowden kicked the extra point in October, I believe he would have still been in the Fiesta Bowl, still had no shot at a national title and also been the butt of some jokes for having settled for a tie and then seen it blow up in his face. And there was still plenty at stake in Tempe. Florida State was aiming for the first major bowl victory in program history.
FSU dug themselves a 14-0 hole, allowing a punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter. McManus responded with two second-quarter touchdown passes to Gainer and the Seminoles pushed ahead 21-14 by halftime. The momentum pendulum swung back Nebraska’s way in the third quarter, as they took a 28-24 lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Cornhusker running game, which would enjoy a 242-82 edge in rush yardage, began a long drive to put it away. They reached the two-yard line and had first and goal. Then Florida State defensive tackle Eric Hayes recovered a fumble. McManus came onto the field with new life.
The quarterback was having a career afternoon. He would attempt 51 passes and throw for 375 yards, both Fiesta Bowl records at the time. He led FSU to the 15-yard line where they faced a 4th-and-goal with just over three minutes left. One more time, he delivered, a touchdown strike to Lewis for a 31-28 lead.
Florida State was also doing a better job than Nebraska at avoiding penalties. On the final Cornhusker drive they got a 56-yard pass play to again reach the Seminole two-yard line. An illegal formation nullified the play. FSU hung on for the win.
Miami beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that night, Syracuse tied Auburn in the Sugar and Florida State finished the season #2 in the nation.
What’s more, 1987 began an astonishing string of dominance. It was the first of fourteen straight years that FSU finished in the national top 10. They were voted #1 for the first time in 1993 and won another national championship in 1999. The Bowden era truly arrived in 1987.