The era of football excellence in Tallahassee began in earnest in 1987 when Bobby Bowden took Florida State to a #2 national finish. From 1987-89, the Seminoles did two things—they finished in the national top five and they won major bowl games. The downside was they always found themselves chasing archrival Miami, who won the national title in two of those years—even in 1989, when FSU won the head-to-head battle. The 1990 Florida State football team was more of the same—they were an excellent team and finished in the top five, but Miami continued to be a stumbling block.
Bowden split quarterback duties pretty evenly between Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson in 1990. Weldon made more big plays—nearly nine yards per attempt and a 61% completion rate. Johnson, who had a long NFL career ahead of him and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was efficient, completing 67% of his passes at seven yards per attempt. Either way, Florida State was getting good play at the quarterback position.
Lawrence Dawsey was the top receiver, catching 65 passes for nearly a thousand yards and getting some recognition in the All-American voting. But this Florida State offense made really good use of its running backs in the passing game. Amp Lee caught 34 balls. Edgar Bennett, soon to be a teammate of Brett Favre’s with the Green Bay Packers, caught 35. Even more impressive is that Lee and Bennett each averaged double-digit yards-per-catch, not common for backs who often caught their passes in the flat.
The diversity of weapons and Bowden’s renowned offensive creativity helped Florida State rank fifth in the nation in points scored. The defense was a little bit behind. They had some good talent in linebackers Kirk Carruthers and Marvin Jones, along with cornerback Terrell Buckley. But they weren’t loaded and the FSU defense ranked 21st nationally in points allowed.
By 1990, this program was a recognized national power and Florida State was ranked #4 in the preseason polls. The Seminoles opened the season against a mediocre East Carolina team with a 45-24 win. FSU blasted Georgia Southern, then a non-Division I program, 48-6. The Seminoles went to New Orleans and blew out subpar Tulane 31-13. Virginia Tech was a respectable opponent on their way to a winning season, but Florida State rolled, 39-28.
By the time the month of September was out, the Seminoles were up to #2 in the polls. And it was time to go to Miami. The Hurricanes, the preseason #1, had lost their opener at BYU and were now #9 and trying to claw their way back into the national picture. The games between Miami and Florida State in this era were heated and usually went down to the wire.
This first Saturday afternoon of October would be an exception to the rule. Florida State played poorly and were pummeled by Miami’s running game. The ‘Noles trailed 24-6 by halftime and lost 31-22. They fell to #7 in the rankings.
There was a week off to recoup for a visit to fifth-ranked Auburn. Playing in prime-time, Florida State took a 17-7 lead at half. The offense bogged down after intermission, but the lead was still at 17-10 late in the fourth quarter. Auburn tied the game with just under four minutes to play and then won it on a last-second field goal. Florida State was down to #12 in the rankings and all but out of the national picture because of a loss to a team that would fade down the stretch.
The Seminoles took advantage of a mediocre LSU team in a 42-3 thrashing. The Seminoles went to South Carolina, another team lingering around the .500 mark and delivered a 41-10 pasting. Florida State hosted woeful Cincinnati and rolled up 70 points. The ‘Noles took on a weak Memphis squad and rolled to a 35-3 win.
Florida State was back up to #8 in the polls. There was still a big unanswered question about this team though, and it was whether or not they could beat anyone good. None of the teams FSU had beaten thus far would win more than six games in 1990. That brings us to the regular season finale with Florida.
This was Steve Spurrier’s first year in Florida and the Gators were the best team in the SEC. Probation incurred by the previous regime would keep Florida out of a bowl game, so this December 1 night in Tallahassee essentially was the “bowl game” for the sixth-ranked Gators. For a game that didn’t have national championship stakes, this had a big-game feel, even for those outside the geographic confines of the local rivalry.
In the game’s first minute, Weldon hit Dawsey on a 76-yard touchdown pass. Florida State led 17-3 after the first quarter and 24-10 at halftime. Lee was running the ball and piled up 147 yards on the ground. The early strike to Dawsey was one of many big plays for Weldon, who generated 325 passing yards off a 13/23 game. Jones had twelve unassisted tackles. And any questions about Florida State’s ability against top teams were vanquished in a 45-30 win that didn’t feel even that close.
Florida State didn’t get a major bowl bid this season, even being ranked #6 after the Florida beatdown. But the Seminoles’ matchup with seventh-ranked Penn State certainly had a big bowl feel to it. It was a prestige matchup for a new postseason game. This game has undergone a lot of name changes, from the Carquest to the Champs Sports to the Russell Athletic to its current name of Cheez-It. Back in 1990, it debuted as the Blockbuster Bowl. And this matchup qualified as one.
The Seminoles played well early on and took a 17-7 lead at the half, thanks to a pair of rushing touchdowns by Lee. Defensively, they came up with a red-zone stop, followed by a blocked field goal. Penn State cut the lead to 17-10 in the third quarter, but Weldon ran in from five yards out to extend the lead out to 24-10.
FSU still had to hold. The Nittany Lions got a touchdown. They got the ball to the Florida State 31-yard-line with a little over three minutes to play. But on 4th-and-8, FSU held and intercepted a pass in the end zone. They ran out the clock and in a battle of coaching legends, Bowden had defeated Joe Paterno.
And there was another top five finish coming. Florida State finished where they had started, at #4 in the polls. The next two years saw FSU continue its strong pattern of finishing in the top five and winning big bowl matchups. They also continued the frustrating pattern of losing to Miami. But those were patterns most any other program in America would gladly have signed on for and in 1993, they finally got over the hump.