Bobby Bowden had been knocking on the national championship door for several years at Florida State. He reached Orange Bowls following the 1979 and 1980 seasons. He came within one play of the title in 1987. He delivered contenders in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The most common theme of his inability to get over the top, especially in the most recent years, was the hurdle that was the Miami Hurricanes. The 1991 Florida State football team proved to be more of the same.
This was supposed to be “The Year” in Tallahassee. The Seminoles were loaded. Casey Weldon was second-team All-American at quarterback and was in the Heisman race for much of the season. Amp Lee ran for nearly 1,000 yards and a quality back in Edgar Bennett was behind him. Marvin Jones was one of the best linebackers in the country. And no college defensive back was better in 1991 than corner Terrell Buckley, who intercepted 12 passes and won the Jim Thorpe Award.
Florida State was ranked #1 to start the season and no national observers seriously disputed it. They opened the season August 29. The Pigskin Classic in Anaheim matched them up with BYU, whose quarterback Ty Detmer would ultimately edge out Weldon for the 1st-team All-American spot. But not because of anything that happened in Anaheim.
Weldon went 21/28 for 268 yards and two touchdowns. Bennett rushed for 98 yards and FSU as a team rolled up 539 yards of offense. Detmer did what he could, 19/32 fo229 yards but he was intercepted by Buckley and Florida State rolled to an easy 44-28 win.
After home blowouts of Tulane and Western Michigan, the Seminoles went north to Ann Arbor to face the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines, fresh off a big victory over Notre Dame. Already, the Heisman race was being narrowed to Weldon and Michigan’s great wide receiver, Desmond Howard.
Buckley took on the challenge of covering Howard and held him to one catch. In the meantime, the entire Seminole offense put on a show. Weldon threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Lee ran for 122 yards. Seven different players scored touchdowns as Florida State scored the most points ever for a visiting team at Michigan Stadium. The final was 51-31.
You may note one statistical oddity—the ‘Noles scored eight touchdowns, yet ended up with only 51 points, rather than 56. Yes, they failed on five PATS, all missed kicks. It was the problem that would haunt them before the year was over.
But for now, it didn’t seem to matter. Florida State took on #10 Syracuse, continuing Bowden’s admirable pattern of putting together a strong schedule. The Orange took leads of 7-0 and 14-7, but playing in front of their home crowd, this potent offense got unleashed. Weldon threw three more touchdown passes. Lee had another 100-yard game. Buckley had another interception when the game was still close. They rolled up over 600 yards on the day and cruised to a 46-14 win.
The Seminoles got to the soft part of their schedule and cruised through the next five games. Virginia Tech, LSU, Middle Tennessee, Louisville and South Carolina were all weaker programs than is the case today and none presented a serious challenge to FSU. The stage was set for November 16 and the game all of college football wanted to see—the grudge game with Miami.
Miami was ranked #3, with Washington nestled in between the two Sunshine State schools at #2. It was understood at the time that the Miami-Florida State winner was going to control its destiny for the national championship, likely in the Orange Bowl.
FSU fell behind 7-0, but then Miami started making mistakes. They turned the ball over three times, one of which led to a Seminole touchdown and the other two which cut short promising Hurricane drives. But Florida State didn’t deliver the knockout blow, three times settling for field goals on deep drives. They were still in control, with a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter, but the ‘Canes still had hope.
Giving Miami hope in this era when they were “The U” was about as fatal as you could get. The FSU run defense showed some cracks. The Hurricanes put up 10 points and now the Seminoles trailed 17-16 with less than three minutes to play.
In 1987, Florida State first blew a lead at home to Miami and then made an admirable last-ditch drive that almost won it. History repeated itself. Weldon drove the Seminoles into field goal range. A pass interference penalty in the end zone put them on the 18-yard line, but the college rules, which only penalize fifteen yards rather than putting the ball at the spot of the foul, hurt FSU.
They would have to turn the problematic kicking game. Lining up on the left hash, the field goal try looked true. Watching the game in my college apartment, I was convinced it was good. But it narrowly missed. It went “Wide Right”, a phrase that would define this rivalry in the 1990s. Doak Campbell Stadium fell eerily silent. Miami had done it to Florida State again.
The national championship hopes were gone. Miami and Washington would each finish undefeated and share the crown. Weldon’s Heisman campaign had crashed—Howard would win it in a landslide. And Florida State played out the string like a team that had nothing left to compete for.
After a week off, they concluded the regular season in Florida, where the Gators had locked up the SEC title and Sugar Bowl bid. FSU couldn’t get anything going offensively and trailed 14-9 before a late drive gave them a chance. Weldon’s final pass into the end zone fell incomplete and in a matter of weeks, the Seminoles had gone from best in the country to #3 in their own state.
They accepted a Cotton Bowl bid to play Texas A&M and it was one of the ugliest major bowl games I can recall watching. The weather was gray and drab in Dallas and it seemed to mirror Florida State’s mood. Weldon threw four interceptions and only went 14/32 for 92 yards…and that was enough to win. Texas A&M turned it over eight times and never converted a third down. Florida State won 10-2 and ended the season ranked #4 in the country.
There’s no question that the 1991 Florida State football season was, on its face, an outstanding one. A national Top 5 finish, major bowl victory and blowout wins over Michigan and Syracuse are nothing to sneer at. But for those of us who actually watched the season unfold, it will always seem like a big crash and burn because this Seminole team looked destined for so much more.