Florida State was the program perpetually knocking on the door in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1987 and 1992, the Seminoles finished in the national top 5 and won a major bowl game each and every year. The downside? They never finished #1. The bigger downside? Their in-state rival Miami was even better in that timeframe and the ‘Noles went 1-5 against the ‘Canes. The 1993 Florida State football season was the one where the program finally beat Miami and finally finished atop the final polls.
Bobby Bowden’s ’93 team was loaded and it started with quarterback Charlie Ward. Ward could do everything—he completed 70 percent of his passes and still got 8.5 yards-per-attempt. He avoided mistakes, with a 27-4 TD/INT ratio that’s great for any era and positively dazzling by the standards of the early 1990s. He could run, with 339 rushing yards and an ability to improvise. He could even play a little hoops, having been a key part of the basketball team’s springtime run to the Elite Eight and the NBA in his future. Ward ended up a landslide winner of the Heisman Trophy and rightly so.
Ward spread the ball around to a balanced cast of skill position players. Kez McCorvey was the top receiving target, with 74 catches and 966 yards. Tamarick Vanover and Matt Frier were solid supporting receivers, combining to catch 90 balls. The backs shared in the pass-catching responsibility. Sean Jackson and Warrick Dunn combined to catch 57 passes between them.
Jackson and Dunn were also pretty good at running the football. Jackson ran for over 800 yards and averaged better than six yards per carry. Dunn went for a little over 500 yards and an eye-popping 7.5 a pop. All told, it’s not hard to see why Florida State’s offense was the most prolific in the country.
The defense was also tops in the country, giving up less than 10 points per game. They were led by linebacker Derrick Brooks, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Corey Sawyer, a second-team All-American defensive back picked off six passes. Up front, Derrick Alexander picked up honorable mention from All-American voters.
But with all this talent up and down the roster, the most hyped player coming into the season was the kicker. Yes, the kicker. And a freshman no less.
Three of Florida State’s five recent losses to Miami had come from failures in the kicking game, including the last two. Bowden went and got the top high school kicker in the country, Scott Bentley. He was supposed to be the missing link.
The Seminoles were ranked #1 in the country and opened the season at Giants Stadium in New Jersey for what was then the annual Kickoff Classic. FSU blasted mediocre Kansas 42-0 and they were off and running.
Florida State beat up lowly Duke 45-7. Clemson was ranked #21 and presumably would provide more of a test. No problem. The Seminoles rolled the Tigers 57-0. A prime-time date with Mack Brown’s North Carolina, on their way to a 10-win season, ended in an easy 33-7 triumph for FSU. They blew out an average Georgia Tech squad 51-0. Florida State was looking every bit as good as expectations. But there was the game everyone wanted to see them win before passing judgement. It was the one up next with Miami.
The Hurricanes came to Tallahassee ranked #3 and undefeated themselves. The Seminoles came out blazing, with a 69-yard touchdown run from Jackson and a 72-yard touchdown pass from Ward to Frier before the first quarter was out.
But Florida State had gotten out fast against Miami before. So no one was comfortable when the game was still 21-10 in the fourth quarter. Finally, defensive back Devin Bush intercepted a pass and took it 40 yards to the house. Now, all of Seminole Nation could celebrate. The 28-10 win was a monkey off the back.
If, that is, Florida State could finish the job. They kept rolling through a pretty good Virginia team, 40-14. A 54-0 blasting of lowly Wake Forest followed. FSU went to Maryland, another bad team and dropped a 49-20 win. It was time for another big showdown game.
This one was on the road with Notre Dame. The Irish were undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. It was anticipated that the winner of this game would go to the Orange Bowl to play unbeaten and third-ranked Nebraska. It was anticipated that the winner of this game would easily defeat Nebraska. And it was further anticipated that the winner of this game would be Florida State—they were a two-touchdown favorite on the road.
An immediate drive for a touchdown gave the Seminoles a 7-0 lead and seemed to vindicate those betting odds. But then the Irish took over. They began blasting between the tackles and FSU couldn’t stop the run. When Florida State trailed 31-17 and faced a 4th-and-20 in the fourth quarter, things looked hopeless.
Then a deflected pass produced an unlikely touchdown. Florida State got the ball back and raced down the field for one more desperate try. They reached the 14-yard line. But Ward’s last pass into the end zone was batted down in a 31-24 loss.
Florida State only fell to #2 in the polls, but they still needed help. The bowl format of the time did not mandate a 1 vs. 2 meeting, so it was assumed that Notre Dame and Nebraska would play in the Orange Bowl and that if the third-ranked Cornhuskers won, they would jump up to #1. The Irish only needed to win their finale and FSU would be frozen out of the national title picture…again.
Only fate smiled on Bowden. In a stunning upset, Notre Dame lost to Boston College the following week. Florida State took the field that night against bowl-bound N.C. State and took full advantage of their reprieve with a 62-3 pummeling.
FSU was back atop the polls. There were some who were skeptical of this. And in the interests of full disclosure, this writer was (and remains) one of those skeptics. The Seminoles were ranked ahead of two unbeaten teams (Nebraska and West Virginia) and another they had lost to head-to-head in Notre Dame.
But one thing all of us, skeptic or not, have to acknowledge is this—Florida State took all comers. They had three non-conference games. Two of them had been used on Miami and Notre Dame. The final one would be against Florida, who had just won the SEC title and was ranked #7 nationally.
On the road in Gainesville, the Seminole defense recorded six sacks. Ward was nothing short of spectacular and went 38/53 for 446 yards. FSU led 27-21 in the fourth quarter. The decisive play came with 5:52 left. Facing a third-and-10 on his own 21, Ward rolled left, found Jackson and the running back raced up the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown run. The 33-21 win sent Florida State on to the Orange Bowl for their date with Nebraska.
The Orange Bowl was supposed to be a Florida State rout, but the first quarter established that Nebraska had come to play. No one could score, as Ward was being kept in check. The Seminoles got on the board with a couple field goals by Bentley, but they still trailed 7-6 at the half.
Florida State took control in the third quarter with a short touchdown run by William Floyd giving them the lead, but a two-point attempt failed. That proved crucial when Bentley added another field goal. Instead of having a two-score lead of nine points, they led by eight and Nebraska was within a possession of tying it up.
The problems the Seminoles had against Notre Dame defending the run were on display here tonight. They were outrushed 183-47 and Nebraska reclaimed the lead at 16-15.
But Ward wasn’t finished. He drove Florida State to the five-yard line. Fittingly, it was down to Bentley. As field goals go, this one wasn’t particularly hard, but it was an appropriate end to this journey. He nailed the field goal. Nebraska made one last ditch rally and got a 45-yard field goal try of their own, but the attempted game-winner wasn’t close. The 18-16 win was in the books.
West Virginia also lost, so the national championship debate was back to FSU and Notre Dame as one-loss teams. Some of us argued for the Irish, citing the precedence traditionally given to the head-to-head result as a tiebreaker. The voters disagreed, instead looking at Florida State’s extremely strong schedule and the way they had dominated so many teams. At long last, Bobby Bowden had finished atop the final polls.