2000 Florida State Football: Bobby Bowden’s Last National Contender

Legendary head coach Bobby Bowden was at the peak of his power when the 2000 season began. His Florida State program was on an amazing run of 13 consecutive seasons finishing in the national top five. They had won or shared the ACC title every year since joining the league in 1992. What’s more, Bowden had just his produced his best team, the 1999 national champions that went undefeated. The 2000 Florida State football team didn’t repeat, but they kept the other streaks going. The down side was that, in retrospect, we know that this would be the last real national contender Bowden produced.

Bowden traditionally turned out electric offenses and this 2000 team was no different. Chris Weinke was the quarterback and he threw for over 4,100 yards. His yards-per-attempt was a dazzling 9.7. He threw 33 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. A former minor league baseball player, Weinke was already 28-years-old. And in December he would become the oldest player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Marvin “Snoop” Minnis was Weinke’s best receiver. An All-American himself, Minnis caught 63 passes, and his yards-per-catch was off the charts, at 21.3. Other reliable receivers included eventual NFL starters in Anquan Boldin and Javon Walker. Atrews  Bell was another good target. Every one of FSU’s receivers could stretch the field.

Travis Minor was a versatile running back. He caught 42 passes in this high-powered system, ran for 923 yards and averaged five a pop, behind a line that included All-ACC performers Char-ron Dorsey and Justin Ammon. Florida State’s offense was fifth in the nation for points scored.

Even worse for opposing teams, the defense was loaded. Jamal Reynolds was an All-American at defensive end. Tommy Polley was all-conference at linebacker. The secondary had two more excellent players with Derrick Gibson picking up All-ACC recognition and Tay Cody getting some love from the All-American voters. Florida State’s defense was the very best in the nation in terms of points allowed.

The Seminoles were ranked #2 to start the season and opened up with a home-neutral game in Jacksonville against BYU at the end of August. Florida State won easily, 29-3 But the next game, two weeks later, at Georgia Tech, would be tougher.

Georgia Tech had a good team that would go 9-2 and contend for the ACC crown. Neither team could run the ball and the penalty flags were flying—34 combined for both teams. Tech didn’t turn the ball over, while the ‘Noles gave it up twice. Florida State trailed 15-12 going into the fourth quarter.

Weinke stepped up, throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to get FSU in front. On the day, he would throw for 443 yards. Minnis caught seven balls, while Boldin turned three catches into 100 receiving yards. The Seminoles held a 26-21 lead and then stopped a final Yellow Jackets drive on downs at the FSU 42-yard line.

Having survived that test, Florida State returned to its customary habit of blowing conference rivals out. They hammered mediocre teams in North Carolina and Maryland by a combined score of 122-21. In between was a 31-0 whitewashing of Louisville, then a Conference USA school. The Seminoles rose to #1 in the polls. Just in time to go to Miami on October 7.

The Florida State-Miami rivalry had burned white-hot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the most intense rivalry, not just in college football, but in all of sports for a short period of time. FSU usually ended up on the short end of some crushing losses. They lost because of a missed extra point in 1987. They lost on field goals that went wide right in 1991 and 1992. Each of those games decided either a national title or the right to play for one. When the Seminoles finally broke through and beat the Hurricanes in 1993, en route to the final #1 ranking in the AP poll, it was a national moment.

Miami had slipped off the national radar the past six seasons, but they were ranked #7 coming into this game. It would prove to be a game that dredged up some bad memories. Florida State was moving the ball, but four trips to the red zone in the first half pulled off the difficult feat of netting zero points. Twice, they missed field goals. Twice, they were stopped on fourth down. And they were staring at a 17-0 hole.

Weinke brought the Seminoles all the way back to a 24-20 lead. Miami answered with a touchdown to go ahead 27-24 in the final minute. Weinke got Florida State in position for a game-tying field goal…which went wide right. Florida State had lost and fell to #7 in the polls.

At least winless Duke was coming to Tallahassee the next week, and the Seminoles got a cathartic 63-14 blowout under their belt. That was followed by a 37-3 blasting of six-win Virginia. Florida State was coming down the stretch. They still controlled their destiny to win another ACC crown and the hopes of getting back up to #2 nationally and earning a ticket to play for the national title, remained viable.

A road trip to Raleigh to face #21 N.C. State, and quarterback Phillip Rivers was next. The Seminole ground game kicked into high gear, winning rush yardage 324-29. Minor went for 129 yards and the final was a 58-14 blowout.

That set up a game with 10th-ranked Clemson. A little bit of the juice for this game had been lost when the Tigers fell to Georgia Tech a week earlier, falling out of the top five. But Clemson was still just a game back of FSU in the ACC standings. With two conference games to go, this could either wrap up an outright league title for Bowden, or put his team on the wrong side of the tiebreaker.

In front of the home crowd, Minor and the ground game again went off. The back pounded out 102 yards. The team as a whole rolled up 250 yards. The defense kept Clemson under 100 yards rushing. And Weinke? Merely a 521-yard passing day, with Minnis catching four balls for 163 yards. That’s the formula for a 54-7 pasting.

Florida State closed the conference schedule a week later by hammering lowly Wake Forest 35-6. They were #3 in the polls. There were two pieces of unfinished business—the annual battle with in-state rival Florida. And the Seminoles needed to maneuver their way into the national championship game.

The national landscape was this—Oklahoma was undefeated, and undisputed at #1. Miami was #2, with only an early loss to Washington, and the popular choice to play the Sooners in the Orange Bowl. FSU was #3. Washington was also a one-loss team, but for some reason was given no attention in the debate over the possible opponent for OU.

So, with the debate narrowed to Miami and Florida State, this seemed like it would be an easy call-the Hurricanes would get the nod based on the head-to-head win. If the polls would have had their way, that’s how it would have played out. But in 2000, college football was using a rigid computer-rating methodology. Whatever power ratings the computer spit out, the bowls were obliged to use. And the computers were loving Florida State.

The computers—and anyone else for that matter—had more reason to love the Seminoles when they took apart the SEC champion Gators. The running game wasn’t there, and Weinke was a little more erratic than normal, but he still had Minnis. The wide receiver caught eight passes for 187 yards. And that great defense intercepted three passes. Even without playing their best game, FSU coasted to a 30-7 win over a good opponent.

When the final computer rankings came out, Florida State was indeed #2. They were going to the Orange Bowl to play Oklahoma for the national championship. There was one caveat—the AP writers poll, with Miami ranked #2 and heading to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl, retained the option of keeping the Hurricanes ahead of the Seminoles, even if FSU beat Oklahoma. Only the coaches’ poll had agreed to bind their #1 vote to the results of the Orange Bowl. A split national title with an archrival was a possibility—but split titles are titles nonetheless.

But it wouldn’t matter. Oklahoma had a great defense of their own, and Florida State could get nothing going. A season that had seen such offensive balance and explosiveness ended with a miserable 13-2 defeat.

It was an ugly ending and the Florida State program was at a point where losing their two biggest games meant seeing the season as a disappointment. But they finished #5 in the polls, making it 14 straight years of top five finishes, to go along with continued dominance of the ACC.

What couldn’t be known at this time was that the party was basically over in Tallahassee. The string of conference titles came crashing down in 2001, when FSU had a rough year and Maryland took home league honors. Bowden would still get to three more major bowl games from 2002 through 2005. But he never again won another big bowl, and never again finished in the top 10, much less the top 5. From 2006 through the end of his career in 2009, Florida State settled for minor bowl invites.

Florida State football hasn’t been the same, but the run of 1987-2000 remains one of the most outstanding strings of sustained excellence seen anywhere in modern sports.