October 17, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Danny Kanell remembers the long, quiet plane ride home from South Bend, Indiana, after No. 1 Florida State was beaten 31-24 by Notre Dame back in 1993, a 1 vs. 2 matchup of unbeatens billed as the Game of the Century.

''We really felt like our season was over,'' said Kanell, the ESPN analyst who was the Seminoles' backup quarterback that season. ''The chance to win the national title and give Bobby Bowden his first championship was out the window.''

It wasn't. The Fighting Irish were upset the next week by Boston College. The Seminoles went back to being No. 1 in the AP poll and went on to beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and win a national title that to this day Notre Dame fans think should have been theirs.

Back then, one loss felt like a death sentence to a team's national title hopes, and the debate over who was the best team in college football didn't end after the last game.

Fast forward to Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium: Notre Dame (6-0) and defending national champion Florida State (6-0) will again meet in a battle of unbeatens. In the new College Football Playoff era, though, the days of a regular-season game being called the Game of the Century are probably gone.

''We felt that if we didn't win that game we could not win the national championship,'' former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said of the 1993 game. ''It would have been much better in `89 and `93 as well as a couple other years for us had it gone to the final four and said, OK, we'll take four teams because there is a good chance Florida State and Notre Dame would have met again.''

That could very well be the case this season. The new postseason format has altered the sense of urgency in these big regular-season games.

''It does (feel different) from that perspective,'' Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Thursday.

From 1968 - the first season the AP began taking its final poll and crowning a champion after the bowl games - to 1992, 16 AP national champs did not lose a game. Sure, you could lose a game and win a title, but the odds were against it.

Even during the Bowl Championship Series era, one loss was often too much to overcome. Only six of 16 BCS champions had imperfect records.

But there is little doubt that there will be teams that have lost in the College Football Playoff. In fact, history suggests at least two of the final four will have already lost a game. Only once (2004) during the BCS era did more than two teams from what are now considered the Big Five conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference) finish the regular-season undefeated.

Holtz said having a playoff wouldn't have changed his one-game-at-a-time approach as a coach.

''But when you do lose ... it isn't the end of the world,'' he said. ''It isn't like we don't have a chance now.

''Your goal is to be in the top four right now. Your goal then was to be No. 1 all the way through so there was a great deal of pressure. But it's a little different. All you want to do is get in the playoff. If you can you get in the playoff, you've got a chance.''

Florida State's road to the playoff looks fairly smooth if it can get by the Irish. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the Seminoles don't have another team currently ranked or with fewer than two losses on their schedule. Then again, Florida State hasn't been nearly the juggernaut it was last season, when it steamrolled the ACC on the way to a perfect season. Maybe road trips to Miami and Louisville are more daunting then they seem.

''I do feel like it's more of a must-win game for Florida State,'' Kanell said. ''Because they play in the ACC which is one of the weaker conferences in college football ... there aren't too many tests where they can make a statement down the road as it looks now.''

For quarterback Everett Golson and Notre Dame, a good showing as 12 1/2-point underdogs in Tallahassee, along with opportunities for quality victories (trips to No. 17 Arizona State and No. 22 USC) still to come, should be enough to keep the Fighting Irish in playoff contention with an 11-1 finish.

The Irish might leave the Florida panhandle without a victory, but they won't leave hopeless.

''They're excited about the challenge and opportunity,'' coach Brian Kelly said of his players. ''That's why they come to Notre Dame. To play those kinds of games that have relevance and our on the national stage.''

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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