When Drew Weatherford moved with his family from Texas to central Florida in the summer of 1993, he was just eight years old, but he quickly embraced a vital rule of childhood in the Sunshine State. Pick a team. "Gators or Seminoles or Hurricanes," recalls Weatherford. "Everybody has to go with one of them." He chose Florida State, which was in the middle of a dizzying run of sustained excellence during which the Seminoles finished in the top five for 14 straight years starting in 1987, won two national championships and on three occasions lost in the title game.
Florida State made greatness look easy, with a seductive, high-speed flash that lured the best recruits in the country to Tallahassee. Weatherford, the third of nine children, grew into a 6'3", 220-pound quarterback, accepted a scholarship offer from his favorite team and last Saturday night--as a redshirt freshman in his third career start--passed for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the Seminoles' 28-17 comeback victory over Boston College. Florida State is 3-0, but make no mistake, the Seminoles no longer make it look easy.
They won their last national championship in '99 and lost a year later to Oklahoma in the title game. Since then, they have lost 15 games in four years--they were beaten only 19 times in the previous 14 seasons--and never finished in the top 10. Coach Bobby Bowden, who turns 76 in November, has been blistered by criticism similar to that heard in recent years by fellow septuagenarian legend Joe Paterno. Why doesn't he just retire?
On Saturday the Seminoles won a strange game in an unfamiliar place. Cast as the foil in Boston College's first Atlantic Coast Conference game, Florida State was mauled for much of the game and outgained by 124 yards, but rallied with a long drive, a blocked punt and a six-play goal-line stand to remain unbeaten.
"We're 3-0, but we could very easily be 1-2," Bowden said afterward, referring to not just the BC game but also his team's ugly 10-7 victory over Miami on Sept. 5. "We're lucky to be winning." Bowden ran stubby fingers through sweat-soaked hair outside his team's dressing room. "It's harder nowadays," Bowden said. "No doubt about that."
Florida State slipped in recent years for numerous reasons. From a practical standpoint the Seminoles' run of top fives was unsustainable and might never be matched. The losses of assistant coaches Chuck Amato (to North Carolina State) in 2000 and Mark Richt (to Georgia) in 2001 left large holes. Just as significant, the ACC, once Florida State's plaything (the Seminoles lost two games in their first nine years in the league), has become a bear of a conference, expanded to 12 teams with the addition of three Big East teams: Miami and Virginia Tech last year and Boston College this year.
In last week's AP poll seven ACC teams were ranked in the Top 25, three more than from any other conference. The Southeastern Conference could lay claim to power with four teams in the top 10, but no league looks deeper than the ACC.
In the week leading up to his team's ACC debut, BC coach Tom O'Brien, who worked in the conference as an assistant at Virginia from 1982 to '96, said, "People asked me if I was surprised Virginia Tech won the ACC last year. What surprised me is that Miami lost three games. In the Big East, Miami didn't lose three games in five or six years."
To be precise, Miami lost 11 games in 13 years as a member of the Big East and won or shared eight conference titles. When the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech left to join the ACC, they brought to what had once been a basketball conference two of the strongest programs in the country. Last Saturday, Miami bounced back from the loss to Florida State with a 36-30 win at Clemson in triple overtime. The Hurricanes won by putting the ball in the hands of junior tailback Tyrone Moss, who rushed for 139 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 25-yard score. The victory was sealed by true freshman safety Kenny Phillips, who intercepted quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to cap his first college start. Phillips fits a Miami prototype that has been in place for more than two decades: He's big (6'2", 200 pounds), fast (4.43 in the 40) and homegrown (Miami's Carol City High). Miami and Clemson are either very strong or similarly flawed, and the college football world will get a measure this Saturday when the Hurricanes host 2-0 Colorado, which has a chance to win the Big 12 North. The Eagles play Clemson on Saturday in Death Valley.
Boston College hardly got off to a flying start in its ACC opener. Florida State walked into Alumni Stadium and made itself right at home, taking a 14-0 lead in the first 5:44. Senior linebacker A.J. Nicholson intercepted BC quarterback Quinton Porter's first ACC pass and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown, then picked off another throw, leading to Weatherford's 20-yard touchdown pass to wideout Greg Carr.
Yet for the remainder of the first half and into the third quarter, Boston College dominated. The Eagles ran multiple backs behind a behemoth line, which averages 316 pounds, and Porter steadied himself to implement an effective short passing game. By halftime BC led 17-14 and had outgained the Seminoles 233 yards to 62.
On his team's first two possessions of the second half, Weatherford moved the Seminoles a combined minus-three yards. At that point he was 6 of 18 for 63 yards, reminiscent of his shaky debut against Miami, in which he finished 7 of 24 for 67 yards. "Boston College was just daring me to throw," said Weatherford. "You could tell they wanted to make me beat them."
Midway through the third quarter Florida State offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, who has been under fire since he was promoted to the position by his father 41/2 years ago to replace Richt, switched from a basic set with three wideouts to a spread look with four. "Guys came open underneath," said Weatherford. "So that's where I went."
Weatherford completed three passes for 79 yards on a drive that ended with a touchback when BC All-America defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka ran down tailback Lorenzo Booker and stripped him at the pylon. It was only a brief delay for the Seminoles. With Porter sidelined by a sprained ankle, BC went three-and-out and Florida State took the lead on a 10-play drive during which Weatherford went 8 of 9 for 56 yards, connecting with Carr for a five-yard score.
For the first time since he arrived in Tallahassee, Weatherford felt what he had so often seen as a Seminoles fan. "I always loved their aggressiveness, that swagger, the way they carried themselves," he said. "That's why we all came here, to get back to being like it was in the '90s, a dynasty."
Excuse his exuberance. Even the faintest smell of past glory can be intoxicating.