This was going to be the season Derrick Brooks carved his legend into college football's history and his name into Florida State's record books. This was going to be the season the Seminoles linebacker finally became the most feared defensive player in the country.
Long removed from the shadow of former teammate Marvin Jones that was cast during his first two years, fully recovered from the injuries that sidelined him for two games and limited his playing time in three others as a junior, Brooks was going to dominate this season.
It hasn't quite worked out that way.
The shadow was replaced by a black cloud, the one that hung over Tallahassee for months after it was revealed that Brooks and several Florida State teammates had taken part in an agent-sponsored shopping spree at a local Foot Locker store.
Brooks found himself sitting out again, this time as part of a two-game suspension imposed by the university for violating NCAA rules. Brooks, who was found to have received a pair of athletic shoes from former teammate Corey Sawyer, was one of five Florida State players penalized.
"I really don't think I'm behind," Brooks said earlier this week. "But I don't think I've played my best football yet."
Brooks is hoping that will come Saturday night, when third-ranked Florida State (4-1) meets No. 13 Miami (3-1) in the Orange Bowl. This game always has been the toughest on the schedule for the 6-foot-1, 226-pound senior, from an emotional and physical standpoint.
As a sophomore, Brooks was so charged up that he hyperventilated and spent part of the second half taking fluids intravenously in the locker room. Last year, Brooks was sick the morning of the game, then reaggravated a neck injury and wasn't much of a factor in a 28-10 victory that broke the team's three-game losing streak to Miami.
"Now that I'm in good health, I don't want to go out there too pumped up," said Brooks, who also sustained a sprained ankle last year against Notre Dame and broke a hand against Florida. "You can't afford to overrun plays against a team like Miami, because they'll take advantage of that."
The layoff earlier this year doesn't appear to have hampered Brooks, a ferocious hitter who has carried on where former FSU linebackers such as Jones and Kirk Carruthers left off. Since returning to the field Sept. 17 against Wake Forest, Brooks has played at the level that made him a consensus All-American last season.
Brooks made an immediate impact against the Demon Deacons, forcing a fumble on his first play. He later blocked a punt that Clifton Abraham returned for a touchdown. While not as successful two weeks ago against North Carolina, Brooks has 15 tackles and one sack in two games.
"When he's in there, just by his leadership, he brings everyone up a level," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who said he was surprised that Brooks showed little sign of rust.
Brooks will have to take his game to another level against the Hurricanes. Despite Miami's Sept. 24 loss to Washington that broke an NCAA-record, 58-game home winning streak, the Seminoles haven't won a regular-season game at the Orange Bowl since 1984.
"I'm not trying to play five games in one, or four plays in one," said Brooks. "I'm just trying to be as good as I can on every snap. But I do kind of look at this game as a coming-out party. I want to be a force to be reckoned with."
Miami will be trying to ruin that party, as well as Florida State's hopes of repeating as national champion. It won't go in with the idea of taking Brooks out early as much as containing him, preventing him from taking over.
"Derrick Brooks is really the mainstay of their defense, in what they do with their linebackers," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson. "What makes him so tough is that he's so active. He's never coming at you from the same place all the time."
Despite his injuries last season, Brooks was named the Atlantic Coast Conference's Defensive Player of the Year. He appreciates the respect, but the words seem to ring hollow and the achievements seem to fall short. Doing those things against Miami -- or Notre Dame and Florida later in the season -- is what will matter.
"I want to prove to everybody I can play, I play well in the big game," he said. "You beat up kids, and then you go into the house. That's not me. I want to stay out there and fight. I just feel like I have something to prove."