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Bowden watches Fiesta land in lap Florida State coach stunned at getting shot at Tenn., title


After Florida State lost at North Carolina State three months ago, Bobby Bowden still had some hope that his Seminoles could find a way to stay in the national-championship picture. But he knew that as long as other teams stayed unbeaten, the picture would get fuzzier every week.

By the time Bowden sat down with his wife to watch the UCLA-Miami game on television Saturday, the Florida State coach figured that the Seminoles, then ranked fourth in the Bowl Championship Series, were still on the outside looking in.

And then he watched the day unfold, as the second-ranked Bruins and third-ranked Kansas State lost their respective games.

"It was very strange," Bowden recalled yesterday. "We haven't been that lucky in the past. I've never accomplished so much doing nothing but sitting on the couch."

By the time Bowden got off the couch and went to bed early yesterday morning, his Seminoles were not only back in the spotlight, but also sharing it with top-ranked Tennessee as the likely invitees to this year's national-championship game at the Fiesta Bowl. The official invitation came yesterday.

With UCLA's 49-45 defeat at the hands of Miami, and Kansas State's 36-33 overtime loss to No. 8 Texas A&M; in the Big 12 championship game, the Seminoles leapfrogged over the Wildcats, who slipped to third in the final BCS poll and the Bruins, who finished fifth. Ohio State (10-1) ended up fourth.

Ranked a solid second in the final BCS poll, Florida State (11-1) will meet top-ranked Tennessee Jan. 4 in Tempe, Ariz. The Volunteers advanced with a 24-14, come-from-behind win over Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday night in Atlanta to complete their first 12-0 season.

"It looks like a situation where Tennessee came in through the front door and we came in through the back door," Bowden said. "And now we're going to play in the middle of the room. It should be a heck of a game."

The losses of Kansas State (11-1) and UCLA (10-1) defused some criticism directed at the BCS process, which ranked the Seminoles second based on the fact that their strength of schedule was considerably greater than that of some of the other once-beaten teams. Along with a late-season win over Florida, it kept Florida State's chances alive.

Bowden compared the situation to 1996, when the Seminoles beat Florida during the final week of the regular season, only to lose to the Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Florida was awarded the national championship. It was probably more similar to 1993, when the Seminoles won the title despite a midseason defeat at Notre Dame.

"I remember one year when Alabama jumped from fourth to first in the polls because of who lost in the bowls," he said.

That won't happen this year. The BCS, which was set up to create a true national-championship game between the two top teams in the country, seems to have worked. But that didn't stop either Bowden or Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer from becoming advocates, however grudging, of a bowl system.

"I've liked the system where, if we were voted No. 1, good, and if we weren't, we could live with it," Bowden said. "I'd rather see a four-team playoff than a six-team playoff."

Said Fulmer: "My personal feeling is that there should be a playoff at some point. This has worked itself out, and it's a better system than we had before, but I would prefer a playoff."

There was certainly a playoff atmosphere Saturday. It seemed more like the NCAA basketball tournament. It also looked for a while as if Tennessee would fall, as well, after Mississippi State punt returner Kevin Prentiss raced 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 8: 43 remaining in the game.

But Volunteers quarterback Tee Martin sandwiched two touchdown passes around a fumble by Mississippi State quarterback Wayne Madkin to retake the lead and then ice the game. It sent a pro-Tennessee crowd of 74,795 at the Georgia Dome into a Rocky Top-singing frenzy and gave the school a chance at its first national championship since 1951.

That the Volunteers remain undefeated is a result of their resolve -- and maybe a little divine intervention. They opened the season with a last-second victory at Syracuse, beat Florida in overtime and escaped imminent defeat when Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner stumbled and fumbled while protecting a lead with less than two minutes left.

"All that this team has been through has made it stronger," said Fulmer, whose Volunteers were treated as an afterthought in the preseason polls after losing All-America quarterback Peyton Manning and two other first-round draft choices. "We're not NTC through yet. We had three goals set, and we have one left."

The matchup between the Volunteers and Seminoles seemed to satisfy Fiesta Bowl officials, as well as the folks from the BCS. It gave them the top two teams in the country, one of them undefeated.

"We're thrilled about the matchup," said John Junker, the Fiesta Bowl's executive director. "We're thrilled that it's a consensus No. 1 vs. No. 2."

Even though he had told his wife that "We're going to Phoenix" after Kansas State lost, even though he took congratulatory calls from Junker and others Saturday night, Bowden still had some apprehension as he awaited the announcement yesterday on national television. He wasn't sure until he spoke with one of the show's producers.

"I asked them, as I was fixing to go on the show, I asked them, 'Are we in?' Bowden recalled. "They said, 'Yeah, you're in.' "

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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