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ACC shares nemesis in 'Noles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shortly after Ron Vanderlinden was hired to reinvigorate a floundering Maryland football program after the 1996 season, the former Northwestern assistant offered a bold challenge.

During a halftime ceremony at a basketball game where he was introduced to the school's fans, Vanderlinden promised the Terrapins would someday compete with Florida State for supremacy in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Someday still seems a long way off.

But going into tomorrow night's nationally televised home game against the second-ranked Seminoles at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Vanderlinden and his players can find solace in this simple fact: No one else in the ACC has moved up to Florida State's level, either.

"I think the other teams have gotten better - that's the good news," said first-year North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato, who spent 18 years as an assistant with the Seminoles before returning to his alma mater last winter. "The bad news is, so has Florida State."

In their eight-plus seasons since joining the ACC, the Seminoles have lost just two of 66 league games - to Virginia in 1995 and to N.C. State in 1998. They have outscored the opposition by an eye-popping 1,880 points, an average of more than 28 points a game.

While Florida State (4-0) has already been challenged this year, narrowly avoiding an upset with a 26-21 win at Georgia Tech on Sept. 9, the Seminoles will likely go through the ACC season unbeaten.

Is the apparent lack of competition good for Florida State?

It certainly hasn't hurt the Seminoles in the national rankings. They have fallen no lower than 11th - after losing to the Wolfpack - and have been in the Top 5 for 110 of 136 weeks beginning in 1992. They have been out of the Top 10 only twice in that span.

The one-sided nature of their games doesn't seem to bother the Seminoles, though admittedly they'd prefer fewer blowouts.

"Obviously, you don't go into games thinking you're going to win by 30," senior quarterback Chris Weinke said. "But it's beneficial to see how you're going to handle close games. That was evident last year. We learned to play with adversity."

It hasn't hurt Florida State when it comes to facing ranked teams outside the ACC. The Seminoles are 8-5-1 against other Top 10 teams, and have played for the national championship the last two years, beating Virginia Tech in last season's Sugar Bowl.

Florida State also won the national championship in 1993.

"It seems like every year we get a big challenge from somebody [in the ACC]," Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said yesterday from Tallahassee. "It's not like it's all eight of them, but I do see some problems. Last year, it was Clemson and Tech. This year, it was Tech again."

The flip side of the equation is this: Has Florida State been good for the ACC?

Though getting pounded year after year doesn't seem to help schools such as Maryland, Wake Forest and Duke, the Seminoles have certainly helped raise the profile of the league's upper-echelon teams.

Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, who was instrumental in getting Florida State to join the league, said recently that the ACC had no credibility in football before the Seminoles came on board.

"Would we have even been part of the Bowl Alliance [now called the Bowl Championship Series] if not for Florida State?" said Corrigan, who served as the league's commissioner from 1987 until 1997. "When I became commissioner, we didn't even have a bowl to send our champion [to]."

But even Corrigan is surprised at Florida State's dominance.

"We knew what we were getting," Corrigan said. "But I don't think anybody thought they'd be that good continually."

Much of the success is attributable to Bowden, the 72-year-old patriarch of the program. Now in his 25th season at Florida State, Bowden has churned out Top 10 teams since 1979, and his Seminoles have been in the top four at season's end each year since 1987.

Will Florida State move back to the rest of the ACC when Bowden decides to pack it in?

"No matter who comes in, it's not going to change," Amato said.

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose Tigers gave the Seminoles a difficult time before losing, 17-14, last season in their much-publicized father-son matchup in Death Valley, was only half-joking when he said yesterday, "I think eventually we'll close the gap when my father passes away."

Amato believes the relationship between Florida State and the ACC has been beneficial for both sides.

"When you're recruiting, you can tell kids, 'You're going to play the No. 1 team in the country every year,'" Amato said. "For Florida State, it's good for them because they've been able to dominate and go to a BCS game every year and contend for the national championship."

Florida State's success in the ACC is not unprecedented. Back in the 1950s, Oklahoma won 44 straight in the then Big Seven and Big Eight. More recently, Nebraska won 40 in a row in the same league between 1992 and 1998. The Cornhuskers have since lost five times, including three games in 1998 in what is now the Big 12.

"I would compare Florida State to Nebraska in the early '80s," said Vanderlinden, who was an assistant at Colorado then. "Nobody has done what they have done in college football for the past 13 years."

The Seminoles have not had a rivalry in the ACC, and Bowden and his players concede their two biggest games every year are still against in-state rivals Miami of the Big East and Florida of the Southeastern Conference.

But with Clemson's return to the Top 10, and with another Bowden coaching the Tigers, a rivalry of sorts could develop between the only schools in the nine-team league where football is still king.

For now, Florida State has the edge in every area, particularly recruiting.

"I call prospects every night and their mom tells them that it's Coach Bowden," Tommy Bowden said yesterday. "They find out which one and they're disappointed. They say, 'It's not the real one.'"

Amato is keenly aware of the mind-set the Seminoles take into each game. If, for instance, Florida State believes it will be challenged, the players will raise their game a notch. But having gone through the experience of losing to a mediocre N.C. State team two years ago, they are also mindful of being upset.

"To beat them," Amato said, "you have to sneak up on them."

Given the outcome of their last three games against Maryland - blowout wins of 50-7 and 49-10 in Tallahassee and a sloppy 24-10 victory in College Park two years ago - Florida State might not figure on getting much of a challenge tomorrow night.

Vanderlinden is hoping for that.

"I remember my fourth year at Colorado in 1986, we were 2-4 and Nebraska was something like 6-0 and ranked third in the country," he said yesterday. "They had all these great players. But they came into Boulder and we beat them."

Domination

Florida State's dominance in the Atlantic Coast Conference is reflected in a comparison of point totals in ACC games. (Record is for conference games only.)

Year FSU Opp. W-L

1992 288 112 8-0

1993 351 51 8-0

1994 321 102 8-0

1995 421 144 7-1

1996 314 71 8-0

1997 347 128 8-0

1998 283 88 7-1

1999 310 113 8-0

2000 89 35 2-0

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