By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; D1
Tiki Barber missed out on most of the celebration that ensued after one of the most prominent wins in Virginia football history. The former Cavaliers tailback was a junior in 1995 when, on the first Thursday night in November, his team handed Florida State its first ACC loss since joining the conference three years earlier.
Barber - who had rushed for 193 yards on 31 carries - retreated to his apartment and went straight to sleep. Like many of his teammates, Barber had little grasp at the time of the accomplishment's magnitude. Virginia's 33-28 win over Florida State on Nov. 2, 1995, served as a victory for the entire ACC as much as for a Cavaliers squad that would proceed to share the conference title that season.
"It was such an emotionally and physically draining day," Barber said. "I just kind of let it seep into history. But I think the long-term effect was that the ACC as a whole got stronger because teams started to realize that, 'We can compete with these powerhouses.' . . ."
"And then the ACC as a whole started to equal out, as far as talent is concerned, because these other schools had players coming to them saying they wanted to play Florida State on national television. So the long-term effect was enormous for the ACC. It gave a lot of balance to it."
Since the turn of the decade, Florida State's supremacy has given way to a conference landscape now defined by its unpredictability. Virginia Tech - which along with Miami left the Big East to join the ACC in 2004 (Boston College joined the next season) - has won three of the past six league titles. The Seminoles have played in the ACC championship game just once since it was instituted in 2005.
With a 16-16 combined ACC record in the past four seasons, Florida State has fallen so far back into the pack that its predicted success this season - the Seminoles were the preseason media pick to win the conference - made them eligible to be described as a team on the rise.
Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who retired at the conclusion of the 2009 season, has said what the ACC needs now is exactly what his program gave the conference during the '90s: a dominant force.
Not everyone agrees, though. George O'Leary - who coached Georgia Tech from 1994 to 2001 - said it is healthy for a conference to have a change of guard from season to season.
"I think it's a better conference when there's competition in the conference," said O'Leary, who coaches Central Florida. "I think having one dominant team would give it more exposure nationally, but I think the ACC is pretty well exposed nationally as far as what they can do. . . . I don't agree that one team should dominate a conference. I don't think it's a conference then; it's basically just one team. I think everybody should knock off somebody every once in a while, because I think that's what makes competition the best it can be."Kings of the hill
Bowden's squads either won the ACC title outright or finished tied for first nine consecutive times after joining the conference in 1992. Even after Virginia's win in 1995, it was another three seasons before North Carolina State became the second ACC team to defeat the Seminoles.
"I think in a lot of cases during that period of time, people went into the Florida State game expecting to lose, and you wanted to minimize the damage," said Noel LaMontagne, who played offensive guard at Virginia from 1995 to 1999. "You wanted to come out of the game healthy, or as healthy as possible. You wanted to try to minimize the embarrassment. But with that game [in 1995], all of that changed, because then, everybody looked at it as, 'Hey, these guys aren't a guaranteed loss.'
"It's like when you're little kids and you're playing king of the hill, you know? Someone's going to stand up there for a long, long time, but eventually somebody's going to knock them down, and then everybody clamors to be the one at the top. It kind of reshuffles the deck a little bit. And that was what that game did."
On the final play of the game from the Virginia 6-yard line, Florida State tailback Warrick Dunn took a direct snap, side-stepped a tackler at the line of scrimmage and was hit by defensive backs Anthony Poindexter and Adrian Burnim inches from the goal line. Dunn's body crossed into the end zone; game officials ruled the ball did not follow.
And thus the Cavaliers - who entered the night 18-point underdogs - snapped Florida State's 29-game ACC winning streak. After recalling the game earlier this week, Poindexter - who is in his seventh season on Virginia's coaching staff - pointed out, "It's a little different league now."
'This can be done'
Steve Martin, who has served as an ACC football play-by-play broadcaster for Raycom Sports for the past 17 years, said that trend didn't necessarily begin with Virginia's win over Florida State in 1995, but it was notable nonetheless.
"Yes, Virginia was the first team to prove that it could be done, but it took another three or four seasons before it would happen again," Martin said. "And N.C. State kind of unlocked the secret, and that secret was that a guy like [former Wolfpack coach] Chuck Amato could go down to Florida and recruit in Florida State's back yard.
"If there's something remarkable about what Virginia did, it's that Virginia did it with more home-grown talent than anybody else. I think that makes it an even more remarkable story."
On Saturday, Virginia (2-1) will host Florida State (3-1) once again at Scott Stadium. The teams haven't faced each other since 2006, and the Seminoles will enter the contest as the favorite. Should the Cavaliers score another upset, the reverberations won't be as wide-ranging as they were in 1995.
But it would underscore the point Virginia first made 15 years ago: Florida State possesses its share of flaws, as well.
"I think that helped the whole conference," O'Leary said. "Just the overall ability of everybody improved because there was a 'this can be done' type of attitude. I think it had a lot of carry-over to other teams. I'm always going to root for the underdog, and I think it was a great win for the conference for Virginia to break that string, because it needed to be done."