Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden sat in a golf cart following his team's practice late last week, not far from the bronze statue of his likeness that welcomes visitors to the school's Moore Athletics Center. For more than 20 minutes, Bowden lamented his team's struggles this season, and that was before the Seminoles were blasted by rival Florida, 34-7, on Saturday.
A month and a half ago, Florida State was undefeated after five games and ranked No. 4 in the country, and it seemed Bowden had his program back where it had been during the late 1980s and all of the 1990s, winning 10 games or more in 14 consecutive seasons and competing for a national championship seemingly every year.
But starting with a stunning, 26-21 loss at unranked Virginia on Oct. 15, things unraveled for the Seminoles. Florida State rebounded to crush lowly Duke a week after losing to the Cavaliers, and then came back from a 10-point deficit in the second half to beat Maryland on Oct. 29. Since then, the Seminoles have lost three games in a row for the first time since 1983 and aren't ranked for the first time since 2001.
"It's always disappointing when you lose, especially when you get off to such a good start," Bowden said. "You're like, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' But then you lose three in a row and everybody wants to know what happened."
Unless the Seminoles can upset No. 5 Virginia Tech on Saturday night in the inaugural ACC championship game at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., they will probably be relegated to one of the conference's lower-tier bowl games, probably the Dec. 27 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. It would be the first time Florida State hasn't played in a bowl game on New Year's Day or later since it beat Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl on Dec. 29, 1990.
"I don't think we are mentally spent, which could very easily happen after you've lost three in a row and everybody is down," Bowden said. "But I don't sense that in these guys. They played hard."
Florida State's problems began on the offensive line, where Bowden said his team "couldn't afford any injuries this year." Starting guard Matt Meinrod, considered the offensive line's best NFL prospect, dislocated his ankle and broke his leg against Wake Forest on Oct. 8. His replacement, John Frady, was lost for the season three weeks later when he re-injured his surgically repaired left shoulder against Maryland. Two weeks after Frady was injured, starting left tackle Cory Niblock tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the last play of a 35-14 loss at Clemson.
"We lost our best offensive linemen and moved a center to guard and then lost him, too," Bowden said. "It affects you. It affects everybody. You can have all the skill players in the world, but if you don't have linemen who can block, you're not going to get it done."
Freshman Drew Weatherford, who seemed to be the smart, efficient quarterback the Seminoles lacked the previous three seasons, has struggled without good protection or a potent running game. In his first five starts, Weatherford threw 10 touchdowns and only four interceptions. In the last six games, he has thrown 13 interceptions, six touchdowns and been sacked 13 times. Backup Xavier Lee, who battled Weatherford for the starting job during the preseason, has played sparingly, completing only two of his last 14 pass attempts.
Injuries have affected the Seminoles in other areas, too. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who would have been an all-American candidate, tore knee ligaments during the preseason. Quarterback Wyatt Sexton, who was expected to start after replacing senior Chris Rix last season, was diagnosed with Lyme disease during the summer and redshirted. Tailback Leon Washington missed two games with a sprained ankle, and defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, the team's best pass rusher, sprained his knee in a 20-15 loss to North Carolina State on Nov. 5 and hasn't played since.
"We lost a lot of players to injuries," center David Castillo said. "We lost three starting offensive linemen. That's tough. Our lack of experience with the younger guys playing caught up with us. We beat Miami the first game and everybody was talking about how great we were. But we had some weaknesses and we've been exposed."
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Florida State's season has been its reliance on young players. Going into last week's game at Florida, the Seminoles had played 27 freshmen this year, including 12 true freshmen. Only five other teams -- Arkansas, Kent State, Duke, Kentucky and Nebraska -- have played more freshmen.
"It's nothing to panic over," Bowden said. "It's something you can get back. It's a matter of recruiting. That's what we've got to do."
First, though, the Seminoles must find a way to salvage what, until this point, has been a forgettable season. Bowden said beating the Hokies and winning the ACC's automatic berth in the lucrative Bowl Championship Series would solve a lot of his team's woes.
"That's the one good thing about this game: There's always one more that's even bigger," Bowden said. "That's what this is coming up."