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October 10, 2010

Return to glory: FSU whips Miami

MIAMI -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher couldn't stop smiling. He was soaking from his first water cooler shower, but he didn't care. This was the validation he was looking for. And it has come sooner than most had imagined.

The Seminoles' 45-17 victory over Miami was all about erasing the recent, forgettable past that had relegated this once-proud program to college football irrelevancy.

Now, Florida State once again is a team to be reckoned with. And it's time to start dreaming, which wasn't possible the past few seasons as the program drifted into mediocrity. The Seminoles have their sights set on winning their first ACC championship since 2005.

"We had a great week of practice," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We were ready to beat the 'Canes."

It wasn't supposed to be this easy. Like Florida State, Miami felt this would be its coming-out party, a chance to launch itself into the national spotlight before a packed house and national TV audience. But this was Florida State's party.

Things got so bad for Miami that somebody named Spencer Whipple replaced the ineffective Jacory Harris at quarterback late in the game with the outcome already decided. By then, Hurricanes fans were streaming toward the exits not knowing if Randy Shannon ever is going deliver Miami to elite status.

Time hasn't been good to this once must-see Miami-Florida State rivalry. It used to carry national championship implications. But rivalries such as Oklahoma-Texas and Alabama-Florida have passed over Miami-Florida State.

The games used to come with their own clever nicknames. There was Wide Right I n 1991, Wide Right II in 1992, Wide Right III in 2000, etc.

Let's dub this one "The Mauling of Miami." By the time the Seminoles running back Lonnie Pryor ran 15 yards for a touchdown on their first possession of the second half to push FSU to a 31-7 lead, the game was over.

Eight of the nine previous meetings had been decided by nine points or less. But this was FSU's biggest win over Miami since a 47-0 victory in 1997. Florida State's night of excess included 467 total yards led by a rushing attack that produced 291 yards and 7.5 yards per carry.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," Shannon said. "We just got our butts kicked tonight. It's my fault as a coach at the University of Miami. I don't blame the kids. I didn't get them ready for the situation of playing in a game like this."

Ponder was 12-of-21 passing for 173 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Chris Thompson ran 14 times for 158 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown that was the longest allowed by Miami in its history.

"It's a real great feeling," Thompson said. "It's great to be in Florida State's history book. You know, that's not a real easy thing to do."

Nobody could have predicted that six weeks into the season the Seminoles would be the highest ranked team from the state of Florida. But that figures to be the case when the polls are unveiled Sunday. FSU is 5-1, with its 47-17 loss at Oklahoma earlier this season looking like ancient history.

There is a chance that FSU will be favored in all of its remaining games, beginning with a visit from Boston College next Saturday. But tough tests remain at N.C. State and at home vs. North Carolina, Clemson and Florida. Still, FSU looks headed to an ACC title game showdown with Virginia Tech.

There is no way this rebirth of the Seminoles would be happening if Bobby Bowden still was on the sideline. It makes you wonder why Florida State didn't strip the "coach in waiting" tag off Fisher earlier.

This program had fallen and didn't look poised to get up anytime soon during the past few seasons of the Bowden era. Following that ACC championship season in 2005, the Seminoles went an aggregate 30-22 overall and 16-16 in the ACC. That's good for, say, Wake Forest. But not Florida State.

But in less than one year, Fisher has made FSU relevant again. It makes Bowden's laments over not getting one more season at the helm seem comical. By the way, Bowden predicted Miami would win tonight when asked on Friday by the Palm Beach Post.

The first thing Fisher did upon becoming head coach was dismantle the defensive staff. The unit was filled with Bowden cronies such as coordinator Mickey Andrews and linebackers coach Chuck Amato. They had to go.

The defense was horrible in 2009, ranking last in the ACC (434.6 yards per game) during a dreary 7-6 season. The Noles also ranked last in the ACC vs. the run (204.6 ypg). It was a far cry from Florida State's juggernaut days when the program finished ranked in the Top 4 of the AP poll each season from 1987-2000.

Fisher's first move was to hire Mark Stoops to coordinate his defense. And it took a lot to lure Stoops from working as coordinator for his brother Mike Stoops at Arizona.

Stoops radically altered how defense is played in Tallahassee. For years under Andrews, the Seminoles almost exclusively were a man-to-man defensive team that liked to blitz.

But Stoops has ditched that philosophy and installed a litany of complex zones. And he rarely calls blitzes. The formula has worked, as FSU entered this game with the No. 2 defense in the ACC (293.4 ypg) and a national-leading 25 sacks. The Seminoles pushed that sack total to 26 tonight, which equals the team's entire total from the 2009 season.

"They just flat outplayed us from the first quarter to the fourth," Miami linebacker Sean Spence said.

Which is why Florida State has its biggest win since toppling Virginia Tech in 2005 ACC title game. And it's also why the wins may get bigger down the stretch for the reborn Seminoles program.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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