On Sept. 25, 1976, first-year Florida State coach Bobby Bowden took his unimpressive program across the country to face No. 4 Oklahoma. The odds seemed stacked against the Seminoles, as Bowden had inherited a program that had considered dropping the sport after a 4-29 overall record over the previous four seasons.
On Saturday, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher finds himself in a strangely similar situation. The No. 17 Seminoles have officially moved on to life without Bowden, but it’s hard not to draw parallels this weekend, as the matchup against the No. 10 Sooners will be an opportunity for Fisher to make a name for himself just as Bowden did with numerous signature nonconference wins.
“The difference in the parallel is the program wasn’t the same as it is now,” said Fisher, who was hired to restore the program’s championship tradition after three seven-win seasons in the past four years. “Florida State is a much bigger program than when coach Bowden had it back then, but there are some parallels as far as we haven’t won as much as we have in the past, and it would be a great game to get back in the national media and the national spotlight, but I don’t think it’s do-or-die. It’s a great opportunity, a great chance for our players to see where they’re at and to see where we stand right now in relationship to a great team like Oklahoma.”
Right now, only seven spots separate these programs in the Associated Press Top 25, but the disparity on the field has been much greater. The Sooners were playing for the national title with a Heisman Trophy winner as recently as 2008, while Florida State hasn’t been able to win its own conference since 2005. Oklahoma’s defense ranked among the top 10 in the nation last season in every major statistical category while Florida State’s was one of the worst of 120 teams.
It will take more than a win on Saturday for Florida State to be entrenched among the nation’s elite again, but it would bring instant credibility to the staff trying to get it there.
“I think this is a test for our whole organization,” Fisher said. “By the whole organization I mean that is the head coach, the assistant coaches, our players, our administration, the way we prepare, the way we do things and just our mindset at Florida State. Is about where we want to go and how we want to get there. I think it’s a test for everybody. Every game is a test, and this is just bigger because it is on a national scale, it is on the road with two nationally ranked teams.”
On the road with two nationally ranked teams is how Bowden put Florida State at the forefront of the college football landscape. In 1981, Bowden’s No. 20-ranked Seminoles defeated No. 7 Ohio State 36-27 in Columbus, his signature win in a “play anyone, anywhere” season that also included road trips to Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU. In 1980, No. 16 Florida State defeated No. 3 Nebraska 18-14, marking the highest ranked team the program had ever beaten at that time.
“You know I think Florida State’s program then, he was really establishing them in the limelight, and he established them, so now hopefully we can handle those pressures and go out there,” Fisher said.
Fisher enters this game with an offensive reputation as a coordinator, and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops built his resume as a defensive coordinator. To add to the twist for this staff, first-year Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is the younger brother of Oklahoma’s Stoops.
Florida State’s entire staff will be measured in part by the outcome of this game, though it's hardly a precursor to a career. Bowden lost that game in 1976, 24-9, in the third game of what went on to be a 34-year career in Tallahassee.
“Every game is a measuring stick for a coach,” Fisher said. “You want to do well. I don’t think that just because if we win this game all of a sudden I’m one of the best coaches in America, or if I lose it I’m the worst coach. I don’t look at it that way. It’s another game on our schedule, it’s one win or one loss, but it is a great opportunity for our staff and our organization to do that.”
So far, he's already off to a better start than his predecessor.