The "Who's-No. 1" campaign trail wound its way Saturday from the mountains of West Virginia to the soggy flatlands of Florida and, as usual, the postgame rhetoric was thick enough to require waders.
This time it was Florida State's turn to do the talking, and talk the Seminoles did. That silence-is-golden stuff? Forget it. The Seminoles wouldn't know a gag order if Judge Wapner issued it.
Only minutes removed from a 33-21 victory against archrival Florida, paced by Charlie Ward's 446 yards passing, the No. 1-ranked Seminoles couldn't wait to state their national championship case. Gators, schmators . . . Florida State wanted to talk polls. They wanted to talk Orange Bowl and points beyond.
"We could play Nebraska one week, give us a week off and we'll play West Virginia next and we'll prove that we're the national champions, that we're the No. 1 team in the nation," Florida State cornerback Clifton Abraham said.
That won't be necessary. Barring the unexpected in today's Associated Press and USA Today/CNN coaches polls, the Seminoles probably will retain their No. 2 status in the bowl coalition points standings and play undefeated Nebraska for the national title in the Orange Bowl Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, and much to the disgust of West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen, the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Mountaineers would be sent to the postseason black hole known as the Cotton Bowl and face Texas A&M.; Whoopee.
"Sorry, West Virginia," said a smiling William Floyd, the Florida State fullback who nearly cost the Seminoles the game with a fourth-quarter fumble, "I think we're the better team."
And free of charge, Seminole linebacker Ken Alexander offered a "strictly unbiased" appraisal of this whole West Virginia vs. Florida State business. Of course, he did this with grass stains still on his elbows, sweat on his brow and an agenda on his mind.
"We have to get the shot," he said. "We played an NFL schedule and we're not getting paid for it."
The Seminoles, who finished the regular season 11-1, played three teams ranked in the top seven and six in the top 25. Their only loss: a seven-point defeat at then-No. 2 Notre Dame.
And the Mountaineers? Don't ask Alexander.
"West Virginia didn't play anybody," he said.
That isn't exactly true. The Mountaineers played three top-25 teams and one top-five team. In successive weeks, they defeated Miami and Boston College. And unlike the Seminoles, West Virginia doesn't have a blemish on its record.
But if you're keeping count--and they are at Florida State--Seminole opponents have a combined 77-57 record. West Virginia's opponents are 54-62-2.
"I don't think for a second they think they could beat us," Alexander said. "If we met, I don't think it would even be close."
Until early in the fourth quarter, Saturday's game against the seventh-ranked Gators (9-2) wasn't close, either. Ahead by 27-7, Florida State appeared poised for a rare rout at Florida Field, where the Gators hadn't lost in 23 games.
Through three quarters, the Seminoles had run 70 plays to Florida's 39 and gained 401 yards to the Gators' 156. Time of possession was a joke, too. The Seminoles owned 10:33 of the first quarter, 8:30 of the second and 11:00 of the third. A record crowd of 85,507, the largest audience to see a football game in the state of Florida, didn't know whether to yawn or try to beat the traffic.
Not Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden. "I could never get a comfortable feeling," he said.
Steve Spurrier's offense can do that. The Florida coach junked any thoughts of a running attack and started signaling in pass play after pass play. By then, Spurrier had replaced starting quarterback Danny Wuerffel with Terry Dean, and the change paid off.
The Gators, on Dean's 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Willie Jackson, cut the deficit to 13 points with 11:48 remaining. But Florida State took the kickoff and promptly drove to the Gators' nine-yard line.
Not wanting to risk an interception and with an eye on the clock--less than nine minutes were left in the game--Seminole coaches called a simple running play to Floyd. He fumbled.
Florida recovered and moved down the field. Along the way the Gators converted a third-and-15 play from their own one-yard line, a fourth and 10 from their 17, a third and 10 from Florida State's 41 and finally scored when wide receiver Jack Jackson juggled a tipped pass into his hands for a 31-yard touchdown.
"I'm saying, 'Oh, man, how much worse can it get?' " said Abraham, who tipped Dean's pass.
Florida now trailed, 27-21, with 5:52 to play. Ward, who would complete 38 of 53 passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions, was faced with a third and 10 at Florida State's 21.
"We stopped them so many times and the fans got into it," Spurrier said. "That was, without a doubt, the loudest I've ever heard the crowd at a football game. In fact, I even found myself covering my ears a little bit."
He should have covered his eyes.
Ward took the snap, sprinted around defensive tackle Ellis Johnson and then lofted the ball gently over the head of linebacker Ed Robinson, who had the misfortune of trying to guard tailback Warrick Dunn. Dunn took the pass and went 79 yards down the Florida State sideline for the touchdown.
"I was just happy that I got that pass off," Ward said.
He wasn't happier than Floyd, who dashed toward the Florida sideline and raised his arms in triumph. Or was it relief?
"(Dunn) saved me," Floyd said. "I owe Warrick Dunn a dinner. That touchdown broke their backs."
If it didn't, Corey Sawyer's interception of a Dean pass did. By the time the Gators got another chance, there was only enough time for desperation plays.
So Dunn will get a free meal--"McDonalds," said cheapskate Floyd--and Bowden, depending on the polls, might get his national championship game.
"There ain't no system," Bowden said, trying to make sense out of polls that often defy logic. "You vote for the best team in the country. Do I think we're the best? I wouldn't even say it."
He didn't have to. His smile spoke for him.