It's Too Easy for Seminoles

Times Staff Writer

Florida State, in its quest for a spot in college football's national championship game Jan. 4 at the Sugar Bowl, was lacking one thing Saturday. A quality opponent.

The Seminoles are 8-1 and ranked No. 5 in the polls but hold the No. 3 spot in the bowl championship series listings, a complicated and convoluted system of polls and computers that, on Dec. 7, will select the two teams that will play for the national title. Somewhere in the BCS formula is a clause that gives bonus points to teams playing "quality opponents."

Florida State pinned up a 37-0 victory, but winning margin is no longer as big a factor in the BCS puzzle as who you are winning against. Sadly for the Seminoles and their BCS effort, their energy was spent against a sad-sack 2-6 team that has given up 68 consecutive points without scoring in its last two games at home and appears to be unable to win one for anybody, much less the Gipper.

This is now Notre Dame football, a program with a storied tradition and, currently, a bleak football future. Next Saturday, Notre Dame plays host to Navy, to which it hasn't lost since 1963 and the glory days of Roger Staubach. There is understandable trepidation here that 40 years of bullying the Midshipmen will end.

Almost overnight, the Fighting Irish have become the Pathetic Irish.

Ironically for Irish fans, the biggest beneficiary of Saturday's South Bend Stinker might be archrival USC, which did beat a quality opponent in its 43-16 win over sixth-ranked Washington State.

The third-ranked Trojans, who ran off 31 straight points here two weeks ago after an early 14-14 tie with Notre Dame, held the fourth spot in last week's BCS ratings, just .73 behind Florida State. Oklahoma and Miami were Nos. 1 and 2 with 2.45 and 3.87, respectively, followed by the once-beaten Seminoles and Trojans, with 10.34 and 11.07

You won't need a computer to figure this one out. Beating Washington State is a lot more valuable than beating a team a lot closer to Division II than a national title. And with Miami losing to Virginia Tech, 31-7, on Saturday, it's conceivable that the Trojans could vault over both the Hurricanes and Seminoles into second place in the BCS rankings.

Another irony is that, for USC, one of the biggest obstacles in its path to the BCS game is a home-grown product who is now putting up impressive numbers at Florida State.

Chris Rix is the Seminoles' junior quarterback from Santa Margarita High, the same program that produced Carson Palmer, last year's Heisman Trophy winner. Palmer was two years into his five-year stay at USC when Rix took over as Santa Margarita's quarterback. In his senior year there, Notre Dame was on Rix's list and, despite being recruited by the Irish -- as Palmer had been a few years earlier -- Rix chose Florida State and Coach Bobby Bowden.

"Notre Dame was going through a lot of position coaching changes back then," Rix said, "and Coach Bowden had such a great tradition. So I picked Florida State."

And despite a bump or two along the way, Florida State is happy he did.

Saturday, Rix completed 17 of 31 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. He set the tone on his first play from scrimmage by lofting a perfect pass to Craphonso Thorpe for 38 yards. Rix spent the rest of the afternoon playing catch with Thorpe and P.K. Sam, and Thorpe's seven catches for 217 yards set a record for receiving yardage against Notre Dame, surpassing the 200 amassed by USC's John Jackson in 1989.

Rix said that beating Notre Dame at South Bend will be "something I'll remember forever, something I can tell my children and grandchildren."

The game will certainly be memorable for Bowden as well. The 73-year-old coach, in his 28th season at Florida State and now holding a margin of two games over Penn State's Joe Paterno for most wins by a Division I coach, said that victory No. 340 in his career will "probably be my last visit to Notre Dame, and it's been a thrill to me."

His last trip here was 1993, when the Seminoles were No. 1, the Irish were No. 2 and it was hyped as the "Game of the Century." Notre Dame stopped Charlie Ward and the Seminoles on a late pass and took over the No. 1 spot, then lost a shocker to Boston College the next Saturday and haven't been ranked No. 1 since. Under a different poll system back then, pre-BCS, Florida State overcame that single loss to be voted national champion that year.

Last year, when Notre Dame was running off to its stunning 8-0 start under new Coach Ty Willingham, Florida State was one of its victims, at Tallahassee.

"We didn't embarrass them [this year] any more than they embarrassed us last year," Bowden said.

Well, perhaps, but ...

The defeat was Notre Dame's second-worst at home, yielding only to a 40-0 whipping by Oklahoma in 1956, the year that Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy on a team that went 2-8. This was also the first home shutout loss for the Irish in 150 games, going back to Sept. 9, 1978, when Missouri won, 3-0. With Michigan's 38-0 shutout of the Irish at Ann Arbor this year, Notre Dame has now been blanked twice in one season for the first time since 1960.

Willingham, whose team ended up 10-3 last season, has gone 4-9 since that 8-0 start. In Notre Dame's 116-year history, it has lost 21 games by 30 points or more. Four of those 21 have come under Willingham, who has coached a total of 21 games.

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