TALLAHASSEE — As ESPN's College GameDay kicked off Saturday morning, one woman held up a neon sign summing up what many Florida State fans were wondering.
"FSU is back … " the sign read. "Am I right?"
The big-time atmosphere was certainly back for the No. 5 Seminoles' prime-time, nationally televised matchup with No. 1 Oklahoma.
GameDay, ESPN's traveling pregame show, aired in front of Doak Campbell Stadium for the first time since 2003.
Eleven hours before kickoff, Langford Green was covered in chanting Seminoles fans.
ESPN host Chris Fowler called the garnet- and gold-clad bunch "as crazy as it gets at 9 o'clock in the morning."
By noon, the crowd of a few thousand spilled into nearby parking lots. Some climbed trees to get a better look at the back of ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit's head.
Sports Illustrated's Heisman Tour tent sat next door. The Goodyear blimp circled overhead. FSU's band blasted the war chant.
"It used to be like this," FSU graduate student Branden Washington said.
Washington is a longtime 'Noles fan whose father grew up with Terry and Tommy Bowden. The 25-year-old remembers the team's powerhouse days under Bobby Bowden in the 1990s — and its mediocrity over the past decade.
"You just take it for granted that Florida State is going to be playing for national championships," Washington said.
'Noles fans were once again buzzing about BCS title hopes in the hours before kickoff.
Longtime season-ticket holder Steven Zitnick said the pregame atmosphere was as electric as he has seen it since FSU's loss to the Sooners in the 2001 Orange Bowl.
"A night game at Doak," Zitnick said. "Ain't nothing better than that."
Zitnick joined in the chorus of boos when ESPN interviewed Florida coach Will Muschamp and analyst Lee Corso — a former football and baseball player with the Seminoles — slipped on a Sooner Schooner hat to predict an Oklahoma victory.
FSU sophomore Ben Cook called the weeklong buildup "insane."
Cook was one of many fans who dressed up for the cameras. ESPN's fan of the day wore eye black and a Seminole headdress he bought for $30 (plus shipping and handling) from an online costume store.
Other costumes and signs were as outlandish. Three men dressed in cow suits carried a sign saying they'd "Sooner be Noles." Other posters poked fun at Sooners quarterback Landry Jones or Miami booster Nevin Shapiro:
"Hang the Landry out to dry."
"Nevin (Shapiro) gave me this sign."
"My other sign was ruled ineligible by the NCAA."
"The Trail of Tears ends now."
Even with the loss on Saturday, it's too early to tell if the tears are over and if FSU is indeed back. A big ACC matchup looms this week at Clemson. Rivalry games with Florida and Miami are still to come.
But for a few hours Saturday morning in front of a national TV audience, Tallahassee was the center of the college football world again.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.