It would be understandable if Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has spent some time in recent weeks replaying a handful of plays from the season and pondering an age-old question:
What if just one moment in each of his team's closely contested losses to Miami, USF, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Clemson had turned out differently? What would that have meant for the Seminoles' fortunes, and would his coaching career still be ending after Friday's Gator Bowl showdown against West Virginia?
"It's amazing," Bowden said. "I can't remember a season like this."
His Seminoles had six games decided by no more than a touchdown, and they lost three of them. That doesn't count a 19-9 win against Division I-AA Jacksonville State in which FSU scored two touchdowns in the final minute.
So, by his reckoning, the Seminoles (6-6) weren't that far away from at least nine wins — and perhaps a spot in the ACC Championship Game with a shot at a Bowl Championship Series berth.
And had that happened, why wouldn't outgoing FSU president T.K. Wetherell have welcomed Bowden back for the 2010 season, a timetable that both had essentially agreed upon long before the start of this year? Instead, Bowden didn't have the option to coach next season, paving the way for Jimbo Fisher to take over the program.
Hmm. What if?
But Bowden, 80, doesn't play that game.
"Look at the field goals we've missed down through the years," he said, referring to the Wide Rights against Miami that have helped define his legacy. "Well you could say, 'We were unlucky; we were that darn close.' Now do I dwell on it? No. It's just part of the game, and I realize it."
The Seminoles, even during their dynastic run of Top 5 AP finishes (1987-2000), won their share of close calls. They were, in fact, 19-11-1 in games decided by one score.
• Remember: They won the 1993 national title thanks to an 18-16 win against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
• Remember: They won the 1999 national title thanks to nipping Georgia Tech, 41-35, Clemson, 17-14, and Florida, 30-23.
"I've always said that winning the close games is the key to having a real big year," he said.
Beginning in 2001, the Seminoles have gone 16-22 in games decided by seven points or less. The increasing number is an indication of the Seminoles' decline and the simultaneous rise of their opponents, but what if they had won the close ones at the same rate as they had during their dynasty years? That would translate into roughly eight more wins during the past nine seasons.
"But people look at the bottom line, 6-6," Bowden said. "That ain't what we're used to. They don't like that. That's the way people are. … But you wouldn't say we were a lucky football team."
Let's cue up the tape and hit play …
USF, Sept. 26
Situation: With the game scoreless, the Seminoles drove methodically and had first and goal at the 3. An incompletion and two runs left them 2 yards shy that set up fourth down.
What went wrong: Running back Ty Jones was stopped at the 1. Four plays later, quarterback B.J. Daniels, a first-time starter for the Bulls, hit Theo Wilson for 77 yards to set up a touchdown. "I was stubborn and didn't kick the field goal," Bobby Bowden said.
Final score: USF, 17-7
Miami, Sept. 7
Situation: The Seminoles, down 38-34, drove 47 yards to the 2 and, after two incompletions, had time for one more play.
What went wrong: The Hurricanes covered receivers Richard Goodman and Taiwan Easterling, so quarterback Christian Ponder fired a low liner to his third option, Jarmon Fortson, who couldn't make the catch in the end zone. "I should have made the play," Fortson said.
Final score: Miami, 38-34
at Boston College, Oct. 3
Situation: After trailing 21-6 at the half, the Seminoles rallied to tie the score early in the fourth quarter, forced a turnover and seemed poised to grab command. But a disputed holding call stalled the drive, and Dustin Hopkins missed a short field goal.
What went wrong: On the ensuing BC drive, cornerback Greg Reid dropped a sure interception on second down, cornerback Patrick Robinson was called for pass interference (the league later said it was a poor call) on third down then running back Montel Harris broke a tackle and raced 42 yards for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
Final score: BC, 28-21
Georgia Tech, Oct. 10
Situation: The Seminoles, playing almost flawlessly on offense, had a 35-28 lead in the opening moments of the third quarter when their struggling defense finally made a play and forced a turnover at the Tech 24.
What went wrong: After two receivers wound up too close together (an incompletion), Dustin Hopkins missed a 45-yard field goal. On Tech's next play, Josh Nesbitt hit Demaryius Thomas for a 73-yard touchdown.
Final score: Georgia Tech, 49-44
at Clemson, Nov. 7
Situation: The Seminoles, clinging to a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, held the Tigers and forced a punt with a chance to take more time off the clock and add to their lead.
What went wrong: On first down from the FSU 35, Christian Ponder made an ill-advised throw that was intercepted, setting up the go-ahead touchdown. Said Jimbo Fisher: "I shouldn't have called it. I should not have put him in that position."
Final score: Clemson, 40-24