TALLAHASSEE — There's a lot of talk these days about the progress of the Florida State football team.
Is there any?
Is there enough for iconic coach Bobby Bowden to return for one more season in 2010?
Well, for some, the Seminoles' regular-season finale against No. 1 Florida on Saturday in Gainesville might speak volumes about the state of the program.
FSU (6-5) needed a late comeback last week against struggling Maryland just to become bowl eligible — for an NCAA-leading 28th consecutive time — and enters Saturday having lost five straight to the Gators, the past two by 33 and 30 points.
"I think we're making progress from where we were (last year at this time)," Bowden said.
But Bowden, or any coach, delves deeper than the won-loss record. He sees the offense is better. Much better and, when redshirt junior QB Christian Ponder was playing, perhaps as powerful as it was at any time during the 1990s. (Redshirt freshman EJ Manuel will make just his third start Saturday.)
Bowden also sees some improvement on special teams.
Think about Greg Reid's dazzling punt returns.
FSU's young defense, however, has struggled like it hasn't in a generation, and few folks expect it to suddenly and dramatically improve against the Gators and QB Tim Tebow. The defense has had some moments, and this game, more so than a bowl, would do wonders for its final grade.
"It's definitely an opportunity before us, and we have to take advantage of the opportunity," senior LB Dekoda Watson said.
"To go down there and win at Florida wouldn't erase the whole year," retiring defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews added. "But it certainly would have a strong effect and make a statement you've made progress and now you've accomplished something huge."
But perhaps the most telling sign of the program's health came on one play for the offense last week.
The Seminoles, leading 14-6 late in the first half, were driving for another score. But on third and 6 from the Terrapins 17, Manuel threw an interception LB Alex Wujciak seemingly would return for a touchdown.
If you watch the film, you'd see Manuel, who had been knocked down, getting up and desperately trying to run him down. He did at the 7 to stop (albeit temporarily) a score.
What the coaches didn't miss was just behind him was WR Rod Owens. And RB Jermaine Thomas. And WR Taiwan Easterling. And TE Beau Reliford. And the entire offensive line.
"We've got 10 guys chasing him, not sitting back and watching him run," Bowden said. "That shows the effort."
Actually, it shows much more.
"What it signifies is the things you ask your players as a coach to do — about playing hard no matter what the score, about caring for your teammates," offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said.
"If you make a mistake, try to play hard to make it up; all the things that football teaches you. I was as proud of that as anything they did. That, to me, says as much about our players as any success or any good play we have about how much they care and how hard they play."
And that's progress.
Remember when: Andrews, you might remember, coached defensive backs at Florida from 1981-82. Two years later, he started his storied run at FSU. So how has he changed since?
"Well, I don't have any orange and blue in my closet for one thing. That didn't take long," he deadpanned.
"I learned some things that helped me as a coach. It was a good experience. But I will say having the opportunity to get here in Tallahassee with Coach Bowden was just a fantastic opportunity."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/seminoles.