TEMPE, Ariz. - The Florida State Seminoles aren't kidding themselves. A 41-17 mauling of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Monday's Fiesta Bowl and a 10-game winning streak still won't be good enough to claim the mythical national championship. But they are convinced of one thing: Right now, no matter the outcome of the other New Year's Day games, no college football team is better.
"Today, we are probably the best football team in the country - today," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles rebounded from an 0-2 start to win their last 10. "But over a 12-game haul, it ain't gonna hold up."
"I don't think we'll be voted No.1, but I definitely think we're the best team in the country," said FSU quarterback Peter Tom Willis, who set two Fiesta Bowl records and was voted the game's most valuable offensive player. "We did lose the first two, but if you look at the end, that's what counts."
That 30-26 season-opening loss to Southern Mississippi will haunt this FSU team. Since that Sept.2 game, the Seminoles are vastly improved, as they showed Monday by dominating a team from one of the country's most successful programs.
Before 73,953 fans at Sun Devil Stadium, FSU held the nation's best rushing team to 115 yards on the ground and allowed quarterback Gerry Gdowski to complete just 13 of 23 passes for 154 yards. He had only 21 yards rushing and I-back Ken Clark was held to 86 yards on 16 carries.
But the big story again for the Seminoles was Willis. Two years ago, when FSU quarterback Danny McManus burned the Cornhuskers for 375 passing yards, Nebraska coaches decided to strengthen the pass defense by adding nickel and dime (five and six defensive backs) coverages. It barely fazed FSU on Monday.
Willis completed 25 of 40 passes for 422 yards and five touchdowns.
The yardage and touchdown totals were Fiesta Bowl records. In the second quarter alone, Willis completed 12 of 14 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's a guy who continues to amaze me," Bowden said. "He gets better and he has not maxed out. I could not be more proud of a quarterback. He doesn't realize some of the plays he made."
With the victory, the fifth-ranked Seminoles completed their third consecutive season with at least 10 victories. After No.2 and No.3 national rankings the past two seasons, they are assured of at least another Top Five national finish.
It was FSU's third consecutive New Year's bowl victory and sixth-ranked Nebraska's (10-2) third consecutive New Year's loss to a school from Florida.
"I think they're awfully good," said Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, whose team had not been beaten so thoroughly since a 38-7 loss to Oklahoma in 1977. "They are certainly one of the best teams in the country and may be the best. Who am I to argue after they beat us that badly.
"They have to be the best team we played this year. We played Colorado pretty well (a 27-21 loss) and could have won. This game, turnovers aside, was not close. I'm a little embarrassed. I thought we could have played better."
Nebraska had five turnovers and the final score could have been worse. Bill Mason shanked a 37-yard field-goal attempt, Paul Moore came up short on fourth-and-2 at the 4, and Richie Andrews muffed a 39-yard field goal.
And if it weren't for a fake punt, the Cornhuskers might never have scored a touchdown. On the first drive of the game, Nebraska was stopped at its own 36. Punter Mike Stigge passed to Mark Dowse for 41 yards. Three plays later, Gdowski threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Morgan Gregory for a 7-0 lead.
After coming up empty several times, the Seminoles finally scored after free safety John Wyche forced Gdowski to fumble. FSU nose guard Odell Haggins recovered at the Nebraska 31. Two plays later, Willis hit Terry Anthony with a 14-yard touchdown pass.
But the Seminoles, who have been plagued by less-than-spectacular play by their special teams this season, allowed a 62-yard kickoff return by Tyrone Hughes. That set up Chris Drennan's 39-yard field goal and gave the Cornhuskers a 10-7 lead with 12:15 left in the half.
FSU made it 14-10 on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Willis to tight end Reggie Johnson with 6:55 remaining. But the next drive epitomized the domination by FSU's offense.
The Seminoles had the ball first-and-10 at the Nebraska 34, then were penalized for holding on three consecutive plays. That backed the Seminoles up to their own 36. Faced with first-and-40, Willis hit Anthony with an 8-yard pass, Dexter Carter ran for 9 yards, then Willis connected with Edgar Bennett for 30 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Willis found Carter for a 10-yard touchdown and a 21-10 halftime lead.
"I don't like to talk about the referees, but we kind of stuck it in their face after those holding calls," Willis said. "It was like we had to beat them, too. I went up and laughed at them after that."
The Seminoles kept laughing in the second half. Moore scored from 1 yard out to make it 27-10 (Andrews' extra point was blocked). Then, after John Davis blocked a Nebraska punt, Willis found Johnson with an 8-yard pass to make it 34-10. Anthony, who had six receptions for 88 yards and two touchdowns, scored FSU's final touchdown after a 24-yard pass from Willis.
Despite the stunning performance, it probably still wasn't enough to convince the voters that FSU should be ranked No.1. The Seminoles still feel they're the best.
"We're the top team in the nation," said offensive tackle Tony Yeomans. "We showed that today. If we're not, I don't know who is."