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Keeping the drive alive in Tallahassee

Few people _ Bobby Bowden included _ expected the Florida State Seminoles to contend for the national championship this season. This team is talented, he said, but also glaringly inexperienced. The FSU coach was right. His team proved it was good enough to win last Saturday's game at Auburn, but not good enough to overcome the youthful mistakes, especially penalties, it made throughout the game.

So with that 20-17 loss, FSU's title hopes were gone.

But starting with today's game at 12:40 p.m. against Louisiana State (4-2) at Doak Campbell Stadium, there is still a major bowl game to play for and the goal of matching last year's 10-2 record.

Bowden also realizes he's got practically his entire team returning next year for another shot at the national title.

That, of course, is little consolation to the seniors on this team who were hoping to bring FSU its first national championship. After losing only four games during their first three years _ and finishing with rankings of No. 2, 3 and 3 _ they were not content with any "next year" talk.

A win last week, and the 12th-ranked Seminoles would have been a Top Five team with the toughest part of the schedule behind them and an excellent chance to be playing for the title on New Year's Day. For the seniors, there is bound to be a letdown.

"That had to be the worst loss I've ever had," said senior Hayward Haynes, an offensive guard. "It's going to be tough."

"We can't achieve our goals so it's going to be hard for us," said senior tight end Dave Roberts. "But I think we're mature enough to know that there are still things out there for us to play for."

Roberts didn't sound too convincing. FSU players were taking the Auburn loss hard. The seniors were especially down.

FSU starts only three seniors on offense _ Haynes, Roberts and flanker Lawrence Dawsey. On defense, there are only two senior starters _ outside linebacker Anthony Moss and safety Bill Ragans.

"The seniors want to go out on top," said cornerback Terrell Buckley, a sophomore. "They have a lot of pride. They have a lot to shoot for. They don't want to be the first FSU team in several years to not go to a New Year's bowl. They have a lot of incentive."

They will also try to avoid becoming the first FSU team to lose three straight games since 1983. (One of those defeats was later given back to FSU because of a forfeit.) FSU also lost three in a row in 1981.

The Seminoles were in a similar situation last year when they played LSU on the road after having lost their first two games. They pulled out a 31-21 win and won the rest of their games, capped by a victory over Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

"After we played LSU last year, we went all the way and they had a tough year," Bowden said. "In our situation, it's definitely time. Both teams are young but LSU is the first team we play where I think they're more inexperienced than us."

The Seminoles are big favorites, but nobody is quite sure how they're going to react. This will probably be FSU's toughest

game _ South Carolina, Cincinnati and Memphis State follow _ until Dec. 1 against Florida. Big bowls, such as the Fiesta and Cotton, are still a possibility.

And FSU will start a new quarterback, Casey Weldon, who played for three quarters against Auburn and completed 20 of 30 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown.

"We want to beat somebody pretty bad," Buckley said. "Our team is feeling confident. After two losses you say, "How can your confidence grow?' But to me it has. We pounded Auburn. We just didn't win on the scoreboard."