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'Noles have come to expect nothing but best

Boy, are they glad to be here, tomahawk chopping through the desert, war paint on their faces, showing the Southwest how proud they are to be Seminoles.

But their cheerful disposition has nothing to do with the temperate dry air, or the mountains that make a beautiful backdrop behind Sun Devil Stadium, although the climate and scenery certainly do not hurt.

No, the hard-core Florida State fans would have traveled to Alaska and stayed in garnet and gold igloos if the Seminoles were there to play for the national championship.

The big one is what they come to expect, what they care about. And that is why they will be out in force tonight for college football's national championship game between No. 1-ranked Tennessee and No. 2 Florida State.

Within 48 hours of tickets going on sale Dec. 7, FSU's allotment of 16,000 was sold out. The school received some 340,000 inquiries to the ticket office in Tallahassee after fans learned the Seminoles would be playing in the biggest game of the season.

But FSU fans have developed a reputation as front-runners, the product of their school's amazing success over the past decade. To the big-time bowls, who are looking to sell tickets and bring economic impact to their communities, the Seminoles are a scary proposition, as became clear when the Orange and Sugar bowls played hot potato with FSU until the stars aligned and the Seminoles found themselves in this game.

As ESPN analyst Beano Cook quipped: "Florida State fans go to bowls with a shirt and a $20 bill _ and change neither."

This, of course, is a bit unfair. Since the 1987 season, there has been just one time when the Seminoles have not played in a so-called New Year's bowl, though only two were national title games. This is their third trip to the Fiesta Bowl. They've been to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans four times, the Orange Bowl in Miami three times. For 11 straight years, the Seminoles have finished among the Associated Press' Top 4 teams in the country, an unprecedented streak.

But with all that success comes expectations. And unless the game means something, FSU fans are less likely to make the trip. In other words, they are spoiled rotten by their school.

"Absolutely. And I am chief among them," Charlie Barnes, executive director of Seminole Boosters Inc., said. "All of our fans are spoiled. We know we're spoiled. We are terrified that some day we'll have to take the cure. And we know what the cure is: Christmas in Shreveport (La., site of the Independence Bowl). Or 3-8. We'd rather be spoiled, whiny, bitching little fans than humbled. Everybody in Florida is that way. That's just human nature."

Case in point: Last season, the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 and cruising toward a national championship showdown in the Orange Bowl. Although the Seminoles play the Miami Hurricanes there every other season, FSU fans were set to descend upon South Florida.

Then the worst happened, a loss to the rival Florida Gators. Suddenly, the Seminoles couldn't win the national title and were headed to the Sugar Bowl, a day trip by car for many fans. The school couldn't sell half its allotment.

"I think there's an apathy about going to the same places," said FSU booster Doug Prior, an attorney from Clearwater who purchased his plane tickets to Phoenix moments after watching Kansas State, third in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, lose to Texas A&M on Dec. 5 _ a loss that, combined with second-ranked UCLA's loss to Miami earlier in the day, cleared the path to the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS's then-No. 4 team, FSU.

"Unless we're playing for the national championship, people are disappointed. It's no longer just playing for second, third or fourth. Nobody wants to say we're playing for No. 4. Even before we won it (the national title) in '93, every year we've had an opportunity to play for the national championship. That was what was so fabulous about this one. We backed into it. And to do it at Florida's expense and by beating them ..."

The Seminoles gave themselves this opportunity by defeating the Gators 23-12 on Nov. 21. Had Florida won, the Gator chomp would be the chant of choice in Tempe.

But it wasn't until two weeks later that FSU realized it would be coming here. Then-undefeated Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas State had games remaining on Dec. 5. The Seminoles, having lost only to North Carolina State on Sept. 12, needed two of those teams to lose, and it happened.

"This is a bonus," said Ken Burke, treasurer of the Pinellas Seminole Boosters club. "Yes, the expectation level each year is that we should be playing for the national championship. But we are so elated about winning that last game against Florida. No matter what happens here, this has been a successful season. You can't take that Florida game away from us. Of course, we want to win the national championship. But winning that game against Florida it makes life a lot easier."

For Prior, the outcome of that game was huge, but it would have affected his holiday travel plans only in terms of destination. If the Seminoles are there for a football game, he is, too. Prior has not missed an FSU game, home or away or in bowls, for more than 20 years. His streak began at the start of the 1977 season. Tonight's game will be Prior's 265th in a row, an unofficial FSU record.

He will be among a group of FSU fans who came from all across the country, according to Barnes, several on charter flights.

But the town is far from overrun with zany Seminole fans, much to the dismay of ticket scalpers hoping to make the big score. To them, this game is a nightmare. Despite a clamor for the $135 tickets when they went on sale in Tallahassee, few fans made the journey without one.

Without that demand, several ticket scalpers in and around Tempe said they expect to have to sell their ducats for face value or less.

Still, FSU's presence will be felt in Sun Devil Stadium. When the War Chant gets going and tomahawk chop is executed in unison, when the Golden Chiefs start playing ... everything will be right in the FSU world.

Until kickoff, when victory is expected.