Class has put Seminoles in title game 3 times.
One by one, the Florida State seniors ambled proudly from the locker room toward midfield, arm in arm with their parents or special guests, to receive a final salute from the hometown fans.
"I didn't know it was going to happen so quick and then it hits you _ this is it," offensive tackle Char-ron Dorsey recalled of that Nov. 18 night in Tallahassee. "It almost got to me. I almost cried. I said to myself, "I've got to suck it up. All these people here, I can't cry. I can't.' That was a very emotional day for me."
He had plenty of company. Heck, their opponents that evening as well as players and coaches across the Atlantic Coast Conference and the nation probably welled up a bit, too.
But theirs were tears of joy.
As in, thank goodness, y'all are leaving.
After all, the Seminoles senior class, loaded with 25 scholarship players, has compiled a resume rivaling that of any group in the school's history.
"It's going to rank right up there," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "After this ballgame, I'll declare. I'll declare (it) best or second best."
At the risk of putting too much stock in the early returns, consider these numbers from the class during the last five seasons: a 56-5 record (.910 winning percentage), including 29-0 at home; five ACC titles; one national title; and the chance to become the first repeat champion in more than two decades when it faces consensus No. 1 Oklahoma in the Bowl Championship Series finale. That game will be the fourth-year seniors' third consecutive title shot.
Not too shabby.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that they are here once again," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who faced many of those seniors during his last season as Florida's defensive coordinator in 1998. He recognized those youngsters "weren't that far off" even then.
Pundits agree the talent level for one class is nearly unparalleled. At least 11 of the seniors figure to be selected in the April NFL draft:Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke, defensive end Jamal Reynolds, safety Derrick Gibson, defensive end David Warren, linebackers Tommy Polley and Brian Allen, cornerback Tay Cody, tailback Travis Minor, receiver Marvin Minnis, and Dorsey and fellow offensive tackle Tarlos Thomas.
Defensive end Roland Seymour, billed in 1999 by Sports Illustrated as one of the players the NFL wanted now but who has played in only one game this year after suffering a knee injury in the Sugar Bowl, and tailback Jeff Chaney, who had reconstructive knee surgery a month ago, also could be picked.
"It's just an exceptional class," Bucs director of player personnel Jerry Angelo said. "They've done a great job."
Other teams over the years have had talent-laden classes, but few have enjoyed anything approaching this group's success. What has made this one so special?
Bowden offers a simple answer.
"I've never had a football team this mature," he said, marveling at the passion, dedication and selflessness the seniors have shown at practice throughout a long season.
"Coach (Bear) Bryant used to say at Alabama, all he wants is a good solid group with a great quarterback, a great runner, a great receiver and maybe a great defensive back. But don't get too many of them; they get in each other's way and they won't play together. Our football team has more (great players) than that, but they play well together."
The Seminoles insist their cohesiveness begins with their close bond off the field.
"We're over at each other's houses, be it in the off-season or after games," said Allen, the defensive captain. "It's not like you have one crowd that only hangs out. We all do everything pretty much together on the field and off the field. I think we are tighter than past teams. I don't think they had that unity that we do off the field and that helps the bond on the field."
Sometimes in the past, offensive players would snipe at defensive players following a poor play or series. And vice versa. It's been a rare occurrence with this class.
Even at the Seminoles' nadir this season, a 27-24 loss at Miami on Oct. 7, the seniors pointed no fingers. Just the opposite; they supported each other and FSU has played its best ball since.
Some of that comes from the pull of the past. FSU entered the season with NCAA-record streaks of 13 consecutive 10-win seasons and Top 4 finishes. No Seminole, especially a senior, can imagine dropping those proverbial balls.
"The players that come here, the players that are recruited to come here, know there's a tradition that needs to be carried on," Weinke said. "That's why we practice so hard. That's why we get the good players. That's why we are so successful. Not only do we want to carry on that tradition but we don't want to be the first team that screws it up. When things don't look like they're going in the right direction, it's the responsibility of the seniors to make sure everybody's going in the same direction."
One by one, they have done that, leading the way toward perhaps one last salute.