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FSU loses ACC dominance

For the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference schools, playing Florida State in football always required overcoming physical and mental hurdles.

The Seminoles had NFL-caliber talent everywhere, even on the bench, and that realization left their league brethren, derisively dubbed the Eight Dwarfs, more than a little intimidated.

"Florida State used to demolish teams and that has effects on some players," Virginia senior linebacker Angelo Crowell said. "If you have one teammate who's like, "We can't beat Florida State,' that spreads slowly from one teammate to another teammate."

The outcome?

A self-fulfilling prophecy and an ever-higher hurdle.

During their first nine years in the league, the Seminoles never failed to win at least a share of the ACC championship while rolling to a 70-2 record. That's a 97-percent winning percentage.

And remember. They wouldn't have lost those two ACC games had Warrick Dunn's final-second plunge at Virginia in 1995 not fallen a few inches short and had Chris Weinke, in his second start, not thrown six interceptions at North Carolina State in 1998.

"But," Crowell said, "I don't think it's like that anymore."

Listening to players during Sunday's ACC Football Kickoff meeting, that fear factor has been canceled.

Last season, an inexperienced and injury-plagued FSU team lost badly at North Carolina, 41-9, then fell to N.C. State, 34-28, at Doak Campbell Stadium, its first ACC home loss.

Rookie Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen won the league and the berth in the Bowl Championship Series game.

FSU, which lost four regular-season games (the most since 1986), settled for the Gator Bowl.

"I think a lot of guys where they mess up is that fear of playing those guys," N.C. State senior safety Terrence Holt said. "Overcoming that and winning at Tallahassee was real big for us, but not only for us, but teams across the league. Showing that it can be done takes away, a little bit, from the mystique they have gained and earned so far."

"A lot of teams are starting to believe that Florida State is not that big-time machine," said North Carolina senior cornerback Michael Waddell, referring to the perception that the Seminoles were as impervious to defeat as a robot.

But along came the Tar Heels and Wolfpack who _ like Buster Douglas did by knocking out a previously unbeaten Mike Tyson _ proved the Seminoles were human.

"FSU is still FSU; they're still the big dogs, but last season, having the season they had, gave a lot of people in this conference the confidence that you can go out there play with them and you can beat them," said Terrapins senior linebacker E.J. Henderson, the league's defensive player of the year.

"It gave us a lot of confidence. This year we have them at home in College Park and we're going to come out and try to knock them off."

Though the Terps lost to FSU, 52-31, they were tied entering the fourth quarter, only to be overwhelmed in a 21-point outburst reminiscent of FSU teams past, not present.

Well, not so fast.

The Seminoles insist the rest of the ACC _ and the nation _ should be afraid. They haven't had the tragedy of last year _ the sudden death of Devaughn Darling during offseason conditioning, then the shooting of Eric Powell in September.

Nor are they as green. The Seminoles, a consensus pick to win the league and challenge for a national title, return 17 starters, not counting receivers Anquan Boldin and Robert Morgan, who suffered knee injuries in August.

"We're about as motivated as we can be," said sophomore quarterback Chris Rix, who struggled with consistency and decision-making as a first-time starter in 2001 but gradually improved and is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy contender.

"We had more guys turn out this summer than we've had in recent Florida State history. Guys were out working hard in that 105-degree heat to have a successful season. We're very motivated, especially with some of the things that happened last year, and we're anxious to get out on the field and prove it and not just talk about it."

They are tired of doing that.

"Hunger is a good word," said FSU senior defensive end Alonzo Jackson, who admitted he has watched tape of the loss at UNC about 50 times.

"Hunger. Revengeful. All of that. Starting against Georgia Tech and then in the Gator Bowl (win against Virginia Tech) and going through mat drills, spring practice, the spring game, offseason workouts, you can just tell. There's going to be hell to pay."