Florida State coach Bobby Bowden admitted that neither his players nor his staff fully appreciated the significance of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
"I don't think there's a guy in garnet and gold in the United States that felt it was that important," he said Sunday morning. "It's Florida, Miami, the state championship. When we set our goals every year, winning the conference was not No. 1. It was nearly winning the state championship that was No. 1 because if you win that, you're going to win everything. That's the way we looked at it. If we won the conference championship, the attitude of the alumni and the fans would have been, "Well. So what?' "
But then, the Seminoles had won at least a share of the championship each of their first nine years in the league. The hardware seemed akin to a birthright.
Until last season. FSU's string of titles ended thanks to losses to North Carolina and North Carolina State, and so began a new outlook: the ACC title suddenly loomed large to fans, coaches and players alike.
FSU clinched at least a share with its 40-14 win against UNC on Saturday and can win it outright by beating N.C. State this weekend in Raleigh. That would guarantee FSU a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
"If you beat Florida and Miami and don't win your conference, you don't go to a BCS bowl," Bowden said. "I'm not saying I'd rather lose to those two and win the conference; I'd still rather beat those two than anybody out there because they're usually Top 10 teams. But it sure shows you the importance and you better win your conference. With what we've been through the last year and the threat of this year, I think we've learned that's very important."
PEEK AT THE FUTURE: FSU's pass protection and run blocking missed senior center Antoine Mirambeau and senior guard Montrae Holland, who were injured. But sophomore backups David Castillo and Bobby Meeks didn't do poorly in their first starts and offered a possible glimpse of things to come.
"Those are guys we have to count on next year," said Bowden, who knows the experience they gain now will be invaluable then.
"I was a little nervous, but once I got calmed down, everything settled in good," Meeks said.
INJURY UPDATE: Receiver Talman Gardner bruised his ribs; backup receiver P.K. Sam, already bothered by a hurt right hamstring, strained his left hamstring; and backup defensive back Yohance Buchanan suffered a cervical burner Saturday. FSU will re-evaluate the status of Holland, Mirambeau and tailback Nick Maddox by the middle of the week.
BEITIA UNFAZED: Kicker Xavier Beitia is unconcerned despite his recent struggles. He has missed five of his past nine field-goal attempts, including one block Saturday.
"I'm okay," the former Tampa Jesuit star said Sunday. "I would have been 3-of-4 if one hadn't been blocked, and the one I missed I hit well."
BOWL PROJECTION: If the Seminoles win the ACC, they seem more likely to face the SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl than land in the Orange Bowl. That game has its eyes set on Notre Dame, assuming the Fighting Irish remain eligible for a BCS at-large bid; they must remain in the top 10 of the BCS poll.
"Of course, we'd try to avoid a FSU rematch with Notre Dame, but it's not out of the question," Orange Bowl past president Les Pantin said Saturday. "We'll do something that makes sense and works out for everybody."
A date in the Sugar could mean a matchup against Georgia and longtime FSU assistant Mark Richt.
"I don't really care if that occurs," Bowden said. "I just hope we can win enough games to deserve to be there."
_ BRIAN LANDMAN