Revenge not a factor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was the second game of his career, and EJ Manuel took just one snap. It was a rushing play, and like so many of his teammates that day, he was stuffed in the backfield by USF's ferocious defensive line.

In the four years since, virtually everything has changed -- from the players in the locker room to the coaches on the sideline to the enthusiasm surrounding the Florida State program. As the Seminoles prepare for their first game against USF since that miserable loss at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2009, Manuel said the memories remain fresh but vindication isn't the goal.

"We're looking forward to going down there, not necessarily for payback, but we want to play well," Manuel said. "We all remember it vividly. We haven't forgotten it at all."

The 2009 loss to USF was so profoundly unexpected that, even now, as Florida State is once again ranked in the top five and the Bulls are regrouping after a loss to Ball State, there are constant grim reminders of what's possible this weekend.

To a large extent, however, the history of that 2009 game has been retrofitted in the ensuing years.

It was an upset in the context of historical precedent, but USF was no pushover at the time. Six members of the Bulls' defense that held Florida State to just 19 yards rushing and seven points went on to NFL careers, including All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

"My statement after the game was, 'Boy, they're better than I thought they were,'" said Bobby Bowden, who was replaced as FSU's coach after the 2009 season. "I knew they were good, but they were even better."

Tallahassee native B.J. Daniels was the breakout star of the game, but the freshman quarterback actually completed just eight passes. Two went for more than 70 yards, and he torched the Seminoles on the ground.

And the truth was, Florida State simply wasn't that good. The talent on the roster was exaggerated, and the chemistry in the locker room was fractured.

"Our mentality, we weren't taking them as seriously as we should've," said Everett Dawkins, the only member of the FSU team now who started that 2009 game against USF. "It was definitely a turning point back then, that day."

Things changed in the aftermath, but the immediate impact was more tempered.

The locker room after the game was somber, Vince Williams remembers, but it didn't feel like a watershed moment. It simply felt like another loss -- and the Seminoles had endured their share in recent seasons.

The fallout among the fan base was immense, however, and suddenly the once proud FSU brand was an in-state joke.

"Everybody was like, 'We're horrible now, and we're the fourth-best team in the state of Florida,' " Williams said. "That's what I remember."

When the team regrouped for practice the following week, the Seminoles were still in a state of shock.

It was a splintered locker room. It had been for a while, Dustin Hopkins said, but the loss only exacerbated the problems.

"Some guys took it to heart. Other guys were like, 'I'm done,' " Hopkins said. "It's not that they quit, but that loss might not have given them more push."

Florida State lost its next two games and finished the regular season 6-6. At year's end, the tide of support for Bowden had turned, and the longtime coach was ushered out, with coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher ascending to the throne. The ensuing seasons haven't been perfect, but Fisher has worked to right the ship, starting with the internal culture of the team.

The locker room was reorganized, mixing offensive and defensive players, putting big guys next to little guys to eliminate the cliques. It's now mandatory for players to eat meals together as a team. More off-the-field team functions were scheduled, and a team unity council was developed.

"There's a lot of little things we tried to do," Fisher said. "Our program is in a little different situation right now. It's a different culture, mentality. I like where we're at."

Where they are is riding high, fresh off an emphatic win over No. 10 Clemson. The Tigers were the highest-ranked team the Seminoles have beaten since they toppled No. 7 BYU on Sept. 19, 2009 -- just seven days before USF came to town.

It's an eerie similarity in a week already filled with too many bad memories, but this year really is different, Hopkins insists.

Four years ago, little attention was given to the upstarts from USF. This week, Hopkins found teammates all over campus sitting in front of computers or staring at iPads, watching film in preparation for the game.

"We can say all we want about how mature we are, but we really don't know until Saturday," Hopkins said. "But I have faith in our guys. I see the focus there."

And that's why this week can't be about revenge or retribution or redemption.

Yes, Florida State's seniors remember what happened four years ago, but they also remember why it happened. A win Saturday will be meaningful, but not because it exorcises the demons of 2009. It will be important because it's the next step to their goals for 2012.

"We just want to beat everybody -- very badly," Williams said. "It's not like we're going to kill them because they're USF. We want to kill them because they're next. That's just how it is."