Date: January 1, 1988
Location: Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, Sun Devil Stadium; Tempe, Arizona
Opponent: No. 5 Nebraska Cornhuskers
“The Dynasty.” To Florida State fans, these two words immediately conjure up one of the more astonishing feats in all of sports. The fourteen seasons from 1987-2000 ended with fourteen consecutive top four finishes.
How ridiculous is this streak?
Alabama, in the midst of a dynasty of their own, is currently sitting on four consecutive top 4 finishes. All-time, no program besides FSU has more than seven straight top four finishes. In fact, no other program even has more than 11 consecutive seasons with a top 10 finish.
It’s an accomplishment that has become part of the ethos of college football, an accomplishment that represents the pinnacle of Bobby Bowden’s legendary career. Similar Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, it’s an accomplishment that is truly unique to Florida State University.
Like all mind-blowing streaks, there were many flirtations with disaster along the way. Games where if just one play unfolded differently, the streak would have succumbed to the inevitably that governs life as we know it: all things must end. This countdown has already featured a number of these Dynasty perpetuating plays. Moments like Kanell to Green in the 1996 Orange Bowl, Rock Preston completing the Choke at Doak, and Weldon opening the 1990 game against the Gators with a bomb to Dawsey. And there will be more to come in the final fourteen plays.
But there’s only one play that started it all. One play that, while unbeknownst to everyone involved or watching that sunny New Year’s Day, gave birth to a Dynasty.
The 1987 Florida State Seminoles featured a stunning collection of talent. Some, this author included, argue they were the best team in FSU history. The ‘87 Seminoles obliterated the Big 10 champion Michigan State Spartans, 31-3 in East Lansing. They completely overwhelmed the SEC champion Auburn Tigers, 34-6 in Jordan-Hare Stadium. They dominated the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes for 3 quarters of play. DBU lived up to its name, as the Deion Sanders-led secondary only allowed 41.6% of opposing passes to be completed on the season. A stable of no less than five NFL running backs combined to give FSU almost a 6-yard per carry average for the season, on nearly 50 carries a game. (for reference, the team average in Dalvin Cook’s junior season was 5.1 yards per carry on 40 carries per game). Oh and linebacker Paul McGowan became the school’s first Butkus Award winner. Yeah, this team was legit.
In the bowl and poll era, New Year’s Day offered a smorgasbord of football where as many as 4 or 5 teams could still realistically finish the season as national champs if the chips fell their way. The 1988 Fiesta Bowl featured two such teams, with the 10-1 and third ranked ‘Noles matched up against the 10-1 and fifth ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Playing in their first major bowl game since squaring off against Oklahoma in back-to-back Orange Bowls after the 1979 and 1980 seasons, FSU appeared to battle some early game nerves and the Cornhuskers jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. However, FSU settled in and flexed its considerable muscle, scoring three straight touchdowns to take a 21-14 halftime lead.
But similar to the Miami game two months prior, the Seminoles couldn’t pull away. Midway through the 4th quarter and already leading 28-24, Nebraska looked like they might seal the win for good as they had driven inside the five yard line. But FSU’s defense refused to give up:
FSU took over at the two with 6:58 left in the game and senior QB Danny McManus went to work. Four completions to three different receivers moved the ‘Noles just into Cornhusker territory, leading to this catch and run by Dexter Carter that set FSU up with first and goal at the two yard line with less than five minutes to play:
Unfortunately, negative plays and a penalty moved FSU in the wrong direction and it was 4th and goal from the 15 with a little more than three minutes remaining. This was the game. A team for the ages needed a touchdown to avoid ending their season with a bitter loss.
McManus took a deep drop and fired a laser beam to Ronald Lewis who beat his man on a post route, a Bobby Bowden redzone staple. Lewis made the catch in stride, dropped the ball in front of the ref, and started to celebrate with his Fab Four teammate, Terry Anthony. Little did he know his catch would be the start of the quintessential FSU streak.
Florida State held on for the win and finished 2nd in the polls, its highest ever at that time. FSU would beat Nebraska in bowl games three more times over the next 6 years, each time extending the top 4 streak and the final time resulting in the school’s first national title.
Lewis, a Jacksonville native, would play two more memorable seasons for the Garnet and Gold, finishing with an 18.6 yard career average on 85 receptions. He’d go on to be a third round draft pick in the 1990 draft, playing for the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers over a five year NFL career. While this might be the most impactful catch of his career, many Seminole fans remember him for this diving catch on a Peter Tom Willis bomb against Miami in 1989:
Selected in the 11th round of the 1988 NFL Draft, McManus spent one year with the Kansas City Chiefs before going on to become one of the best Canadian Football League players of all time. A three-time Grey Cup champion, McManus was the 1999 CFL Most Outstanding Player and finished his career with 53,255 passing yards, 4th most in CFL history. In 2011, McManus was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame.