The date: October 3, 1981
The matchup: Florida State (2-1) at No. 7 Ohio State (3-0)
The stakes: For Ohio State, it’s simply about sustaining momentum for a better finish. For Florida State, meanwhile, the goal was to disrupt the status quo one way or another.
The back story: In their first two years after Woody Hayes’ retirement, Earle Bruce’s Buckeyes had done just fine until the end. They started 11-0 in 1979 but lost, 17-16, to No. 3 USC in the Rose Bowl. In 1980, they started 9-1 but fell 9-3 to No. 10 Michigan and 31-19 to No. 10 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. Behind golden-armed quarterback Art Schlichter, OSU had all the weapons they needed, and they had yet to lose to a team ranked worse than 11th with Bruce.
The Seminoles had won 23 games in Bobby Bowden’s first three years and had pulled off their first ever top-15 finish in 1977. In 1979-80, they took another step forward, going a combined 21-3 — 21-1 in the regular season and 0-2 in Orange Bowls against Oklahoma.
Following the 1980 season, FSU was assured of a step backwards. The Noles were replacing the first generation of Bowden stars and would field a pretty young team. This was a bit disconcerting because wow, had the Noles scheduled up in 1981.
From 50 Best*:
FSU’s attitude was to schedule like a power team, and the Noles became even more aggressive with Bowden in charge. In 1978, they thumped Oklahoma State, Miami, and Florida, but lost to Houston, Mississippi State, and No. 15 Pitt. In 1979, they whooped Arizona State, Miami, Mississippi State, and South Carolina and beat LSU and Florida on the road. In 1980, they won at No. 3 Nebraska and LSU and beat No. 4 Pitt and Florida at home.
As he rebuilt his two-deep in the winter of 1981, Bowden faced down a truly ridiculous slate. That coming fall, the Seminoles would play Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt, and LSU on the road. Consecutively. “It’s going to be an interesting year,” he told media following the 1981 Orange Bowl loss. “That’s why I’ve got a five-year contract.”
The first game of the five-game road trip from hell hadn’t gone so well: FSU trailed No 17 Nebraska by only a 10-7 margin at halftime, but two return scores opened up a 34-14 win. Next up were the Buckeyes.
The game: From the Tallahassee Democrat:
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Near the sweet end, Florida State showed 'em just a little of the old "3 yards and a cloud of dust."
But it was a mere hint of the stodgy attack that helped make Ohio State famous, and the rest of it on this sunny, straight-from-heaven Saturday afternoon was just plain unbelievable.
Tossing all caution aside, lashing out in all directions, the stunning Seminoles knocked No. 7 Ohio State from its unbeaten perch 36-27.
There was not the slightest taint of fluke, and the 87,158 fans — the biggest crowd to ever see FSU in action anywhere — forever will bear witness.
With 2:19 left to play, the die well cast, they helped Florida State nose guard James Gilbert off the field.
"He ain't hurt," yelled an Ohio State fellow. "He's just damned tired after spending all day in our backfield."
But you'll need a calculator to total all Seminole heroes.
"We had to go for broke," said coach Bobby Bowden. "I told our players before the game we could win — but I honestly wasn't sure."
From 50 Best* again:
OSU rushed 31 times for just 38 yards, rendered completely reliant on quarterback Art Schlichter’s arm. Meanwhile, Bowden elected to attack the edges of Ohio State’s defense, attempting to take advantage of quarterback Rick Stockstill’s arm – the future Middle Tennessee head coach would end up an honorable mention All-American – and an inexperienced Ohio State secondary, coached by a young assistant (and future Alabama dynasty creator) named Nick Saban.
Stockstill was 25-for-41 for 299 yards and two scores, and while the Ohio State run game was held in check, FSU backs Michael Whiting and Ricky Williams rushed 30 times for 171 yards.
After jumping out to an early 7-0 lead, Ohio State wilted. FSU went on a 36-14 run to put the game away in the third quarter.
The box score:
Schlichter's 31-for-52, 458-yard passing day kept Ohio State within shouting distance, but the Buckeyes couldn't mount a sustained threat in the fourth quarter.
This was an enormous statement win for Florida State, and another one came just a week later when the Seminoles went to South Bend and beat Notre Dame, 19-13. But as you might expect of a thin, young team, the Noles began to wither.
They were stomped, 42-14, by No. 3 Pitt, and while they handed a bad LSU team a 38-14 pasting in Baton Rouge, they were just about out of gas. An explosive day from freshman Greg Allen was required to stave off Western Carolina, 56-31, and after a home loss to Howard Schnellenberger and No. 13 Miami, FSU was done. In their last two games of the season, they lost to No. 14 Southern Miss and Florida by a combined 93-17. Once 6-2 and 14th in the country, FSU finished 6-5 and home for the holidays.
They’ve bowled every year since.
The ridiculous Octoberfest road slate was proof that FSU would take on anyone, anywhere, anytime. And the November collapse proved the Noles weren't quite ready to do that successfully yet. But recruiting slowly picked up, and after averaging 8 wins per year from 1982-86, they embarked on maybe the most unbelievable run of sustained success the sport has ever seen.
Sure, what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama right now — playing at a top-2 level for going on eight straight years now — is all sorts of impressive. But FSU finished in the AP top 4 every year from 1987 to 2000. And for good measure, the Noles finished ranked in each of the five seasons after that.
Bowden retired after going just 30-22 over his last four seasons, but no one before or since has put that level of elite play together over a 14-year span.