TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two decades have passed since Kevin Long and Peter Boulware signed on as members of the 1993 Florida State recruiting class, choosing to leave their home state of South Carolina to join the Seminoles, who were just beginning their second season as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
At the time, Clemson was still viewed as a force in the ACC, having won six conference titles during a stretch which began with the Tigers claiming the 1981 National Championship. After forging its reputation independently as a national power, Florida State had just claimed its first ACC title in its inaugural season of conference membership.
The prevailing thought at the time was that the Seminoles and Tigers would be natural conference rivals for years to come.
Twenty-three years have passed since the Seminoles joined the ACC, but the long-awaited emergence of that rivalry appears to have finally arrived, as both programs are in the midst of runs of sustained success.
When No. 1 FSU entertains No. 22 Clemson Saturday night in primetime, it will mark an unprecedented fourth consecutive season the two have been ranked among the top 25 when they meet. ESPN College GameDay is on hand for a third consecutive year, and by all early indications, the ACC’s Atlantic Division title will be determined by the outcome for the sixth consecutive season between programs who have combined to win the last three ACC titles.
“This has turned into a heck of a game,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Last year at the Orange Bowl, I was rooting for [Clemson] as hard as anybody and was very proud that they won a BCS game. … We have great respect for them, their players, their coaches and how they do things. I think it’s a great opportunity not only for these two teams, but for the ACC to showcase what kind of conference we really have.”
Though there have been memorable moments and significant victories along the way, the rivalry has seen its share of momentum swings, beginning with Florida State’s run of 11 consecutive victories from 1999-2002.
“It’s not a rivalry until you start beating them,” said former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who was on the Tigers’ sideline when the momentum began to swing against his father Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles. Beginning with Clemson’s 26-10 win at home against No. 3 FSU in 2003, the Tigers would win five of the next seven meetings.
Still, the Tigers were not ranked at the time of any of those wins.
“When I was playing we pretty much had the upper hand on Clemson and it was the way I liked,” said Boulware, who grew up a South Carolina Gamecocks fan and had no problem getting revved up to face the Tigers. “We beat them pretty good. After I left it seemed like it kind of shifted. Tommy Bowden got there and they started recruiting better and they started winning.”
Both Boulware and Long have keen memories of the pre-ACC meetings between Florida State and Clemson, including the 1988 “Puntrooskie” win by the ‘Noles (24-21) in Death Valley, which the Tigers followed up a year later with a 24-23 win at Doak Campbell Stadium. Those games served as the back-drop for what many expected would be a heated ACC rivalry.
“I knew, even growing up in Columbia, watching Florida State and Clemson play (and seeing) the Puntrooskie, it was always a good rivalry and I knew it was definitely going to be a good rivalry when Florida State entered the ACC,” Boulware said.
“We’ve had a pretty good heated rivalry since the Puntrooskie,” Long added. “Growing up in the state of South Carolina when that happened, the way people talked about it – the hatred that they had toward Florida State – I even think some of the Carolina fans hated Florida State for doing it. It was a bitter rivalry, which made it even more interesting when I went there.”
The football landscape in the Palmetto State, however, was changing when Long and Boulware were facing their college decisions.
“When I was being recruited Clemson had gone through some changes,” Long said. “Ken Hatfield was the coach there and Sparky Woods was at Carolina. Both of them were on the hot seat. I was looking for something with a little more stability. I didn’t even take trips to Clemson or Carolina.”
“Those programs were in a valley and were really trying to find themselves,” Boulware explained. “They were not as good as they had traditionally been in the past. Having the opportunity to go to Florida State in ’93 for the No. 1 team in the country, it was just a tough opportunity to pass. That has kind of led to the rivalry being so heated. Florida State, for a long time, we were able to go into Columbia and go into South Carolina and pick the top athletes out of the state and bring them to Florida State to play. Clemson, they didn’t like that.”
Neither Long nor Boulware experienced a loss at the hands of the Tigers.
The exodus of Palmetto State players to Florida State continued for the better part of a decade, with the Seminoles landing stars like Greg Jones, Chris Hope and Alex Barron, and even later, with the arrival of Lawrence Timmons, Dekoda Watson and Everett Dawkins.
Jones, a powerful tailback out of Beaufort, S.C., was heavily recruited by both schools.
“I loved Florida State, but in the state of South Carolina, I loved Clemson,” said Jones. “A couple guys from our area went to Clemson and played football so I always paid attention to then. Then, in my ninth grade year of high school [Clemson] offered me my first scholarship. Me and the recruiter, the wide receiver coach Rick Stockstill, became real tight. … If I would have gone to Clemson, it would have been because of him.”
Ironically, Stockstill had grown up in Florida and played quarterback for the Seminoles. Their bond was not strong enough to swing Jones, who signed on the heels of FSU’s wire-to-wire run to the 1999 National Championship and enjoyed some of his finest games as a Seminole at the Tigers’ expense.
“Growing up I was a big Florida State fan, with Deion [Sanders] and Charlie [Ward] back in the day,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘If I ever get a chance I’m going to go.’”
Jones ran for 160 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in FSU’s 2001 win at Clemson, and in 2002 was the catalyst in a 48-31 triumph, powering for 165 yards on 22 carries, including three touchdowns.
“I just looked at it like I was just playing against the guys I grew up against,” said Jones, who would regularly talk to his childhood friends like Clemson defensive tackle Donnell Washington, in the week leading up to the game. “I had to play good. It was added motivation.”
All three will be watching Saturday night when the teams tangle in the high-stakes game, keenly aware that the rivalry dynamics have changed since their playing days as Seminoles.
Boulware will be on hand for the game, after spending part of the day sharing stories of his playing days along with “Puntrooskie” protagonist LeRoy Butler, in front of FSU’s Sod Cemetery.
“I think that’s to be expected when you have two pretty good teams; pretty good programs,” Boulware said. “The momentum will swing back and forth. As a Seminole, I’m hoping it has swung our way and will stay here for a while. If you look at Clemson and how well they’re recruiting and the job [Dabo] Swinney does, they’re going to have good teams every year. That’s just the way it’s going to be. That’s good for the ACC. It’s good for our conference to have two powerhouse teams that play well and have a similar style of great athletes and disciplined football. It’s fun to watch.”
Long, who has lived in Nashville, Tenn. since his playing days with the Tennessee Titans, said he can tell its Clemson week.
“It was always an important game,” Long said. “It’s an important game this weekend, because I’m already getting blown up with texts and people giving me a hard time. …
“Clemson has done a really good job the last four or five years recruiting some good athletes. I was real nervous about the game last year in Death Valley and very proud of the way Florida State came in there and dominated. I’m worried again this year. They’ve got a really good team.”
From his playing days, Jones remembers Clemson differently than he does now.
“I always thought they were a program on the rise,” said Jones. “When we were in school I thought they were always on the cusp of getting to that next level, but it seemed like they never could.
“These past couple of years, they’ve made it to the next level. They’re always on the radar now….There’s a lot more on the line.”