A look back: The 5 best season openers in FSU Football history
As July speeds by, there are now less than two months remaining before Florida State takes on Notre Dame to open the 2021 season on Sept. 5 (ABC, 7:30 p.m.).
Adding to the fun, the game will be isolated on a Sunday night as the only college football game in the country. And it is expected to take place in front of a sold-out crowd in Doak Campbell Stadium, as the Seminoles return to full capacity for the first time since 2019.
With so much excitement heading into this year's season opener, we decided to look back and review some of the top opening games in FSU football history.
There were many to choose from, but here's our list of the five best season openers in FSU history (plus some honorable mention selections that just couldn’t be left out).
The Top 5 List
No. 5 -- Florida State 42, Kansas 0 (Aug. 28, 1993)
FSU took on the Jayhawks in a special Kickoff Classic game that was played at the Meadowlands (the New York Giants' and New York Jets' massive home stadium) in New Jersey. While neutral-site openers are common in college football today, they were rare in the early 1990s. And FSU was clearly ready for the big stage.
After a clever shift into the I-formation, Sean Jackson walked in for the opening score of the season. Then Lonnie Johnson blocked a Kansas punt around the goal line, and Clifton Abraham recovered for a 14-0 lead. A defining moment for the team that delivered the first national title in program history then came in the second quarter of this blowout victory.
A 10-play goal-line stand culminated in a fourth-and-inches stop where Derrick Brooks, Corey Sawyer, Devin Bush and several other ’Noles combined for a vicious group effort to halt an off-tackle run to the right. In addition to the 10 plays inside the FSU 10-yard line, there were four more plays that were wiped away by a penalty. Longtime college football announcer Keith Jackson said on the broadcast: "I don't think I've ever seen anything like this."
While legendary defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews was still snarling with approval after the FSU stop, Charlie Ward and the offense raced downfield in a two-minute drill to take a commanding 21-0 lead into halftime. Just as they often did, the Seminoles racked up over 500 total yards and cruised to the shutout win. The No. 1 team in the country went on to start that season 9-0 and win each game by two scores or more, while defeating all but one team by 25 or more points.
No. 4 -- Florida State 14, USC 7 (Sept. 6, 1997)
While the Trojans weren’t national championship contenders like the ’Noles were at this point, this was FSU’s first opener against an all-time college football giant. And the Seminoles, who were at the height of their Dynasty run, grinded out an important win on the West Coast.
Redshirt sophomore and quarterback heir apparent Dan Kendra gave FSU an early lead with a quarterback sneak on the goal line. And while this wasn’t a game that had much offensive firepower, the beauty was Andrews' defensive unit holding the Trojan offense to 184 total yards. That included 25 rushing yards on 33 attempts for an average of 0.75 yards per carry.
The Trojans' lone successful drive came in the second quarter where they tied things up at 7. Even on that drive, USC was forced to convert a fourth-and-goal for the score.
FSU pulled ahead for good early in the fourth and went on to deliver another top-notch season. Coming off an 11-0 regular season the year before, FSU started 10-0 in 1997.
No. 3 -- Florida State 45, Ole Miss 34 (Sept. 5, 2016)
The Seminoles knew they had one of the most talented players in the country in their offensive backfield, but there were questions right away with an underperforming defense. Dalvin Cook ran for 91 yards and caught 7 passes for 101 more, but Ole Miss came out firing and even led 28-6 at one point.
In retrospect, Florida State’s defense would go on to struggle against far worse opponents in 2016 than the Ole Miss offense: Receivers Evan Engram, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf all made the NFL’s Pro Bowl last year, and they were just some of the skill position weapons Ole Miss featured.
FSU would need a rejuvenation offensively and a few turnovers to get back in the game, which was played in Orlando. They got both. The Seminoles' third quarter was a treasure cove of memorable highlights after a completely different team seemed to emerge from the locker room.
The comeback started with a field goal, then an intercepted pass off of Engram’s hands set up the offense again. Freddie Stevenson capitalized with a touchdown plunge, and just three plays later, defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker ripped the ball out to put FSU in plus-territory on the 11-yard line. Just five minutes into the half, FSU took the lead 29-28 on a Kermit Whitfield reverse. From there, FSU capped off four more scoring drives and held off the Rebels for the exciting win.
FSU was the subject of a Showtime in-season documentary that year, which only added to the preseason hype going into the game. While it was a bit of a rollercoaster year for the 'Noles, they still finished the season strong with another win over Florida and a victory in the Orange Bowl.
No. 2 -- Florida State 10, Miami 7 (Sept. 5, 2005)
This Labor Day affair came in the middle of a stretch of four season-opening meetings in six years between the 'Noles and the Hurricanes. Heading in, FSU was on a six-game losing streak to rival UM, including a double-whammy regular season/bowl combination in 2003. Several of those matchups were agonizing last-minute losses, especially a year prior in 2004 where FSU coughed up the game and lost in overtime.
After so many endings in this rivalry ending with field goal tries, this would be another wild one for the history books. FSU jumped out 10-0 in the first quarter, and it was the Hurricanes who started 0-for-1 on field goals. Miami eventually answered with a deep touchdown strike from quarterback Kyle Wright to cut it to 10-7. But from there, the game was an absolute catastrophe.
Despite Miami’s struggles on offense and special teams, FSU barely hung on to its slim three-point lead. Lawrence Timmons blocked a punt, and the Seminoles had it first-and-goal from the 3-yard line but couldn’t even get a field goal out of it. Guys like Greg Olsen and Leon Washington were making big plays for each team, but neither offense could put together a complete drive.
Finally, Miami lined up for a 37-yard field goal with two minutes remaining to tie the game at 10, but it was the Hurricanes' turn for a costly late error on special teams. The snap was bobbled, the ball drifted toward the line of scrimmage, and Miami never got a chance to kick for the tie. The Labor Day win avenged a brutal top-five defeat to the ’Canes to start the season one year earlier. Buoyed by that late-game break and a win over their rival, the Seminoles started 2005 at 5-0 and eventually went on to win the ACC.
No. 1 -- Florida State 41, Pittsburgh 13 (Sept. 2, 2013)
In one of the most iconic performances in FSU history and truly one of the best debuts ever in college football, Jameis Winston nearly pitched a perfect game against the Panthers. Only one pass hit the ground during Jameis Winston's incredible 25-for-27, 356-yard, five-touchdown performance. The redshirt freshman threw for four scores and ran for another. (His only other incompletion was actually a sideline catch by Kenny Shaw that was incorrectly ruled out of bounds.)
This game didn't feature a dramatic comeback like the 2016 win over Ole Miss. It wasn’t a heart-stopping finish against a bitter rival like Miami. Instead, the FSU community sat back and watched as a new star was born -- one that would take the Seminoles back to championship heights only seen in Tallahassee when legendary head coach Bobby Bowden roamed the sidelines.
Pitt took the opening drive all the way for a 7-0 lead, but that was just a mirage. The opening touchdown was the Panthers' only score on the evening, and all it did was fire up an explosive FSU offense. Tight end Nick O’Leary was on the receiving end of three of Winston’s touchdown tosses, including his very first FSU touchdown (after which he high-stepped back to the ’Noles' bench).
Winston also took a designed run in for a score and found Rashad Greene for a back-breaking strike just before halftime. Pittsburgh’s secondary had likely seen enough of Greene after a relentless second quarter; he finished the game with eight catches for 126 yards and a touchdown.
FSU then coasted in the second half because the damage was done. Behind their redshirt freshman quarterback, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, FSU was well on its way to a national title march.
Where does the 2021 season opener against Notre Dame rank on this list? Which season opener should be No. 1? Talk about this story with other Florida State football fans in the Tribal Council
Florida State 14, Miami 0 (Sept. 19, 1964)
Before their battles in openers during the early 2000s, FSU squared off with its soon-to-be bitter rival to begin both 1963 and 1964. Head coach Bill Peterson’s vision was beginning to be realized in his fifth season in Tallahassee. At the time, the 1964 Seminoles were easily the best team in program history. They went on to impressively defeat Kentucky, Georgia, Florida for the first time, and Oklahoma in the Gator Bowl later that year.
The Hurricanes already struggled to contain wideout Fred Biletnikoff in ’63, when he hauled in two touchdowns and took back a 99-yard pick-six as a defensive back. FSU won that opener, 24-0. To kick off their successful ’64 campaign, again the ’Noles defense forced a shutout. Quarterback Steve Tensi also had a field day throwing to the All-American Biletnikoff. All nine of his completions went to Biletnikoff for 165 yards and both touchdowns in the game. Those 165 receiving yards more than doubled Miami’s passing output as a team.
Florida State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (August 30, 2014)
Even after losing seven players to the NFL Draft and 11 the year before that, FSU returned one of its most talented teams in school history. Defending national champions, preseason No. 1, favorites to repeat ... none of these things were firsts for the FSU program. What was unique about 2014 was the return of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. With Charlie Ward a redshirt senior in 1993 and Chris Weinke a senior in 2000, Winston was the first Seminole to have a chance to return after being crowned the best player in college football the year before. This made FSU the ultimate preseason pick.
After Nate Andrews tipped a pass up in the air to himself for a pick-six and Mario Pender dove in to go up 17-0, it looked like FSU would make easy work of Oklahoma State. Once the Cowboys cut the advantage to one score early in the third quarter, however, the rest of the second half was anything but a cakewalk for FSU in the prime-time Saturday game in Dallas.
On a designed draw from 28 yards out late in the third, Winston side-stepped two defenders, jumped over another and burst into the end zone to go up 27-17. FSU again would hold off charging Oklahoma State when Winston dumped a pass down the middle off to Rashad Greene, who glided past a handful of defensive backs to score from 50 yards out and seal the game. It was the first of many close calls for the Seminoles during their thrilling second-straight undefeated regular season.
FSU won seven games that year by one possession or less. And that doesn’t include road victories over N.C. State and Louisville, during which the Seminoles trailed by 17 and 21 points, respectively.
For a list of more memorable FSU openers, head to the Tribal Council.