Florida State saved the Orange Bowl from irrelevancy. But not by much.
With their 21-15 victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday, the No. 13 Seminoles won their first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 2005 and added a dash of luster to a “major” bowl that would have seemed anything but had the Yellow Jackets pulled the upset.
Now, instead of an Orange Bowl matchup involving two teams that are currently unranked in The Associated Press poll — Georgia Tech and, more than likely, Louisville — it has a FSU team that gives the bowl a local flavor, as well as a legitimate power.
“We did enough to win the game,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said after his Seminoles barely held on for the win. “But we still won 11 games and the ACC.”
It was a weekend of relief for the Jan.1 Orange Bowl, which is already forced to contend for attention with the BCS Championship Game that will be contested six days later by Alabama and Notre Dame at the same venue, Sun Life Stadium.
Bowl organizers caught a break Friday when Kent State lost its conference championship game — and a possible BCS bowl bid that likely would have sent it to South Florida — in a double-overtime nail biter.
The Seminoles made sure the Yellow Jackets (6-7) didn’t dull it, either.
Georgia Tech, which backed into the ACC title game only because of the University of Miami’s self-imposed ban on postseason play, gave the Seminoles a scare.
“Everyone said they didn’t belong,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said of his Yellow Jackets. “They played their tails off.”
But the Seminoles (11-2) rebounded from a humbling loss to rival Florida with a victory that gave Fisher his first conference title since taking over the coaching reins from Bobby Bowden in 2010.
Sophomore James Wilder Jr. rushed for a pair of touchdowns and quarterback EJ Manuel bounced back from a violent hit in the Florida game to direct the Seminoles to their first Orange Bowl engagement since 2006, when they lost to Penn State.
After Devonta Freeman’s 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter put Florida State on top, Wilder’s slashing 16-yard scoring run in the second quarter inspired memories of his father James Wilder, the long-time running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wilder made pop even prouder later in the half when he carried it in from the 1 to give the Seminoles a 21-3 lead. With Saturday’s success on the ground, the Seminoles set a FSU record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 37, breaking the previous mark of 35 in 1995.
Manuel also revised the school record book, becoming the sixth FSU quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in one season, reaching the milestone when he hit Rashad Greene on a 9-yard completion in the first quarter.
But after scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, the Seminoles never scored again.
“You couldn’t play a better first half than we did offensively,” Fisher said. “In the second half, we kept shooting ourselves in the foot — self-inflicted wounds.”
While the Seminoles’ defense held Georgia Tech to three field goals through three quarters, they took their lumps trying to stop the Jackets’ spread option offense. Tech piled up 183 yards on the ground one week after the Seminoles surrendered 244 rushing yards to the Gators, and eventually reached the end zone midway through the fourth quarter, cutting the lead to 21-15.
And Georgia Tech had a chance late to wreck FSU’s bowl plans.
The Yellow Jackets took over at their own 15 with one timeout and 2:17 remaining and advanced the ball to the 37. But a Tevin Washington pass was picked off by Karlos Williams with just more than a minute remaining to seal the win.
“The quarterback threw a pretty bad ball. I’m just happy I got the ball,” Williams said. “We’re home safe now, going to Miami to play in the Orange Bowl.”
The Noles managed to hang on during a night that likely marked defensive coordinator Mark Stoops’ final game at FSU. Stoops is leaving to become the head coach at Kentucky.
Many felt this would be Florida State’s year to return to prominence as a national title contender. With losses to North Carolina State and Florida, they fell short. They’re headed to South Florida for a 2013 bowl game all right, but not the big one on Jan. 7.
The Orange Bowl is not complaining.