GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For all of us who wondered whether Coach Bobby Bowden could ever win them all, quarterback Chris Weinke could ever win a big one and receiver Peter Warrick could make peace with the state of Florida, the answers after Saturday are "stay tuned," "ask the Florida defense" and "smile for the camera."
Florida State's 30-23 victory over Florida before a crowd of 85,747 at Florida Field turned Gator fans away into the night and the bowl championship series rankings into simple math.
Was it pretty? No.
Was it easy?
If you call knocking down a Hail Mary pass in the end zone on the game's last play easy, well, it was a romp.
But the BCS' crystal ball became crystal clear in the end.
With the victory, No. 1 Florida State (11-0) clinched a spot in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl and yet another shot at the national championship.
"It's no secret," Bowden said of the Sugar Bowl bid, "we will accept it."
The opponent has not been determined, although No. 2 Virginia Tech can almost assuredly clinch the other berth with a win Friday against Boston College.
We say "almost" because there are computers involved and there are no doubt wonks in Lincoln today trying to figure out how one-loss Nebraska can ace Virginia Tech out of the Sugar Bowl spot.
But the stage is set for Bowden, Weinke, Warrick and the Seminoles.
Bowden, who recently turned 70, has won 303 games in his illustrious career but has never put together an unbeaten season. The galling part is that two of his sons, Tommy at Tulane and Terry at Auburn, have completed the trick.
A victory in the Sugar Bowl would give Bobby his sweet finish.
Yet, in the waning seconds Saturday, Bowden wondered again about his fickle fate. His Seminoles had seemingly put the game out of reach, 30-16, with 6:03 left on Weinke's 27-yard scoring pass to Marvin Minnis.
But "the Swamp" does not surrender wins easily. Florida, which had kicked the ball around the yard for 3 1/2 quarters--"Hate to play so stupid you don't give yourself a chance to win the game," Gator Coach Steve Spurrier said--mustered its first offensive touchdown with 3:33 left and then got the ball back on its own 12 with 59 seconds remaining.
Bowden could believe what he was seeing.
'My Lord," he said. "Here we go again."
Two years ago at the Swamp, Florida drove 80 yards in three plays at game's end to pull out a 32-29 victory, a defeat that still gnaws at Bowden.
Saturday, Florida (9-2) again got a game-tying shot, but Jesse Palmer's last-second fling into the end zone fell incomplete.
"Oh, man, if they'd have gotten that one," Bowden said later.
But they didn't, and Florida lost for only the fourth time at home in the 1990s, thanks in part to 15 penalties for 93 yards.
Weinke, the team's 27-year-old junior, missed last year's Florida game because of a neck injury that required surgery.
"I went through hell last year, not playing," Weinke said. "I don't even want to talk about it."
And despite starting the game with 24 touchdown passes, his credentials were not secured. He had never played against Florida, in a setting like this, for stakes this consequential.
Would he wilt under the pressure?
The question was at issue in the third quarter, with Florida State clinging to a 13-9 lead, when Florida cornerback Bennie Alexander intercepted a Weinke pass and returned it 43 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
The crowd noise was deafening.
"But they were not going to rattle me," Weinke said.
Seminole offensive coordinator Mark Richt understood that, in this moment, Weinke's career was being defined.
But Richt said Weinke never flinched.
"He's as business as it gets," Richt said. "I didn't even have to encourage him. He's like 'Yeah, whatever, what's the next play?' I didn't even have to explain to him, 'Don't worry about that pick,' because he doesn't need to hear it."
After the interception, Weinke and the offense scored 17 unanswered points. For the game, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards.
"He's a different style than Charlie Ward," Richt said of Weinke, "but he's as tough as they come, mentally."
Maybe not as tough as Warrick, though. Gator fans pounced on the senior receiver, arrested in early October for his part in a clothes-buying scam at Dillard's department store in Tallahassee. Fans waved Dillard bags at him from the stands. Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Heistman," and taunted with insults.
"The fans didn't play a factor with me," he said. "I heard some of that stuff, but I blocked it out."
Warrick answered in his own way. He caught nine passes for 90 yards and had 26 yards in five carries, including a dazzling four-yard, second-quarter run to give his team a 10-0 lead.
Because of the Dillard's incident, for which he pleaded to misdemeanor charges, Warrick probably lost his chance to win the Heisman Trophy. He said he still wanted to be invited to Heisman ceremonies in December.
"I deserve to go," he said. "But if I don't get invited, I still got invited to the national championship."
Warrick, it appeared, had at last put the story behind him.
In the visitors' locker room, after most reporters had left, three Florida Highway patrol officers approached Warrick near his stall.
No, an outstanding performance. The officers asked to have their pictures taken with Warrick.
No mug shots this time.
Warrick happily obliged.