This year’s Independence Bowl matchup of Southern Miss and Florida State is considered one of the more lopsided and awkward mismatches of the bowl season, but a quick review of the history book reveals a time when the two schools were not on too different footing as college football independents.
The two teams have played a total of 22 times with FSU holding a 13-8-1 lead in the series. They haven’t played since 1996 – a 54-14 win for the Sugar Bowl-bound Seminoles over a No. 25-ranked USM squad.
FSU (6-6) is a 15-point favorite over USM (8-4) ahead of the Dec. 27 game in Shreveport, Louisiana.
At no time was the USM-FSU series more relevant than the stretch from 1976-81 when Bobby Collins was the coach at Southern Miss and Bobby Bowden was in the first six seasons of his legendary run as the Florida State head coach.
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The two teams played five generally hard-fought contests during that stretch.
“There was no doubt that it was a big game for us and I think it was a big game for them,” the 84-year-old Collins said this week.
A look back
The first time a Collins-coached USM team faced Florida State was on Nov. 6, 1976, in Tallahassee. The Seminoles won 30-27 before a crowd of 29,173.
FSU thumped the Golden Eagles 35-6 the next year in Hattiesburg before 19,376 onlookers. That squad proved to be the first of Bowden’s great teams, finishing 10-2 and winning the Tangerine Bowl.
In a scheduling quirk, Florida State made another trip to Hattiesburg in 1978. The Seminoles didn’t take too kindly to being scheduled as the homecoming opponent and walked away with a 38-16 victory.
In the 1979 season opener in Tallahassee, USM was in good position for its first win over Florida State since 1961. The Golden Eagles led 14-3 in the fourth quarter, but a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown allowed the Seminoles to rally for a 17-14 win in front of 45,467.
After the teams didn’t meet in 1980, USM prepared an all-important trip to Tallahassee in 1981. USM entered the game with a record of 7-0-1, featuring a tie against Alabama and a win over Mississippi State. Florida State stood at 6-3 with wins over Notre Dame, Ohio State and LSU. The three losses were on the road at Nebraska, Pittsburgh and Miami.
“They were ranked (No. 20) and we had gotten moved into the top 20 (at No. 17),” Collins said. “It was a big, big ball game for us.”
While USM was a very good team that season, the final score was stunning – 58-14 in favor of the Golden Eagles.
“I believe we scored the first six or seven times we had the ball,” Collins said. “It was one of those days when things fell into place. We played a real good game against them.”
Led by a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, Reggie Collier, and a pair of gifted running backs in Sammy Winder and Ricky Floyd, USM piled up 368 yards on the ground against the Seminoles that day.
USM shot up to No. 9 in the Associated Press Top 25 the following week and eventually finished 9-2-1, losing 19-17 to Missouri in the Tangerine Bowl.
The massive gap
The fact that Florida State once served as USM’s homecoming opponent four decades ago speaks to how far the Seminoles have come as one of the nation’s preeminent football powers. While FSU has climbed to the top of college football, USM has continued to scrap and fight to stay relevant as one of the better mid-major programs.
Collins took the SMU job after the 1981 season while Bowden built a behemoth in Tallahassee with a record of 315-98-4 and two national titles from 1976-2009.
Florida State and Southern Miss were among the last standing independent programs in the Southeast before FSU joined the ACC in 1991 and USM became one of the founding members of Conference USA in 1995.
While USM and FSU were on a relatively level playing field in football from the 50’s to the early 80’s, there is obviously no comparison between the two programs at this point.
Florida State doesn’t lack for resources, thriving as one of seven FBS programs in the state of Florida with an athletic budget of about $115 million.
USM, which is one of three FBS programs in Mississippi, has the second smallest athletic budget in Conference USA at about $26 million.
While the landscape has change drastically in college football since Collins was the head coach at USM, the program continues to fight the odds each year.
“It seemed like we had our backs to the wall all the way,” Collins said. “We were playing as an independent and we had to play some big games for our budget and all. We were fortunate in the big games that we could win some of them.
“We desperately wanted to get in a conference and it seemed like everything we were trying to do was just a struggle. We finally got to where we were noticed and all. You never know how Louisville shot ahead and even Florida State took giant steps forward. I think the thing that held us back more than anything was not being able to get in a conference early and not get associated with those teams. Being in a conference, you have an automatic schedule built in. It’s a tough situation, but I’ve been mighty proud of the way Southern Miss has fought back.”