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Sunday, January 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Orange Bowl / Florida State 18, Nebraska 16 -- Top Notch! -- Bowden's Team Lays Claim To First Title

MIAMI - Even when the clock said 0:00, this one wasn't over.

Assuming victory and a national championship, Florida State players and fans flooded the field in the waning moments of the Orange Bowl.

But the officials put one second back on the clock, cleared the field and allowed second-ranked Nebraska one last 45-yard field-goal attempt.

And finally a kick wide meant something good to Florida State. Coach Bobby Bowden, in his 18th year at FSU, appeared to get his first national championship with the No.1 Seminoles' 18-16 victory over Nebraska.

Freshman Scott Bentley's 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds left was the difference.

But it's still not over.

Florida State (12-1), No. 4 Notre Dame (11-1) and maybe even No. 5 Auburn (11-0 but on NCAA probation and banned from bowl play) will find out today how they wind up in the final college football polls.

Auburn is the only unbeaten team remaining after Nebraska (11-1) and West Virginia (11-1) lost last night. But the Tigers are ineligible for the coaches' poll and, because they didn't play a bowl game, aren't likely to draw enough No. 1 votes to leapfrog Florida State and Notre Dame for a title.

That leaves the Seminoles and the Irish - only team to beat them, 31-24 at Notre Dame Nov. 13.

Bowden figures the Irish are the second-best team in the country.

"I think that the national champion should be based on the whole season and not just one game," Bowden said. "They can say they beat Florida State, but we can say we didn't lose to No. 16 (Boston College) at home."

One possibility is a co-championship, which would require the third split vote in four years. Washington and Miami were involved in the last shared title two seasons ago.

Two Associated Press voters who attended the Orange Bowl were split last night after the game.

Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune said his top five will be Notre Dame, Florida State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Auburn.

"The head-to-head" is what decided it for Sherman, he said. "You can't get by it."

Mark Blaudschun of the Boston Globe said he'll vote Florida State No. 1, followed by Notre Dame, Nebraska, Auburn and Florida.

"In my mind it was a push (last night) in terms of the effect it had," Blaudschun said of his top two. "Both teams struggled. But Florida State struggled to win against a tougher opponent (Notre Dame beat Texas A&M 24-21)."

Although a tough choice, Blaudschun said this year's vote isn't his toughest. "It was a tougher call with Washington and Miami a couple years ago," he said. "That was a real difficult call." He picked Miami.

If the media members can't agree in their own poll, who's to say a split vote can't happen? Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks for one.

"We don't plan on sharing anything," Brooks said. "We beat the No. 1 team, and we're the national champions."

In beating Nebraska, Florida State won its ninth straight bowl, an NCAA record, and extended its unbeaten streak to 12.

And, finally, after 18 seasons, six straight top-four finishes and his 166th victory at Florida State, maybe Bowden will get his first national title.

"I guess it was just our time," he said. "Because Nebraska played as good as we did."

Bentley, Florida State's highly recruited freshman kicker, accounted for the final lead change with his season-high fourth field goal of the game.

He also made made kicks of 34, 25 and 39 yards after missing a 47-yarder in the first quarter.

Bentley was recruited after Florida State lost back-to-back games to rival Miami on kicks that sailed wide.

"We've lost national championships, we thought, by missing kicks," Bowden said. "Tonight, we won a national championship by making a kick."

And Bentley was ready.

"After he (Nebraska's Byron Bennett) made the field goal to go up by one, I wanted it to come down to me and a field goal," he said of the kick that put Nebraska ahead 16-15 with 1:16 left.

Said Florida State senior receiver Kevin Knox, who caught five passes for 99 yards: "I watched (Bentley's kick) all the way over, and I put on my hat and said. `We're No. 1, baby! And nobody else is better in the nation. To all the critics, all I can say is we're the best, nobody else is, and we proved it today."

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Charlie Ward, led the Florida State offense with an Orange Bowl-record 25 completions on 43 attempts for 286 yards passing.

"Our offense did not play that good today. They were just not clicking," Bowden said. "But they put enough good plays together to win. Our defense and our kicking was the good thing today.

Even so, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne went home empty-handed again.

-- It was Nebraska's seventh straight bowl loss - fourth to Florida State in that stretch. All seven were against top-five teams.

-- The team dropped to 1-8 in its last nine bowls.

-- Since beating UCLA during the 1987 regular season, Nebraska is 0-12 against top-five teams.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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