Here's a way to measure the expedited progress of modern college football in a matter of minutes. Watch a short clip of this Notre Dame-Florida State game from 1981 ...
... and then watch some of the Notre Dame-Florida State contest from 12 years later, in 1993:
It's not just that the former is brought to you by a broadcast company that appears to be operating out of a broom closet in the Hesburgh Library, and that the latter is a nationally televised NBC game, replete with an overlong and gauzy Rockwellian introduction by Bob Costas:
It's that the 1981 game, by comparison, moves so slowly that it appears to be taking place at the bottom of a swimming pool.
This week, No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 2 Florida State meet for the eighth time in the schools' history, and because both teams are undefeated and ranked in the top five, you will no doubt hear a great deal about the 1993 game, when the second-ranked Fighting Irish defeated the top-ranked Seminoles, 31-24, then followed it up with a flop-sweat loss to Boston College that opened a path for Florida State to win a controversial national championship.
That FSU-Notre Dame contest was, of course, a seminal moment in college football. But it is only one piece in a larger picture. Because really, what's most fascinating about the intermittent history of this series is that it serves as a stop-motion capture of three decades of college football.
In the early 1970s, back when Florida State was still a football program struggling to make ends meet, an athletic director named Clay Stapleton made a desperate ploy for attention. Stapleton was only at FSU for 16 months before moving on to Vanderbilt, but in that time, he scheduled 72 future games against what were then the major powerhouses in college football. This was a good five years or so before the arrival of Bobby Bowden from West Virginia, where he was nearly driven out after being hung in effigy. This was before Bowden led a once-floundering Seminoles program to two straight Orange Bowls in 1979 and 1980, and before he made the choice to stay at FSU, a school that he once imagined would be a way station. This was before many of the best teams were bound by conference affiliation -- in 1981, 28 schools in Division I were independents, including the Seminoles -- and so Stapleton took everything he could get.
Our sites on these schools
Our sites on these schools
It led to an odd scheduling quirk in 1981. From Sept. 19 to Oct. 24, the Seminoles played five games, all of them on the road, all of them against national powers: Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. In retrospect, it stands as one of the most difficult stretches in modern college football history, an insane gauntlet that not even the most destitute of athletic directors would subject a team to in 2014.
After falling to Nebraska and beating Ohio State, the Seminoles traveled to South Bend to face a subpar Irish team that was led by a first-year coach, a walking experiment straight out of Moeller High School named Gerry Faust. (Among the anachronisms: The Irish opened the game in a full-house backfield; an on-screen graphic during the broadcast noted that they were passing 27 percent of the time of they had the ball.) The Seminoles hung on to win, 19-13. It was not one of the more thrilling or consequential games of Bowden's tenure, and yet he's called it one of his favorite road victories of his career, merely because -- like virtually everyone else his age -- he grew up listening to Notre Dame football on the radio on Saturday afternoons.
Bowden began publicly referring to this five-game stretch as Oktoberfest; on the Monday after the win over Notre Dame, he spoke at a booster club luncheon and someone taped a bumper sticker to the podium that read "Hail St. Bowden." The Seminoles followed up that Notre Dame win with a blowout loss to Pitt and a win over LSU. They then lost their last three games of the season to finish 6-5, but it almost didn't matter, because a win over Notre Dame still meant something tangible in 1981.
A win over Notre Dame meant that Florida State had arrived:
I can't imagine college football has ever changed as much over the course of a decade as it did from the early-1980s to the early-1990s. Some of this was because of television, because of the rise of ESPN and cable, because of the proliferation of games now available to a national audience (ESPN's first on-location GameDay broadcast famously took place before that FSU-ND game in '93).
But it was also the style and quality of the game itself. By the early-1990s, Miami and Notre Dame had already provided a stark contrast between modernity and classicism, and Bowden had elevated Florida State to an elite level by following the Hurricanes' brash example.
And what was Notre Dame? They were still the program of mysticism and conservatism, a team that did not fully open up its offense because Holtz clung to the principles he'd absorbed as an assistant under Woody Hayes. Up through '93, those principles had served him rather well. He had 53 wins in the five seasons between 1988 and '92, and an undefeated team headed into that date with Bowden's Seminoles in 1993.
Part of the reason that 1993 win over FSU still clings so deeply for Notre Dame fans is because it spelled the end of era, both for Holtz and for Irish football. The loss to Boston College the following week prefigured a nearly two-decade spiral into mediocrity.
In years past, in the first half of the 20th century, when Knute Rockne proved a masterful manipulator of the New York journalistic intelligentsia, it would have been unfathomable to imagine that Notre Dame would somehow lose out on an opportunity at a national championship despite defeating the team that did win the national championship. But those days were gone. The mojo was in Florida now, where the teams just looked better than everyone else did.
Fullback Marc Edwards in the 1996 Orange Bowl. Al Bello, Getty Images
In 1994, the Seminoles defeated the Irish, 23-16, and at the 1995 season's end, they beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl in Holtz's final bowl game with the Irish, 31-26. Over the course of those three seasons, it's worth noting one statistic in particular: Florida State, led by quarterbacks named Charlie Ward and Danny Kanell, threw a total of 1,375 passes. And Notre Dame, led by quarterbacks named Kevin McDougal and Ron Powlus, threw a total of 668.
It is, of course, an oversimplification to say that Notre Dame fell off the national radar because of inherent conservatism, or to say that Florida State had unprecedented success merely because it embraced the passing game. The larger demographics were shifting in favor of one and against the other. The talent in Florida tended to stay in Florida, and Bowden used that talent to whip up a dynasty.
How 2014's game goes
How 2014's game goes
When the teams met again in 2002, the Irish defeated Florida State in the midst of their only successful season under then-first-year coach Ty Willingham (Florida State won, 37-0, in 2003). But by then, the Bowden era was already in decline, and Florida State wouldn't be fully refreshed until Jimbo Fisher took over, defeating the Irish in 2011 in the Champs Sports Bowl, a game that heralded both schools' return to BCS-level play.
And yet, despite all that's happened, Saturday's game still feels like a contrast between a Notre Dame team that may or may not be playing over its head and a Florida State team that's loaded with first-tier talent at virtually every position, between a Notre Dame team that's seeking a conduit to the past and a Florida State team that's still perpetuating the cycle of success it built, at least partially, out of that scheduling gauntlet in the early-1980s.
Everything is different, but the stop-motion movie goes on.