We've turned Florida State into the New York Yankees, which is a stretch. Okay, the Seminoles are good, really good. Every New Year's Day they're in the big action. You don't see Florida State hanging around somebody's .com bowl. To play football at FSU means always having to be tucked in early on New Year's Eve. No wonder Bobby Bowden's guys blow curfew.
But they're not invincible, either. The Seminoles are more like the Atlanta Braves than the Yankees. They get to the Big Game, but they don't always win. Case in point: Last year, in the national championship game, Florida State lost to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. Second case in point: Three years ago, in the national championship game, Florida State lost to Florida here in the Sugar Bowl. Last I checked, that's two out of three national championship chances blown.
There are two ways to go in Tuesday night's national championship game between favored Florida State, which plays in these monster games all the time, and Virginia Tech, which hasn't beaten a team ranked in the top five in seven years:
You can go with experience or you can go with Michael Vick.
I'm going with Vick.
Don't get me wrong, Florida State deserves to be favored. The Seminoles went undefeated playing a tougher schedule than Virginia Tech's. They have a veteran quarterback in 27-year-old Chris Weinke. They have four all-Americans: guard Jason Whitaker, nose guard Corey Simon, place kicker Sebastian Janikowski, and the fabulous Peter Warrick. And they have Bowden, who is the best coach in any team sport at keeping his guys loose. Monday, at his final pregame gabfest with reporters, Bowden was asked if his failure to penalize free-spirit/party boy Janikowski for missing curfew New Year's Eve was a sign of preferential treatment--Bowden did take away starting privileges from two other night owls. Bowden replied: "Yeah, I would say it looks that way to me. Yep, appears to me to be preferential."
I love Bowden. Moralists want Janikowski sent packing, even though he may be the best place-kicking prospect ever! Bowden says, "I ain't gonna cut off my nose to spite my face." Bowden has had preferential treatment issues already this season, with Warrick and his retail discounts. Bowden said he would remove from the team anybody accused of murder, but this discount thing is another matter. "If they just get a discount," he joked, "I want to know how they did it."
One thing Virginia Tech can't expect is for the Seminoles to be uptight. The only man who could have been any funnier Monday would have been Chris Rock.
In addition, the Seminoles are fairly steamed about two things that should make them even more purposeful:
They are sick of what they perceive as Virginia Tech's players talking too much smack for a team that hasn't proven anything. And a lot of the FSU players are sick of hearing about Vick.
Weinke is particularly irritated. He tried to be polite all of last week, but the veins in his neck turning blue at the mention of Vick betrayed what he really felt. "We'll see who is a better athlete on January 4," Weinke said.
Virginia Tech cornerback Ike Charlton said of Weinke, "We're coming after him just like we've gone after everyone else."
Well, maybe not. College kids can talk a whole lot of junk, but it's a coach's responsibility to figure out the best plan of attack. Florida State's defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, knows his defense is vulnerable to a running quarterback who can throw. This season, Miami's Kenny Kelly completed 27 of 41 passes for 370 yards, though FSU managed to win at home, 31-21. Home-field advantage might have been the difference against another great-legs-great-arm quarterback, Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton. He threw for 387 yards, and scared the daylights out of Bowden's Boys before they won, 41-35.
Simon, FSU's all-everything nose guard, says he won't put Vick--a redshirt freshman--in the same class as Hamilton, adding, "He's started 10 games and he is still going to make some mistakes."
But Simon is likely to find out soon enough. Vick is faster than Kelly or Hamilton. Vick has a better arm than Kelly or Hamilton.
Even if Warrick and Vick are equals, Warrick is going to get the ball a dozen times, tops, Tuesday night. Vick will handle it 40 times. Andrews knows this, and he told reporters this week: "A guy like that usually gives us problems, considering the type of defense that we run [four linemen, three linebackers]. When a quarterback gets out of the pocket, that could hurt us for big yardage. That was the first thing I thought when I saw Michael Vick."
Andrews is sharp as a knife. Look for him to change schemes and employ more zones than FSU usually does. I just wonder if his players have as much respect for Vick as he does.
The best way to deal with Vick is to keep him off the field, play keep away by having the offense pound out yardage--and time--with the running game. But FSU is averaging only 123.5 yards rushing per game this season, and just 3.5 yards per carry. The Seminoles will be hard-pressed to match those numbers against a Virginia Tech defense that is No. 3 in the nation against the rush, and has allowed only five rushing touchdowns this season.
But running doesn't figure to be either team's Plan A in this Sugar Bowl. "It will be a quarterback's game," Bowden said. "If Chris gets hot and we slow Vick down, we'll win. . . . If Vick gets hot and Chris struggles, they'll win. If they're both hot, it comes down to a field goal." If Bowden can get Janikowski off Bourbon Street and to the game, that would work in FSU's favor. But it also presumes that Weinke will be as hot as Vick, a presumption some of us don't share.