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Sugar Bowl's tale of two very different teams

The Sporting Scene

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science / January 4, 2000



When the Virginia Tech Hokies play the Florida State Seminoles tonight in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to determine the college football national champion, intriguing angles will abound.

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Most football experts believe that Florida State should win. However, an analysis of these angles points toward a game that may succeed in keeping weary football fans staring at their television sets deep into the night.

Intriguing angle No. 1: FSU coach Bobby Bowden vs. Tech coach Frank Beamer.

Bowden is a laughing, likable man who since taking the FSU job in 1976 - following a stretch when the team won just four of its previous 33 games - has become a national icon. This season was the fifth in the past 12 that his team was ranked No. 1 at the start of the year; it has played for the title three of the past four years; it has the best record among all major college football teams for the '90s.

And, armed with a new contract ($1.5 million a year) through 2004, it seems almost certain that Bowden will pass the late Alabama coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, as the winningest college football coach in the game's history.

Yet, while Bowden is widely considered one of the best coaches this year or any year, it's also true that in playing for the title the two previous seasons, the Seminoles lost. They have won one title, in 1993. This puts Bowden at risk, according to some observers, of becoming known as a coach who stumbles in the big ones despite enormous talent on the field.

Asked earlier in the season if his team might be the best in the land, Bowden grumbled, "We're not playing like it."

Conversely, Hokie boss Beamer is far less known. But he has been in Blacksburg 13 years (88-59-2) and has lifted Tech to impressive heights - but never this height. The last time the Hokies failed to go a post-season bowl was 1992.

Insiders are impressed with Beamer's coaching abilities, especially with how he took an offense this season with lots of questions and willed it into a force. In 1986, Beamer predicted he'd direct the team to a national title, but he now admits, "I might have been telling a story." There has been no hint that Beamer will be intimidated by Bowden.

Intriguing angle No. 2: The quarterbacks.

FSU is lead by Chris Weinke - a mature player, thanks to having taken six years away from school to play minor-league baseball. Because of his years and his talent, he became the instant team leader. When he is good, he is very good - proof being his 61.5 percent pass completions for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. But when he is bad, he can be had. A major shortcoming is his lack of mobility, which might make him a simple target for Hokie pass rushers, notably defensive end Corey Moore, who set a Big East season record for sacks with 17.

Michael Vick is Tech's quarterback, as young as Weinke is old. He has erupted this year on the college scene as the highest-rated freshman in college history and the most efficient QB in the nation. His completion percentage is only slightly lower, although he does throw substantially less than Weinke. If Vick doesn't find himself dazzled by the bright lights, he could be an evening of trouble for the Seminoles.

Intriguing angle No. 3: Big-time team vs. little-known team.

Being used to the commotion and confusion of major games should be an advantage for Florida State. But sometimes it can make teams blas. Blas can get almost anybody beat. On the other hand, when teams get to a huge contest for the first time, like Virginia Tech, the thrill can simply be in the being there and the goal of winning can get lost in the excitement.

Intriguing angle No. 4: Key players have created questions.

Peter Warrick, an FSU wide receiver, was a favorite at the beginning of the year to win the Heisman trophy. His ability to run routes well, catch anything, then run for more yards is storied. But he got caught in a department-store scam in which he acquired clothing, found himself suspended for two games, and dismissed by Heisman voters. Says Warrick, "I'm a better man now." No question he is anxious to display himself in a favorable light.

On the Hokie side, all-America defensive end Moore erupted late last week with a diatribe against reporters in New Orleans, prompting some observers to wonder if the pressure was taking its toll. Moore, named the nation's best lineman and best defensive player, earlier had promised his team would "burn down New Orleans" if it triumphs in the Sugar Bowl.

Intriguing angle No. 5: Both teams are undefeated.

Florida State had a more difficult schedule - rated sixth-hardest in the nation - because it had to handle the likes of Florida at Gainesville, and Georgia Tech. But while Tech has been criticized for a soft schedule (rated 53rd-most-difficult), the truth is it had to play such schools as Boston College, Miami, Clemson - all good teams that happened to be playing this season at lower levels than in salad days.

Intriguing angle No. 6: Which team will want it more?

Says Beamer, "It's two teams that have played well, played hard all year long." But with the talent much more evenly distributed these days because of limitations on numbers of scholarships that can be awarded, the desire in players' hearts routinely is the most crucial factor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society