The Sportmeisters are previewing each of the 34 bowl games and providing our predictions as well. Let’s get to it!
Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., Jacksonville, FL
FSU (6-6) vs. West Virginia (9-3)
A lot of people expected Florida State to contend for the ACC title this year, attempting to win for the first time since 2005. An early season upset in BYU had Seminole fans talking. Three straight losses following that had prominent Seminole boosters talking, this time for coach Bobby Bowden’s head. At 2-4, FSU did just enough to win four of their last six and finish at a barely bowl-eligible 6-6.
Florida State’s success came mostly from the offense. They finished 27th in NCAA FBS with 421.92 yards a game. It was led mostly by the 16th ranked passing game (278.75 yards a game), which was led by junior QB Christian Ponder.
Unfortunately, Ponder was injured against Clemson, putting the season in sophomore QB E.J. Manuel’s hands. The Seminoles adjusted with an emphasis on rushing, turning to sophomore RB Ty Jones. He responded with 711 yards and seven touchdowns, gaining almost half of that amount in the last four games. WRs Bert Reed and Rod Owens are the Seminoles' top receivers, combining for 1,403 yards and three touchdowns (all Owens).
Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews once had a defense that was feared all over the nation. That defense is long gone, since replaced by a defense that finished 110th in yards allowed (443.50 yards a game) and 98th in points allowed (30.75 points a game).
The Seminoles have given up 25 or more points in all but two of their games. Senior LB Dekoda Watson is the leader of the team, notching 60 tackles (10 for loss) and 4.5 sacks. Sophomore LB Nigel Bradham contributed 88 tackles (4.5 for loss), a sack, fumble return, and interception. The Seminoles defense is a shadow of their old self, and that could be the deciding factor before the game even begins.
About West Virginia
The Mountaineers started off hot, winning six of their first seven, looking to take the Big East title. Those aspirations left when they lost two of their next three, both conference games. West Virginia would rebound, winning their final two to finish 9-3.
The Mountaineers rely heavily on their rush game, riding them to 183.50 yards a game (32nd in NCAA FBS). That starts with junior RB Noel Devine, who rushed for 1,297 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 108.08 yards per game was 20th among NCAA FBS rushers. Senior QB Jarrett Brown has the weaponry to run or throw, racking up 2,552 all–purpose yards and 16 total touchdowns.
As effective as West Virginia is running the ball, they are as effective stopping the run, holding opponents to 118.42 yards a game (29th in NCAA FBS). That has helped lead to a 24th ranked scoring defense (20.75 points a game).
Sophomore DE Julian Miller is a producer in the 3-3-5 formation West Virginia runs, racking up 49 tackles (13.5 for loss) and eight sacks. Junior LB Pat Lazear leads the team with 73 tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble. West Virginia has a solid overall team that can win any Saturday.
Florida State is 21-14-1 in bowl games. This is their 28th straight year of bowl eligibility, and they won their 2008 matchup against Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl.
West Virginia is 13-15 in bowl games, having won four in a row during their current eight-year bowl run.
FSU has beaten West Virginia twice in the Gator Bowl, most recently 30-18 in 2005.
This game is as well known for the impact it will have in NCAA history. Former West Virginia and current FSU head coach Bobby Bowden is retiring after 44 years of coaching, 34 at Florida State. He has never lost in the Gator Bowl, going 4-0 in his career. While it is fitting to have one of the greatest NCAA coaches leave with his two teams going head-to-head, West Virginia will be looking to spoil the going away party.
Behind the legs of Noel Devine, it’s going to be tough for one of the most inconsistent defenses in FSU history. Knowing outgoing defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, he will use pressure to keep Devine within the tackles, preventing big runs when he gets to the outside, and to hopefully force Brown into mistakes.
Brown has thrown eight interceptions on the season. The issue is that leaves a young secondary all alone, and if Brown can escape the pressure with his speed, he could hit a downfield receiver for a big gain, something FSU has given up all season.
FSU has switched to using the run heavily since Ponder’s injury, but they are facing a defense that can stop the run. The 3-3-5 offers a lot of different looks and blitz packages, which could offset Manuel, making only his fourth start.
Manuel is quick and accurate, but mistake prone, throwing six interceptions in his four games. He has playmakers on the outside in Reed and Owens, but will have to get the ball out quickly, relying on their athleticism for big plays downfield.
West Virginia is the better team, and should win, but it’s difficult to pick against the emotional efforts the Seminoles will put in for Bowden and Andrews. FSU 44-41.