Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Champs Sports Bowl: Florida St. 42, Wisconsin 13

They’re Back…

Since winning the National Championship in 1999, Bobby Bowden’s team has finished the season ranked lower than they began every year but one – in 2003 they started at #13 and finished at #11. The benefit of the doubt the second all-time winningest coach in FBC history built throughout the decade of the 90’s has run out – this year was the first time since 1982 that his ‘Noles were not in the pre-season AP poll.

However, for the first time in three years Florida St. should finish the season ranked. They were ranked 28th in the final poll leading into the bowls, and with their impressive showing they should crack the top 25 after opening up 31st in the nation.

Year-AP Pre-Season Ranking-AP Final Ranking


Here’s Why They Will Be Even Better in 2009:

* Quarterback: At quarterback, Christian Ponder did not put up spectacular numbers in the Champs Sports Bowl, but the sophomore did show moxie, toughness and playmaking ability, something the ‘Noles have lacked throughout most of the last decade. He probably saw the field a year too soon – 2008 was supposed to see either Drew Weatherford or Xavier Lee leading the way – but unlike previous FSU quarterbacks (read Weatherford/Chris Nix), Ponder may end up being better for being thrown into the fire early. Ponder is a playmaker and could leave Tallahassee a winner.

* Running Back: He will no longer have Antone Smith in the backfield, however with freshmen Jermaine Thomas and Carlton Jones returning, as well as fullback Marcus Sims, Florida St. should feature their best running game in years in 2009. Thomas, who only touched the ball three times in the Champs Sports Bowl, averaged 7.0 yards per carry on the season and could be a special back. Jones led Florida St. with his 55 rushing yards on just four carries against Wisconsin, displaying good strength bouncing off would-be tacklers and the burst to break off a big run. Sims came through with a solid block on Jones’ 14-yard touchdown run which put Florida St. ahead, 28-6, in the third quarter.

* Offensive Line:
Maybe the biggest reason Florida St. could be a top-10 team a year from now is their offensive line. All five starters against the Badgers were either freshmen or sophomores. Center Ryan McMahon and left guard Rodney Hudson – the best of the bunch – were freshmen All-Americans in 2007, an honor bestowed upon left tackle Andrew Datko this season. The right side featured two true freshmen in guard David Spurlock and tackle Zebrie Sanders. None of the five weighs even 290 pounds, so another off-season of strength and conditioning should make this bunch one of the strongest, most experienced units in college football next season. As much as any other part of the game, a porous offensive line has played a significant role in Florida St.’s down seasons. Now it will be a major reason for their return to prominence.

* Wide Receiver: Gregg Carr, like Smith, has used up all his eligibility, but that does not mean Ponder will have to search for a big target to throw the ball to. Enter 6’6” freshman Cameron Wade who made his second and third career receptions against Wisconsin. Another seldom-used wide out who had an impact on their bowl win was sophomore Louis Givens, who did a great job picking up yards after the catch to set his team up in the red zone. Neither will be guaranteed any playing time in 2009, as junior Preston Parker and the freshman duo of Taiwan Easterling and Bert Reed are all scheduled to return.

* Defense:
Defensively, even with junior Everette Brown expected to declare for the NFL draft, Florida St. should have six starters returning from a strong unit, with youngsters such as freshman linebacker Nigel Bradham ready to step up into bigger roles.

Besides, defense hasn’t been the problem over the last five years. They have averaged a 17.8 ranking in total defense during that span, including 16th this year. Last season’s 34th ranking was the only time they were outside the top 20 in total defense over the last five campaigns.

It’s Graham Gano Don’t Ya Know

The Seminoles’ offense did not put up any points until the final minute of the first half – a defensive score gave them a 7-0 lead – with kicker/punter Graham Gano as the pre-intermission MVP.

The senior’s first punt sailed 46 yards, leaving the Wisconsin Badgers at their three-yard line. On his second effort, Gano’s punt was a little bit shorter, 44 yards. However, that’s because he only had 45 yards to work with--the football was downed at the one-yard line. His third punt went out of bounds – at the one-yard line! Are you kidding me?

That’s three punts with a gross of 45 yards, a NET of 45 yards, and the Badgers starting drives at an average of their own 2-yard line after the first stanza.

Ironically, Gano won the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best place kicker, but fell short when it came to being named the best punter in the land. With apologies to Oklahoma St.’s Matt Fodge, maybe the people at the Ray Guy Award selection committee should rethink their choice.

With a little more room to work with, his last two punts went for 48 yards (fair catch) and 58 yards (three-yard return to the Wisconsin seven-yard line) respectively, leaving him with 48.2 yard average on the day and four of five punts dropped inside the 10-yard line. That’s simply outstanding work by Gano.

Photo Credit: College Press Box; Florida St. University